Knife Skills


The Richmond Food Security Society hosted a series of Basic Food Skills classes on three consecutive Monday nights, from November 15th to the 29th, at Garrat Wellness Center, from 7-9pm. The cost for all three workshops is $25.

The mandate of the Richmond Food Security Society is to support the growing and consumption of local foods in Richmond. The Society has identified that the lack of culinary skills to cook food at home to be one of the bigger obstacles to community food security.It is hoped that as more people feel comfortable around the kitchen, the more cooking, using fresh, preferably local ingredients, will happen. The goal is to eat healthy and reduced consumption of processed or boxed food which are usually high on salt and fat.

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The Basic Food Skills workshops were conducted by Chef Ian Lai. Ian teaches school children to connect with the earth, the community around them, and agriculture at large. Students learn to grow, monitor, harvest, and eat nutritiously on a weekly basis. Their garden activities integrate the complete food cycle – from seed to table, and from table to soil, in the form of composting. This Terra Nova Schoolyard Society was founded by Ian in 2006 and is a non-profit, community-based garden project.

In the first class, Chef Ian Lai guided participants through Knife Skills: how to choose a knife and maintain it; and how to properly chop and prepare foods. Students will then use their skills to cook a grain dish which will be covered in the next post.

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Ian brought along his professional knife kit for demonstration. It is his travel kit. Ian quoted in the workshop “My knife is my knife”; not even his wife can share it. I guessed chefs are passionate about their most precious cargo which is their knives and kitchen tools.

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Ian shared with us that his most favourite knives are his paring knife and a Japanese style thin blade knife. He said a good knife should have metal extended all the way to the handle. One must feel comfortable holding and using the knife when choosing a knife. Ian suggested to bring a carrot when shopping for knives and one must try out the knives before buying them. The knife should balance well on your hand and neither front blade or the back handle is heavier.

Ian also suggested that one must have a knife block to store the knives to prevent chipping.

Some of the participants brought their knives for Ian to share on what is the best application of them. Knives with thicker top are good for …cutting heavier items like big chunk of meat. For eg. a broad bladed cleaver with good weight is good for chopping through bones, chopping root vegetables, flatten dough for making dumpling or slice meat into thin layer like scallopine.  Thinner blade knives are good for slicing vegetables.

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Ian then introduced us to the tools we need to sharpen and maintain the sharpness of the knives. A sharpening stone is for sharpening knives while a sharpening steel is to maintain the sharpness of the knives. There are two types of sharpening stone, water based and oil based. Now, I know why my knives are not sharp even I sharpen it with a sharpening blade every now and then. I used the wrong tool.

Ian told us that stainless steel knives are difficult to sharpen but they maintain their sharpness well. Carbon steel knives sharpen easily. However, one should not cut acidic food like lemon with carbon steel knives as it will make the knives smell like rust.

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Ian demonstrated to us how to sharpen a knife using a sharpening stone. A 800 grit 2cm thick stone is recommended. The coarser the surface of the stone, the more metal it will take away from the blade. For home use knives, sharpening is recommended every 3 to 4 months. A stand for stabilizing the sharpening stone would be ideal (cost about $40) but you can use a wet towel to stabilize the stone too. Ian suggested that a sharpening stone will cost about $40 and it’s a life time investment and well worth it.

Generally, water stone has finer grits while oil stone has coarser grit.

There should be no children around the kitchen when you sharpen a knife and full concentration is required. To sharpen a knife, wet the stone with water or oil, depending on the type of stone. One must have a good grip on the knife and pull the knife back and forth the stone, applying pressure to it. A good sharpening will require about 20 minutes of work.

Ian thought us the burr method in sharpening knives which is you sharpen one side until you feel a burr on the blade. Ian described it as the feel on your skin after you shave for a few days when hairs start to grow. Then you sharpen the other side until you feel the burr again. One important note is that you must sharpen the blade at the same angle for both side.

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For novice sharpener, there is a gadget (shown above) to help you maintain the angle of your knife. It probably costs around $12.

Once you get a burr on the second side, you just need to switch sides and sharpen for a few times and switch back and forth until you dont feel the burr anymore.

One more thing, when sharpening knives with a curve, you have to curve the movement across the sharpening stone.

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Once you’ve got a sharp knife, you just need to maintain the sharpness with a sharpening steel for the next 3 to 4 months until the next sharpening. Ian emphasized that you have to hold your knife at the same angle as you sharpen the knife. He prefers to do it by slicing the knife on the steel away from the body for safety reason. The average price of a sharpening steel is around $25.

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The final part of the knife skills workshop is how to use the knife properly and safely. Ian demonstrated to us how to cut celery into small cubes and chopping parsley. For both the job, Ian used a rocking motion to chop the thinly sliced celery and a bunch of parsley. Noticed the front of the knife is always in contact with the chopping board and Ian only lift the back of the knife to do the chopping and it’s never raised above the knuckle of the other hand which he holds the vegetables.

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As for slicing carrots, the knife has to be raised but it is never raised above the knuckle of the hand that holds the vegetables. Everyone got to try out the slicing and chopping skills as we prepared the ingredients for a grain salad which Ian will be making in the introduction to grains workshop that followed the knife skills workshop. One thing Ian pointed out is don’t bother with the end piece as you can always save them to make stock.

Last and not least, one must have a good cutting board. Bamboo board is good as it does not absorb water.

A few tips handling knives:

When passing a knife to another person, always place it on the counter for the other person to pick it up.

When you walk with a knife, for e.g. bringing it to the basin for washing, always hold it in a way that the knife in pointing to the floor.

When transporting a knife, wrap it in towel and place it in an empty paper towel roll or wine bottle container.

21 thoughts on “Knife Skills

  1. Pingback: Chow Times » Stocks 101: Butternut and Coconut Cream Soup with Veggie Stocks
  2. Hi Ben,

    Do you know if Ian will have more knife skill classes coming up? A side note, I am debating if I should get a real chef’s knife (Global may be).

    I have a chinese claver (only for chopping bones or cutting things like really hard squash), a no name knife that I got form Japan few years ago (really good for cutting vegetables) and a set of cheap knife set I got from Amazon (also a few year ago) which I don’t use unless I am too lazy and want to use my plastic or glass chopping board for a small job. (The bread knife that comes with the set actually works well) So I just want some ideas and knowledge before I do my purchase.

    Thanks
    Winnie

    • Hi Winnie: I have to defer to Suanne to answer you about the Knife Skill classes. I heard that Ian would love to do it again if there is demand … and judging from the comments, there are people who are certainly interested. BTW, I had just added your blog to the blogroll. Hope that it OK with you. Nice blog, BTW. Ben

  3. Ditto, etranger — the mandoline I have scares the bejabbers out of the SO, this one looks a bit less plastic-surgery-inducing :-).

  4. I have a ceramic mandoline and that thing is Sharp!! I have re-engineered my fingertips a few times. New motto: that last half inch of carrot does not need to go into the soup.

    https://secure.kyoceraadvancedceramics.com/products/kitchen/popup/cs202bk_red.html

    Here’s a picture of it. You can set the thickness by rotating a spacer on the bottom to one of four settings. It is great for onions carrots celery cucumber and even cauliflower or cabbage but not tomatoes. You can cut the veg into sticks and do a handful at a time to get smaller dice or matchsticks.

    It would make a pretty good gift for a cook — I love mine and have given away a few. Lots of higher end kitchen stores have them.

  5. I’ve always been reluctant to purchase ceramics because of the reputation that they are brittle and that they have to be sent to the manufacturer for resharpening. (They do need resharpening despite the claims). These days you can buy diamond stones to sharpen them yourselves. You can use regular carbide stones, but it will take you forever.

  6. I was actually intrigued with ceramic knives. I first saw it being used by Chef Ming Tsai in his East Meet West tv show. I almost bought one myself. If its too brittle, then I supposed you wont be able to use it to cut small bones such as chicken bones. I also wondered if terrorists can slip these knives through metal detectors and xray machines in the airports.

    BTW, speaking of Chef Ming Tsai, sad to see him eliminated in the Next Iron Chef tv show.

    • they can’t slip it past metal dectors becase now hey ad metal into the knives when they make them just to prevent ppl from getting past mtal detctors with it

      • No kidding, Mike? Ceramic knives has metal inserts these days too? Gosh. I did a bit more digging about ceramic knives and seems like it does have limited use. Here, this is what I saw as a “product description” of one ceramic knife I found on eBay:

        It is used to slice up and cut through boneless meat, vegetables and fruits. Use a wooden or polypropylene cutting board as cutting support.
        Do not use on earthenware, glass or porcelain surface
        Avoid any shock on hard surface
        Do not use for other function than cutting ( screwdriver, bottle-opener, tin-poener, lever and so on)
        Do not cut hard, frozen or boned food
        Resharpen if necessary with a ceramic sharpening steel
        Ceramic blades rinse clean under running water
        Store in a proctected compartment

        –Superior resistance to chemicals, corrosion and wear, retains the authentic color and flavor of foods
        –High toughness and hardness, fine surface finish, easy to wash
        –Super sharp edge, ensures deftness and ease while cutting, retains its sharpness after many years of use, good for slicing, dicing and mincing

      • yeah they have to add metal like iron to the blade so that if terrorist do try to bring one on a plane it would set off the alarm but since u wrote out the pro and cons of ceramic knives you can see they aren’t worth it

    • Oh no! Not Ming Tsai!!

      He’s already so successful…Food Network should just hire him and not make him go through a competition to prove himself!

      Ceramic knives are not worth it…

  7. Ben,
    I recognize the Global knife, it makes me envious. Did chef happen to show a ceramic knife? I’m always wondering about those.

    I only have one good knife… and that’s only for my use, it’s hands off to BG.

    🙂

    • ceramic knifes are really good cause you never have to sharppen them but if u ever happen to drop your knife on the floor accidentally it is done for it will break and there goes your investment so ceramic are only for ppl who are extremly cautous with knives

    • Hi Buddha Boy and Mike: We had seen the ceramic knives on display in the Osaka Supermarket and were wondering that ourselves. It’s kind of hard to believe that it will perform just as well as the regular ones. From reviews I read that it is light and not mean for cutting anything hard. It is also susceptible to chipping if you used that against something hard (like on a plate). Would love to see how it will perform in real life.

      • its not worth its unless u plan on using it for just cutting soft vegtables fruits or meats otherwis its not that useful

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