Posted by: Part-Time Audiophile | June 24, 2009

Basic Knife Skills: Pinch & Claw

I like to think of cooking as 50% preparation, 30% timing, and 20% technique. These things are interrelated, but what I’m driving at is that actual cooking techniques are probably the first thing most folks start with when learning to cook. Pick up a cookbook at random, say Julia Child’s classic Mastering the Art of French Cooking. It starts with soups — very classic. Or how about Irma Rombauer’s Joy of Cooking? It starts off with an extended discussion of diet — very modern. Neither of them mention knives. In fact, I challenge you. Go through your cabinet of cookbooks. Look for all your “basic skills” books that your Mom loaded up on you when you went off to college or after you moved into your first apartment. My bet: not a one talks about knives.

There’s a reason for this, I’m sure, but for the life of me I can’t think of what it might be. A traditional French cooking school like L’Academie de Cuisine (Gaithersburg, Md), follows the Julia Child method. Not surprising since Child herself was a Le Cordon Bleu grad. So, first lesson? Stocks & soups. Knife skills were simply understood as a pre-requisite for entry.

I find this baffling. Knives are dangerous. Most of the accidents in a kitchen are knife-related. Yes, there are burns too, but the cuts outnumber the burns 100:1 (or more, but I’m totally guessing here).

You use your knife almost all the time. They can be big or small, flexible or stiff, serrated, curved or straight as an arrow — but all of them are sharp. And kitchens are messy, wet, hot, and stressful. Throw in a handful of razor sharp, pointy implements and I can’t help but think you’ve got a recipe for disaster.

Lucky for me, my skills instructor was also the knife skills instructor for the school — that is, he actually taught two-day, 12 hour class focused on using knives. So getting him to stop and take a few minutes to remind us how to hold and use our tools was fairly simple. One question, and 30 minutes later, we had a basic understanding of the primary tenets.

The first is grip. How you hold your knife is going be critical to your success with it — and will also dictate your speed and efficiency. The proper way to hold a knife is to not grip the handle. What you’re actually going to hold is the bolster/ferrule — this is the part right in the middle, between the blade and the handle proper. That part will be pretty much dead-center of your palm. Your index finger will actually be on the blade itself, curled a bit to keep the tip of your finger off of the edge of the knife. Do not lay your index finger along the spine*, but curled around the heel and flat against the blade. The middle finger will be partially on the blade but will primarily be bracing up against the choil/bolster of the knife, again, with the tip of your finger tucked away, preferrably into your palm. Your thumb will be opposite your index finger. The remaining fingers will be wrapped around the handle, loosely but securely.

This three-finger grip — index, middle and thumb — along the blade itself will keep the blade stable and prevent it from tilting side-to-side as you cut. This is where all your control comes from. It feels a bit unnatural at first, but tough it out. You’ll get used to it! Many classically trained chefs built rather impressive “chef’s callouses” along that last knuckle on the index finger where it rests against the spine. This is supposed to be the mark of a line cook who is actually still cooking. Macho silliness, because all you needed to do was round that spine out a bit with a file, sandpaper or a waterstone and there’d be nothing to abrade your finger against. Of course, they could have bought a finer knife and simply have had that done during manufacture, but what do I know.

Okay, now we’re holding our knife correctly. Fantastic. Next, how we hold the food.

The goal with the claw grip is twofold. First, keep your fingertips away from the knife edge. This is important, regardless of how much of yourself you really want to put into your food. Keep your fingers in one piece, so you’re going to tuck them under your knuckles. The knuckles will stick out past the food, past your fingertips, and present a cutting guide for the knife blade to rest against as you cut.

Food goes down on the board, left hand covers it. Curl the fingers under till the tips and nails are what is holding the food motionless and secure. Curl further until your knuckles stick out past your fingertips. Viola! The claw.

Knife in pinch grip. Bring the flat side of the blade of the knife carefully over to the knuckles. Viola, pinch & claw.

Another tip — plant the knife tip. This goes back to the whole “is your knife big enough for the food” question, so hopefully you’ve listened and gotten as “big a knife as you can handle” that is over 8″ in length. So, plant that tip past your food. With the side of the blade resting gently against your knuckles, bring the heel of the blade down and push it forward slightly as you cut down and through the food in smooth, short strokes, all the way through to the board. Viola, you’re cutting!

Final tip — do not feed the blade. Your hand holding the food is there to help guide the knife, not scoot food foward under the blade edge. Doing that will bring your fingertips out from under cover and one second later, you’ve flavored your ingredients in a rather painful way. Instead, scoot the claw backwards over the food, exposing more, and bring your pinch-gripped knife to the newly exposed food.

Here’s a video of Chad Ward showing off the pinch & claw:

Norman Weinstein shows us how to use the knife:

By the way, both these guys wrote very nice books, both of which I highly recommend. Remember, all cooking starts with a knife — so get that right first, and you’ll not only be faster and safer, but you can sound off like a total know-it-all, which is endlessly entertaining.

Putting it together with Chef Michael Jordan. Note the care he takes in the setup and moving through the basic technique. Nice video:

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