Discover more from The Bittman Project
Knife Skills Are Bulls*it
Same goes for tossing things about in a skillet
Let me say this clearly: For most of us, knife skills are bullshit.
Knife skills are important to chefs. So are butchering, filleting, and ability to stand for eight hours at a time; the need to work quickly on several levels at once; a willingness to ignore burns and other injuries when necessary; a seemingly supernatural level of judgment of doneness — forget touching: a good chef can tell when something’s done with sight and smell — and more.
I would never say that it’s undesirable for a home cook to learn those kinds of skills: Judging doneness and understanding seasoning are both way more important than pretty dicing — but I will say it’s unnecessary. And emphasizing their importance to home cooks, especially the importance of knife skills — or of tossing things about impressively in a skillet — makes it more difficult to learn how to cook.
There’s nothing wrong with real efficiency, of course, but if a lack of elite ability discourages people from attacking a stir-fry, that’s ass-backward. I blame cooking shows, which encourage the notion that if you can’t dazzle with your knife and skillet you’re somehow not a good cook.
Nothing could be more ridiculous. Most good cooking is extremely simple, and although skills are naturally honed and judgment organically improves over the years, their lack in the early days has little impact on the quality of the food you produce.
Me chopping an onion is not a pretty sight. The crew on The Minimalist set used to try to shoot me doing it — “Teach people how it’s done” — but I demurred. I’ve shown people how to chop an onion — how I chop an onion — but it’s not how you want to learn to chop an onion. And yet I get by.
I know how you’re supposed to chop an onion, but since no one ever threw a 25-pound box of onions at me and said, “Chop this, I need it fast,” I never had to rush. Consequently, it takes me maybe 45 seconds, even a minute, to do one, and as I said it’s not pretty: A good chef can do it in 10 seconds, and it’s a thing of beauty.
Even Nigella Lawson has admitted to having no knife skills. When I talked to her for the podcast, she told me when she's chopping for her TV show, "my director more or less has to put a hand over his eyes as he's checking the monitor. Because he can't bear it when he sees that ... when I've got the camera just on my hands, it makes me so panicked that I can barely hold a knife, let alone chop… But it's good for people to see bad chopping."
You chop an onion in any way that makes you comfortable. If you are the kind of person who takes instructions well, who can follow directions, who’s willing to practice new skills (and who’s willing to keep their knives sharp, which is important), you can become a first-rate knife-wielder. (You’ll still never be as quick as someone who’s spent hours and days at repetitive knife tasks, but for that, you should be thankful.) If you’re not, join the club.
The vast majority of meals in the world are cooked at home, by women who have no formal training, who do not own $60 knives (let alone that $1500 Japanese model you crave), who may use a sheet of plywood, a scrap of wood, or a rock as a cutting board — or who may use a butter knife or a broken “steak” knife to cut their food while holding it in their hand, who’ve never been taught how to slice, dice, and mince the “right” way … and who prepare great food two or three times a day. Professionals do things in an educated, scripted way, with reason; amateurs — which may mean “nonprofessional” or “someone who does the work out of love rather than money — do things in other ways, often developed by the rhythms and natural skills that emerge from their own bodies.
Not only is there’s nothing wrong with that, at the level most of us cook — once or twice a day, for one or two or four or six people — it doesn’t matter at all.
If you want to slice like a pro, get your knives really sharp and keep them that way; then go practice: Watch some videos (not by me!), buy a box of onions, and time yourself; get competitive.
Most people won’t bother, and the key is to not let it upset you. As the years go by I find myself caring less and less. Twenty years ago, Daniel Boulud showed me what he called “the peasant cut” which meant cutting your onions, carrots, potatoes, whatever, in more or less random-shaped chunks. (I now realize he was accommodating my lack of skill since we were cooking together, sort of; Jean-Georges Vongerichten once said to me, “That’s not dicing; that’s hacking.” (He was right, of course.) Since then, I do the peasant cut, which means hacking.
If there are a lot of onions to slice or dice or mince, I use the food processor.
My mother’s knife skills were learned from my grandmother. My grandmother was a peasant from Poland, who held a potato in her left hand and used a beat-up serrated knife with a wooden handle to cut it using her right. She’d spend 20 minutes cutting up a few potatoes. She was a wonderful judge of doneness: a browning wizard, someone who seasoned with her senses and mostly got it right, despite having limited knowledge of the world’s herbs and spices and other — to her — “exotic” ingredients.)
She — my mother — had a little machine called a Chop-O-Matic (I swear), the kind of thing you’d buy in Woolworth’s or, later, on television. It was a little round cutting board set in the bottom of a glass cylinder; the mechanism comprised three blades joined in a Y at the end of a spindle, on the top of which was a spring-loaded plunger surrounded by a lid. You put your onion or whatever in there and pounced up and down on the plunger. With a little finagling, you got a perfectly fine dice or mince. I loved that thing.
The food processor killed stuff like that until we realized it was too goddamn big to dice an onion, and so they invented the mini food processor, but then people like Daniel said, “I’m damned if I’m going to plug in an appliance and wash it for one onion.”
When Daniel said that, or something like that, when we made this video, I thought, “What the world needs is a Chop-O-Matic, a manual food processor, and I’m going to invent one.”
Then it turned out that OXO already did that, so I got one, and it does an amazing job on a couple of onions or carrots, a perfect job on garlic and shallots, and so on. It’s not a food processor replacement, but it’s a useful knife alternative for those of us with limited skills.
I’m proud to count myself in that group.