Essential Knife Skills at Sur la Table

Four hours before I took the Essential Knife Skills class at Sur la Table, I sliced through my thumb with a paring knife my husband had sharpened the night before.

I sliced my thumb because I was working my way though a cutting board loaded with vegetables. Something, good almost vegetarian that I am, I do almost nightly (cutting vegetables, not my thumb, thank heavens!).

So it was a good thing I signed up for Sur la Table's Essential Knife Skills class. Clearly, I needed to learn knife skills. A lot of knife skills. Including these.

Essential Knife Skills
This 3-hour Sur la Table class was everything I hoped for and so, so much more.

For starters the instructor was brilliant: Thorough, knowledgeable, approachable, clear. He had been teaching this course for seven years, so not only was his material well thought-through, but it was clearly (and do forgive the pun) well-honed.

The topics covered fell into two broad categories: Selecting and using knives, from setting up your workstation to how to sharpen your knife. And how to cut various types of vegetables and herbs.

To give you a nice taste for this course, I am going to talk about one topic from each category. So let’s start with . . .

How to set up the perfect workstation
First, of course, you need a knife. Specifically, a chef’s knife. With that, you also need a honing steel which you need to use every time you use your knife.

Next, you need a cutting board. According to the instructor, your cutting board should only be made of one of four materials: Wood, bamboo, plastic, or rubber. Anything else, and you are looking at a dull, and potentially dangerous, blade.
Great chef’s tip
To keep your board from slipping, place a damp kitchen towel underneath. And, while you are at it, place another one next to your board to keep everything from your knife to your hands clean.

You also need at least two bowls; one for garbage and one (or more) for cut items.

Finally, a bench scraper isn’t critical, but it is awfully handy for scooping up and transporting both cut items and scraps. Here’s one I really like.

The perfect cut
We learned three types of chopping styles: Straight, sauté/stir fry, and roll.

Straight is just as it sounds: The nice, normal cut you probably do all the time. Sauté or stir fry is a cut that delivers the maximum amount of surface on your cut item which is ideal for high sauté (or stir fry) heat. This is accomplished by cutting your food both at an angle and by holding the knife with a bit of a pitch (instead of holding the knife straight up and down, the blade is slightly angled). Finally, roll is used when cutting herbs, such as mint. You stack the leaves, roll them, and cut the roll into strips.

How to cut a bell pepper
Let me give you a taste of cutting techniques by telling you how we cut a bell pepper. It was easy.

First, slice a thin strip off the bottom. This is to give your pepper a stable surface. Otherwise, your pepper may roll.

Place your pepper so it is resting on it’s nice, stable bottom. Slice the four sides, one at a time, leaving the core and seeds behind.

Plop the center portion, the core, into your garbage (or compost) bowl.

Take one of your four pepper sides, and if you need to remove the pith (the white stuff on the inside which can taste bitter), place the pepper slice skin side down near the edge of your cutting board and, holding your knife parallel to your board, carefully slice between the pith and your pepper. The pith goes into the garbage bowl. Repeat for the other three pepper slices.

To make matchsticks, place a pepper slice skin side down on your board and cut your slice (if you use a curved, French chef’s knife, which most people use, you do this with a rocking motion) into equal-sized strips.

Do the same for your remaining pepper slices.

Now, if you want cubes, stack the pepper slices for one pepper strip into a pile, no more than one or two pepper matchsticks high (otherwise, they are prone to moving on you) and position your matchsticks so they are parallel with your body. Then cut across your strips to make cubes.

Repeat with the matchsticks for the remaining pepper strips.
Best cooking tip ever
The goal in cutting your food is to ensure the items are the same size. Why is this so important? Well, different sizes equal different cooking times. For example, if you cut your pepper so you have some big cubes and some small cubes and some tiny cubes, then, when you cook your pepper, some cubes will be perfect while some will be burned and others will be nearly raw. Not very appetizing, at all.

So would I recommend Essential Knife Skills?
Unequivocally yes. Not only was it even better than Sur la Table's Cooking with 5 ingredients class I enjoyed so much, but it was brimming with brilliant tips and advice. In fact, this class was so good, I’m crossing fingers that they offer an Essential Knife Skills II. With the same instructor. Soon.

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Knife skills in a book
Can't get to a Sur la Table knife skills class? No worries! I have found you an amazing book that teaches all the knife skills you would learn and more. Called An Edge in the Kitchen: The Ultimate Guide to Kitchen Knives: How to Buy Them, Keep Them Razor Sharp, and Use Them Like a Pro (William Morrow Cookbooks), you don't get the hands on help you'd get in a class, but you do get very clear, very straightforward instructions and advice as well as a plethora of incredibly clear pictures. Highly recommended.