When Chef Larry Bressler says, “We eat with our eyes,” he means that we like attractive meals, and when food looks attractive we are more likely to want to eat it. Offered for the third time, this California School of Culinary Arts consumer education course, Knife Cuts, is about the tools of the trade and how to use them and the reason why chefs cut vegetables in certain ways.
While nothing we learned seemed that hard, it’s something better seen than described with words. From the different manners of sharpening knives and honing to the manner and presentation of vegetables–all are demonstrated.
For this class, we were given a list of items to bring:
- chef’s/French knife
- paring knife
- vegetable peeler
We did not actually use a zester.
The first part of the class was about the “care and feeding of your knives.”
We learned about the components of knives: blade, handle, and tang. Chef Bressler gave us handouts to take home on these. We also learned the difference between stamped and forged knives. If you know anything about metalwork, you’ll already know that stamped is something cut out of one piece of metal and forged is more than one piece of metal brought together via folding, hammering, and heat. I’ve done some forging for jewelry and its more noise than I care for. Anyway, if you’ve seen movie scenes of sword-making or horseshoe making, you have an idea of what forging is.
There are two steps to sharpening knives: the actual sharpening and the honing. For honing, you usually use a steel or diamond rod. For sharpening at home you use either a water stone or an oil stone. Water is more traditional to Asian countries and as such, the one I prefer. Once you use a sharpening stone for one (water or oil), you cannot use it for the other. Chef Bressler prefers oil and had a large orange tool box which held his sharpening stones. Three stones are arranged around a rod in a triangular formation. You turn up the side you are using to begin.[ADBLOCKHERE]
One generally uses a 30-degree angle and on an oil stone you take one stroke and with each pass contact the full length of the blade. With a water stone, you concentrate on a section at a time and might use a 20-degree angle.
You cannot sharpen serrated knives with a stone, however.
The brands Bressler recommended were: Wusthof-Trident and JA Henckels for traditional German knives. These are both forged. Global for the vegetable knife. This is a Japanese stamped knife. Shun is another good Japanese maker with somewhat overpriced knives. Shun are gorgeous and if you admire Japanese katana (swords) and that lovely wavy pattern traditional sword smiths make, you’ll love a Shun.
Basic lecture points:
- Knives made out of carbon steel will discolor as part of a chemical reaction to acids.
- Basic knives for every kitchen: 10-12 inch French/chef knife, 7-8 inch santoku (Japanese knife), large and small serrated knives and a paring knife.
- Always have something under your cutting board to stabilize it. He uses a rubberized kitchen shelf liner cut into rectangles.
- Use two towels when cutting large, hard vegetables. One to stabilize the vegetable on the board and the other to cover the end of the knife to prevent your hand slipping and being cut.
- Always use a knife wider than what you’re cutting, particularly with those hard to cut things like acorn squash.
- The basic premise of the preparation of the vegetables was: squaring off and cutting into similar sized pieces. This is not only pleasing to the eye, but also makes the cooking time more uniform. This, of course, means a lot of waste, but if you’re in your own kitchen this would all become part of a fine soup stock.
- European knives are used with a different stroke than Japanese knives. You don’t rock a Japanese traditional cooking knife. You do rock a traditional chef knife, often using the point at the center of the motion.
- Balance makes a difference with knives.
Personally, since I am petite, I think a 10-12 inch chef knife is too large. The measurement from my wrist to my elbow is less than a foot. So I’m guessing your average 12-year-old would want a smaller knife. Some people will grow up and graduate to larger knives, I guess.
I should also point out that santoku means “three virtues” in Japanese. This means the knife is meant for cutting fish, meat and vegetables.
The way one holds the food one in chopping differs, I think, between Asia and Europe. Europe is closer to how your fingers curve when playing a piano. Asian style you stabilize the knife blade against your second phalanges and curve the tips of your fingers fully under.
The French have names to define each cut, often defined by thickness and length. You can actually buy little templates and card guides to help you with this.
On making the Cobb salad, we layered salad dressings. After cutting the lettuce, we tossed it with vinaigrette and then chilled. There was also a blue cheese salad dressing to be used after the whole salad had been tossed after presentation.
With the Romaine lettuce, you want to get rid of the dark green parts of the leaves because it is bitter. The rib is the best part.
The chicken was poached in seasoned chicken broth at 160-180 degrees.
The eggs are separated and you chop the yolks up separately form the whites.
The green onions are sliced at a sharp angle.
The bacon is baked in the oven on cookie rack with a drip pan underneath.
The mangos we used for the salsa were harder than I would have chosen for eating; however, this worked well with the texture of the pineapple. We also learned two different ways to cut a mango so that brings the total I know to three.
There is so much waste in the production of beautiful looking vegetables that you might consider using the scraps to make a lovely stew.
I haven’t attempted to sharpen my own knives yet, but I have a water sharpening stone with instructions in Japanese. Although you won’t have time to practice sharpening knives, I found this class very helpful because so much of what happened has to be seen and not just read.