Friday, September 11, 2009

Why Knife Skills Are Important

I was making dinner the other nite, and I was oh so tired (growing a human has the tendency to zap my energy inexplicably on some days, and dinnertime seems to be the lowpoint.) I was making a beef chili recipe, and I needed onions for both the chili and the guacamole-ish garnish. At this point, so tired, and meal prep staring at me relentlessly, I used what brain power I had to dream up shortcuts, rather than just doing the prep work and moving on. How could I make this go faster so I could just sit down and go to sleep?

Ah, the chopper.

I know lots of people that use - and swear by - hand choppers. These are the handy little gizmos that have a blade and either a plunging action or a crank action that allows you to chop various types of food without using, you know, a knife. Think of them as manual food processors. The thought of eliminating or simplifying even one step drove me to my overflow tool drawer, the place where I keep gadgets that I use occasionally, but that don't have a permanent place in my kitchen. I assembled the pieces to the chopper, got out the cutting board used a knife to hunk off a piece of onion, and went to town.


What greeted me from my countertop looked less like minced onion and more like carnage. It was as though my recipe called for "one half an onion, mutilated."

So what? you say. So it's not pretty. It's not like Hubert Keller is coming to dinner, right? So who cares? I went on with my meal prep and tried to ignore the big and little ugly pieces of onion in my soup pot, the torn layers in my reserve bowl for garnish, and the extra dose of stinging I felt in my eyes.

Later, with dinner made, served, and digesting, I thought about my chopper, and my hasty decision to forego my perfectly adequate knife skills for a shortcut...and I decided that the shortcut, in terms of what I sacrificed in aesthetics, cooking quality, and flavor, had not been worth it. Allow me to explain, by suggesting three reasons NOT to reach for the food chopper, and instead, to focus a little practice on building knife skills and maintaining sharp knives in your kitchen.

Number one: Size matters. The very best chopper that you can buy (and mine is among the best of this type of tool) chops your food indiscriminately. Pieces of food will not be uniformly chopped, unless you chop them so fine that it ceases to matter. The chopper will inevitably not penetrate some of the onion skin, while liquefying other portions. Two reasons that this just won't do: in a raw dish, the last thing that most people want to do is bite down on a long, stringy piece of onion; in a cooked dish, pieces of food that are chopped in different sizes cook at different rates. You may very well cook all of the pieces of onion, save five or six, which will remain crunchy and sharp, and detract from the finished dish.

Number two: It's ugly. We're all learning more and more about food everyday. We're learning that, both from an aesthetic point of view, as well as a "healthy eating" point of view, we "eat" with our eyes as well as our mouths. Food should look pleasing. Pleasing equals uniform, square little pieces of onion, not hunks and shards that look like so much soft, crunchy broken pottery floating in your soup.

Number three: It doesn't taste...quite...right. Remember the comment about my eyes burning? The eye-burning gas that onions emit comes from sulfoxides, which are most potent when layers of the onion come in contact with one another during the chopping process. The best way to combat the discomfort is to use a sharp knife for your chopping. Alas, my chopper's whirlyblade wasn't equal to the task; the membranes mingled, and I was miserable until I made it to the sink to rinse my eyes. But what I didn't expect - and I admit - this might have just been the particular onion - was the bitter flavor that the onion had, especially in the avocado garnish. Whether it was the release of the onion juices, or the large-ish pieces, or the fact that I'm pregnant - I'm not sure, but the flavor of the onion was unpleasant. I suppose I should try and duplicate the experience to see if it was a one-time thing, or if the chopping method does indeed impact flavor. But I'm just not willing to sacrifice dinner for the sake of food science.

Please, invest some money in a good knife - santokus and chef's knives are my favorite go-to tools in the kitchen - and spend some time learning how to chop things. There are some great tips and videos on Food Network's website; likewise, just watch the pros, pay attention, and pick up some tips. Almost all of them (except maybe Rachael Ray) display good knife skills on their shows. Finally, if all else fails, give me a call, and we'll make dinner together. I'll teach you everything I know.

So save that chopper for the Christmas cookie nuts...or better yet, learn to cut up your food with a knife, the ultimate kitchen multitasker. You'll save money, time, frustration, and you'll have a great sense of accomplishment by learning to do it like a pro.


  1. Well, I for one totally agree with you. I enjoy using a sharp knife and I'm trying to teach the granddaughters how to use a knife as well. The only thing I use a chopper for is chopping pecans for my oatmeal or for cookies or something. It does a good job with that if you don't mind rather small pieces of nut. I think all of your points are valid.

  2. I am all about the sharp knives as well. I will say, though, that the time I use my "chopper-thingie" (whatever it's name may be) is to let my kids "help" me chop. I don't trust my first grader with my super sharp knives and this lets her help in the kitchen. Now that she is getting older, I can't just relegate her to whisking and stirring and dumping in ingredients any more. :-)

    As you said - just expect mutilation of the onion (but not the kiddo fingers).


  3. Totally agree with you there. The kiddoes do get a kick out of pummeling something with a chopper, and it's much safer.

  4. While I would never trade my Henckels Chef's knife nor my santoku, I still long for a chopper (despite this eloquent slam). Truthfully, I already have a vintage one that was my grandmother's and then my mother's until I stole it. I can still use it to chop nuts, but the blade is starting to deteriorate and the nuts mostly tend to just stick to the blade. Do I want to upgrade my chopper purely for Waldorf Salad and White Chocolate Mac Cookies? No. Primarily, I want to upgrade as a means of adequate aggression and stress control. Because, despite the tool's inadequacies for food preparation (don't forget the mangling of innocent tomatoes, taking out one's pent-up negative emotions with a knife is just plain dangerous...and we all know that the best time to fume & exert one's frustrations is during dinner prep...whereas, the chopper has built in precautions. Just as it protects children, so to it protects angry cooks!