Book Review: Knife Skills Illustrated: A User’s Manual

Knife Skills Illustrated: A User’s Manual, Peter Hertzmann (W.W. Norton & Company, 2007); ISBN-13: 978-0-393-06178-9. 256 pp.

Knife Skills Illustrated, available at Locavore, contains a professional chef’s lifetime’s experiences of using knives, and of teaching knife skills to culinary students. The result is a fabulous encyclopedia of techniques that will enable the home chef to slice & dice anything! Reading through the book, it is clear that learning these skills would not only expedite knifing tasks, but would also make kitchen prep a whole lot more fun, and even meditative. I highly recommend Knife Skills Illustrated to anyone wishing to up their skillz!!

The book’s first chapter, “The Basics,” is alone worth the price of the book, for it explains “knife anatomy,” how to hold a knife correctly, how to care for your knives and keep them sharp, types of cutting boards, and types of cuts. But in the two remaining chapters, which cover 200+ pages, Chef Hertzmann offers detailed explanations and drawings showing how to cut the most commonly used veggies, fruits, meat, fish and poultry in American cuisine. (The book contains eight hundred drawings!! No, I didn’t count them—I found this useful info on the publisher’s page.) He groups veggies and fruits by texture and shape: smooth- and rough-skinned, cylindrical, conical, and spherical, as well as odd-shaped items such as ginger, artichokes, and pineapple. Also, lefties take heart! Hertzmann is attentive to the fact that the world is not merely a right-handed place—each technique includes drawings and suggestions for both right- and left-handed knifers.

Here are just a few of the things I learned:

  • The two most necessary kitchen knives: an 8+-inch chef’s knife and a paring knife. These two can handle almost all the cutting you’ll do in the kitchen.
  • When storing knives in a storage block, store blade-side up so as to reduce the wear on the blade. Also, never put a good quality knife in the dishwasher, even if the manufacturer claims that it is “dishwasher safe.”
  • A pinch-grip is the proper way to hold the knife, in most instances.
  • To julienne a carrot or other cylindrical veggie, first slice the veg into elongated rounds by using a sharp diagonal slice (which will be about 2 inches wide—the proper length of a julienne). Then stack three or four of those slices together, and cut into narrow, 2-inch strips.
  • Diagonally-sliced scallions/green onions separate more easily than simple rounds.
  • Don’t use the snap-method when cutting asparagus ends, because you waste far more of the stalk than necessary. Instead, cut a slice that is about as wide as it is long, noticing as you cut if the slice feels smooth or rough. If rough, then repeat with a second cut. But according to the writer, in his experience 95% of asparagus does not need a second trim, as long as it’s fresh.

As a former vegetarian who’s still not especially fond of handling meat (meat is Tahlia’s department in our household!!), I will admit that I did not look over the third chapter on meat, poultry and fish as carefully as the fruits and veggies chapter. But I did find Chef Hertzmann’s advice to be just as attentive to detail as in the previous chapter. He explains not only the proper techniques for cutting, but also a variety of different cuts for poultry, meat and fish, including how to butterfly poultry and meat, how to fillet whole flat and round fish, how to debone poultry, meat and fish, and how to carve meat and poultry.

All in all, Knife Skills Illustrated provides a gold mine of info that will enable you to hone—hahaha—your knife skills, and it is a super handy reference book. In my view, the most useful way of going through the book would be to do one vegetable, fruit or meat at a time, ideally with a small group of friends interested in developing their knife skills. Perhaps one day Locavore will host such a group. Would you be interested in attending a class if we held one?? Comment below!