Know your knives to cook with confidence

Chop, chop: learning how to use a knife is a cornerstone of cookery

Chop, chop: learning how to use a knife is a cornerstone of cookery

By Laura Ivill

Jenius Social in London runs regular knife confidence cookery classes throughout the year, ideal for people like me who believe this is one of the cornerstones to mastering the basics in the kitchen. Even as domestic cooks, chopping onions is a task we do so often that it was about time I learned the finesse of how to make perfect cubes of flavour in an instant.

Founder Jennifer Yong’s modern glass-fronted cookery events hub is a few minutes’ walk from Holloway Road Tube station in north London. She was there on a Sunday to greet me and my two fellow students with tea and coffee. From the light-filled event space at the front she took us through into the training kitchen behind, and introduced us to Jenius Social’s head chef, Andrew Clements – one of the original 15 apprentice chefs that Jamie Oliver took under his wing to launch Fifteen restaurant for the Channel 4 reality show, Jamie’s Kitchen, in 2002. Andrew is one of Fifteen’s many success stories. He has worked at Rick Stein’s Seafood Restaurant in Padstow, is down-to-earth, passionate and knowledgeable, with just the right amount of enthusiasm for detail, while answering questions and keeping the activities on track; the session was well paced, but do allow time for the class to overrun, especially if you want to eat what you have prepared.

Andrew explained the uses of the different knives, and how to choose and use a modern versus a traditional knife sharpener. How often should we sharpen our knives? He answered: “Every time we cook – either before we start or after we have finished.” So, not just once a year at Christmas as I had thought. And we should never put them in the dishwasher – the cleaning tablet and salt can lead to the handles corroding over time as well as damage to the blade, depending on the metals.

There were so many nuggets of info, and I have distilled some of his top tips below:

With the traditional ‘steels’ sharpener you need to angle your blade to the steel accurately, at 22-degrees, and sharpen both sides along the full length of the knife with equal pressure. A modern hand-held sharpener that sits on the worktop takes the guesswork out of it but, of course, doesn’t give you quite the same chef’s flourish! In both cases, only sharpen the knife three or four times, as you would a pencil.

Andrew recommends simply washing knives with washing-up liquid and drying them afterwards. Storing knives on a magnetic board is the least damaging and most hygienic way to look after them.

The best way to clean a wooden chopping board is to sprinkle and spread table salt all over it and leave it overnight. The salt draws out any contaminants that penetrate the wood. Using a set of colour-coded polypropylene boards avoids cross-contamination while cooking.

Andrew demonstrated the different cuts for veg, from the smallest dicing to large rough cuts, and then it was over to us, our choice of knives, a pile of onions, tomatoes, aubergines and peppers. I now can’t see a bag of onions in the supermarket without wanting to chop, chop, chop.

When chopping onions or veg, first give the object a flat surface for stability – for example, cut an onion in half, so that it sits flat while you chop it, or, with an aubergine, cut a small slice off the side and rest it on this while you chop. The only correct (ie. safe) method to slice onions and other veg is to hold the onion stable with a ‘claw’ hand (fingertips tucked under) and chop with the flat part of the blade against the flat part of your middle finger, gradually moving your fingers back as you go. I found it easy to master and it now speeds up my prep efforts no end.

We made caramelised onion soup, ratatouille and Mexican salsa to go with sea bream that we filleted ourselves, tweezering out the seven remaining bones from the spine. Given expert tuition, it was easier than you might imagine.

To finish, Jennifer was again the perfect host offering us a glass of wine with our meal. I left full of fish, knowledge and with a thirst for practising my newly honed skills.

Course: Ultimate knife confidence

Where: Jenius Social, Studio 8, The Islington Studios, 6 Hornsey Street, London N7 8GR

What: A two-hour kitchen-based class introducing different knives and their uses; how often to sharpen your knives; demonstration and practice of chopping veg into different culinary sizes; filleting a fish; preparing your lunch and eating it together

How much: £85

Book it: 020 3750 2478;

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Contact: Know your knives to cook with confidence

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