Hello new cook. Welcome to Week One of Cook For Mom. In an ideal world, we humans would be born with the ability, confidence and cooking skills to feed ourselves. But if you've signed up for this series of lessons in order to make dinner for your mother, well that's great too.
I assume you've peeked at week six and its recipe for a multi-course meal, and are wondering how we're going to get there from week one, where we're starting by making a salad. Before we can prepare a good cassoulet, the elements of white beans, lamb sausage and confit duck all in perfect harmony, we need to learn the essential skills of working with a kitchen knife. First of all, don't feel bad because you don't know how to cook. No one taught you. It's not part of our public education. But, starting now, that's what we're going to do.
Well, I've got some good news and bad news for you. Cooking is work. Just like exercise is work, relationships are work and work is work. There are no shortcuts. But just like those other areas, if you put in the work, you are guaranteed to improve and reap profound benefits. Your life will be better for it and you will wonder why you didn't learn sooner.
This first lesson is going to be super simple. We won't be using any heat, just raw ingredients, focussing instead on knife use and safety.
Choosing a knife
Different knives serve different purposes. You might have seen—or own!—a set, bought a long time ago, containing a chef’s knife (that’s the 8 to 10-inch one), a serrated knife, boning knife and paring knife. Or you might have fancy imported knives from Japan, where a catalogue of different-shaped blades — deba, usuba, santoku — are intended for specific use.
About 90% of my cooking is done with one knife, an 8-inch chef blade. If you don’t own any knives, this is a good place to start. A cheap serrated or paring knife will serve you fine; you will likely never use a boning knife. So, if you don’t yet have a knife, or are in the market for a new one, I recommend you invest your money in a proper chef’s knife rather than pay for an expensive set of mostly-unused knives.
Go to a store where you can hold a variety of knives. Don’t get obsessed with fancy specialty knives or carbon-based blades that require wiping down with each use. Just pick up a knife based on how it feels in your hand. People come in different sizes. So the weight and balance of the right knife is different for each of us.
What matters most is that a knife feels right in your hand and is sharp. The adage is true: a dull knife is more likely to cut you than a sharp one. Because a sharp knife does what you ask of it, like slicing through a beet. A dull knife meets resistance. It forces you to apply too much pressure, increasing the chances of slipping and driving the blade into your hand.
Does sharpening your knife sound daunting? We know how you feel. We can't all be Gordon Ramsay!Have no fear! The Wirecutter has a fantastic article that can help you find The Best Knife Sharpening Tool for you. TL;DR: it's probably the ChefsChoice ProntoPro 4643.
Setting up a cutting board
Now that we're holding our knives, let's do something with them. We will start by setting up your cutting board. Grab a small kitchen towel, or just some paper towels. Wet the towel and spread it out over your clean kitchen counter. Then place your cutting board over the towel. This will prevent your board from dangerously sliding underneath you as you slice.
The motion of your blade: the slice vs the guillotine
A kitchen knife is designed to be used in a back and forth motion, not up and down.
But many people instinctively use a kitchen knife like a guillotine, bringing it directly down on what they're trying to cut.
The problem with this is that a guillotine is a giant blade dropped from a great height. Your kitchen knife, when used in this manner, is ineffective. Chopping straight down only engages a small section of the blade, and unless it's razor sharp, the result is more pushing than slicing. Pressing straight down puts unnecessary pressure on your wrist, crushes food and wears away a dull spot in the centre of your blade. With the proper slicing motion, you'll engage the whole blade and put less pressure on your wrist.
To get the most out of your blade, you want a sawing motion. Like a saw, let the length of the blade glide over the object you're cutting, pushing down slightly as you draw the blade forward, and lifting up as you draw back. Your arm should put more energy into moving forward than down. Only apply pressure on the forward motion.
Place the tip of your blade on the board. Now try that same slicing/sawing motion again, but without ever letting the blade leave the board. It takes time to master. But the gentle, controlled rocking motion is far more effective, safe and precise skill than bashing a carrot with a sharp piece of metal. And now for the other hand.
Basic knife safety: the claw
The guiding hand is known as the claw because you curl your fingers inward, away from the knife. If you’re holding a carrot like a flashlight, or if you have your hand spread out on the board, you are always in danger of slicing off a finger. With the claw hand, your digits are safely tucked away.
BONUS: The next level up in safety is to keep one knuckle of your claw hand in constant contact with the blade. This seems dangerous. But it’s actually safer. With the knuckle connected and the fingers all tucked away, if the blade never leaves the board, it’s not possible for the knife to rise high enough to cut yourself. In cooking school they drilled this into us. But I rarely see people using the technique in professional kitchens, other than for slicing tiny, delicate items, like basil or chives.
Take a minute to rehearse the saw and the claw, because we’re about to start slicing.
The basics of salad and salad dressing
Now that you know how to safely use a knife, let's make something simple. A salad. Everyone knows how to make a salad. But if you don't know how to make it taste good, it will always feel like forced labour to make and eat one of the easiest and most nutritious meals.
Here are the key elements of a good salad
- Fresh ingredients (crisp lettuce good, wilted lettuce bad)
- A simple, non-sweetened dressing (no point in eating vegetables if you can't do it without sugar)
- Something crispy
Forget about recipes. Any time you see salad recipes in a cookbook, it's just suggestion. The amounts are irrelevant to your tastes. Theoretically, anything goes in a salad. If you like an ingredient, it works. If you love it, add more. Unlike the purism of Italian pasta, where chefs will tell you that more than three ingredients spoils the appreciation for the noodles, the more the merrier in a salad (so long as you're not just adding fried chicken and Snickers bars), which gets dull quickly if there are too few elements.
The only quantifications you need are this—a typical salad dressing is one part acid to two parts fat. That's it. Do this now. And don't use measuring spoons. Into a mixing bowl, give a shake from a bottle of vinegar, and two shakes from a bottle of oil (red, white, balsamic; olive, grapeseed, walnut — it doesn't matter). Don't measure. Sprinkle in some salt and pepper. Use a whisk (or a fork) to mix it and you've got salad dressing.
Using this base, you can get as fancy as you want adding different types of oil or vinegar, mustard, chillies, herbs, tahini and on and on. But that ratio is all that matters. Too thin and your salad will be soggy. Too thick and the dressing won't spread. You can whisk until the dressing emulsifies (a solidifying of two liquids that are not soluble) but it makes no difference to the taste.