Ode to a Sharp Knife

This week, Mary Lynn asked if she could use her session for a knife skills class. She's completed her homework every week (with style and grace), and has been enjoying 5 to 6 portions of vegetables every day. She has me wrapped around her finger this week, so this cooking teacher / coach found her way back to the cutting board.

During our 1-hour Skype lesson, we reviewed the finer points of onion, garlic, sweet potato, and carrot cutting. Here's what we learned:

1. Cutting boards are meant to be used: Mary Lynn has a gorgeous bamboo cutting board. So gorgeous in fact, that she doesn't use it. Fill your house with beautiful, useful things and don't be afraid to use them. 

2. Bamboo has benefits: To keep your knife sharp, it's critical to use a firm, soft surface for cutting, and bamboo is ideal. Bamboo is a grass (and grows like a weed), so cutting down bamboo and using it for cutting boards is a bit more earth-friendly than wood (or plastic). Given this benefit, Mary Lynn can keep several bamboo cutting boards, use some for serving, and others for slicing.

3. Knives can be sharpened every 6 months: Mary Lynn kept apologizing for her dull knives. A well-honed knife keeps a decent tip, and knifes don't really need to be sharpened as frequently (Mary Lynn's mom sharpens her knives twice a year anyway, so there's need to apologize).

4. Hone a knife at a 20 degree angle. Honing a knife is fun, primarily because it looks like you know what you're doing. Don't just look it; know it! Take your knife perpendicular to the honing steel; that's a 90-degree angle. Cut that angle in half, that's 45-degrees. A bit more than half of that is 20 degrees. Go for it.

5. Here's how to chop an onion:

- Put the whole onion on the counter, root side up.

- Cut it through the root end, so you have two even halves with a flat side.

- Remove the papery skin from the onion.

- Place the onion flat-side down, hold the root end.

- See those lines on the onion? Follow them. Cut 2/3 of the way through the onion without cutting through the root end.


- Once you've made the slices, checkerboard the onion, slicing in the opposite direction, directly perpendicular to where you were just cutting. 

- Voila! Minced onion.

6. Smash and slice garlic; mincing can be tedious. Mincing garlic isn't hard, it's just time-consuming. That's why there is chopped garlic in a can, but that's not the way to get optimal garlic flavor. To make garlic less time consuming (and still fresh), slice off the root end, smash the garlic to remove the papery skin, then slice the semi-smushed piece of garlic. Great flavor; not as time consuming. Perfect for the home cook.

7. Dicing a vegetable can be wasteful. Mary Lynn asked me to show her how to dice a sweet potato, which is naturally long and round. To dice something, first turn it into a square (or rectangle), slice it into planks, slice those planks to make bars, and slice the bars into cubes. Very assembly line thinking, and the most efficient way to get precise cuts. But turning a round object into a square creates a lot of waste. Either find a way to be OK with the waste, reuse it in a soup or stew, or be OK with cubes with rounded edges; your choice.

8. Henry Ford thought like a chef. See above. The best way to cut with precision is to create an assembly line and duplicate the move. Consistency of your cut means to consistency with cooking time. 

9. Invest in a knife that works for you. Mary Lynn moved between a serrated chef knife, a paring knife, and a slicing knife, none of which were ideal for our class. She made me promise I'd send details on my knife of choice, a Santoku.

10. Handwash your knife. The best way to dull a knife is cleaning it in the dishwasher. Wash it by hand; it takes less than 10 seconds and will save you a whole lot of honing and sharpening time.


Mary Lynn's Recipes for this week:

Grilled Thai Chicken Salad with Mango and Ginger (Yes...you can substitute soy for fish sauce, add cucumber and cilantro)

Mexican Casserole with Charred Tomato Salsa (From the Jan/Feb 2011 issue of Cooking Light)

Good luck Mary Lynn! Next week we'll summarize what you've learned and make a fitness plan for February.

Watch how-to cooking videos on our sister site, Myrecipes.com, incluiding How to Chop an Onion and How to Peel and Mince Garlic.