Tips & Techniques
As a follow-up to my Japanese knife post, I thought I would go more into depth about kids and knives. I have found several blog posts and videos instructing on how to teach children to use knives properly, and most of them have good information and useful tips.
With that said, there is no one specific way to teach a kid how to use a knife. It depends upon your child’s ability, the parent’s cutting technique and knowledge, and the tools you have on hand.
For instance J.M. Hirsch, the Associated Press food editor, gave his two-year-old a knife and started him cutting with only one hand. Other chef parents, however, recommend using both hands with the proper ‘claw’ hold (seen above). Neither is wrong or right; it just depends upon the kid and the parent. This is a cooking relationship, not prep work at a restaurant.
With that said, I think there are some general themes that are worth emphasizing. Firstly, kids should start slowly. It is not a race and they have years to learn. Teach well, take your time, and give positive feedback. Secondly, your attitude as the parent chef matters. Keep it fun, embrace imperfection, and don’t stress out. Kid’s pick up on parental anxiety and stress, which can then dampen a child’s enthusiasm and confidence in the kitchen.
But probably the most important concept is to know your child’s abilities and supervise during cooking. You may even want to come up with a few good rules to encourage learning and safety. As your child grows the rules can change, but having some standards keeps both you and your child focused on fun ‘bloodless’ cooking.
From my experience and others great resources on the internet, I have compiled the following list of tips that you may want to consider when teaching your child to use a knife.
(1) Provide a proper work space. Make sure to have a large enough cutting board that doesn’t slip. Also, ensure that your child is cutting at a comfortable height, and buy a good stool if necessary.
(2) Choose the right foods to work on. Squash and hard root vegetables may be too difficult to cut or may need some prep by the parent chef. Give manageable tasks to get them involved.
(3) Stop food from rolling. Flatten out round vegetables so they don’t roll around. It is always good technique to flatten one round side, and it is much safer too. Keep it easy and safe for the little chefs.
(4) Choose the proper cutting tool for your kid. You may want to start with vegetable peelers, choppers, or a mezzaluna, and then graduate to serrated kids’ knives before moving on to real cutlery. Regardless, the parent should control the introduction of knives and when they are used during cooking.
(5) Buy an appropriately sized versatile knife for your child. A kid will feel more ownership and become familiar with his or her own knife. I recommend a small chefs knife as it can perform most crucial cutting tasks (see next point).
(6) Don’t overwhelm kids with too many knives at first. Keep it simple. Santokus and chefs knives cut differently and confusion isn’t good. Also, don’t switch between serrated and plain knives too much because they require different cutting strokes. Muscle memory is valuable at a young age, and you can always introduce different knives as skills improve.
(7) Teach good technique when appropriate. The pinch and claw method of cutting will be a valuable skill for years to come and will make cutting safer. With that said, don’t focus too rigidly on teaching technique. Bonding and family time in the kitchen trump culinary skills (in my opinion).
(8) Use sharp knives. Avoid starting kids on butter knives or plastic disposable knives. They can be frustrating to cut with and often teach bad technique. Good knives, on the other hand, inspire cooking because they help kids do more. Leave butter knives for butter and spreading things.
(9) Don’t forget the basics. Teach your kid about cutting board sanitation and knife honing to maintain blade sharpness. I bet your child will think honing knives is fun.
(10) Remember basic knife safety. Don’t try to catch a falling knife, cut away from yourself, don’t run with knives, keep the tip pointed down and away from people, keep hands off of cutting boards, and don’t submerge knives in soapy dishwater.
There might be a lot to think about when introducing knives to children, but the benefits of teaching a kid to use a knife are many. Not only is it a lifelong skill that will continue to be used and improved, knife wielding kids are usually better eaters. And of course cooking is a great bonding time too.
If you want to pursue this subject more, here are several resources that I found useful.
Simple Bites has a helpful post on knife skills for toddlers that provides very solid guidance.
What’s Cooking with Kids has another useful post about knife skills and provides other great tips.
For video instruction, Food Diva has a piece called The Cutting Edge of Child’s Play that can be watched for about $2 via her website. Chef Maribel cuts up veggies, fruit, cheese and ham with a couple of kids and does a fine job. She covers the basics and the video is well made. My main complaint is that she seems to be promoting Wusthof cutlery and uses too many knives in her instruction. Admirably though, she gets the young girl at the end to segment an orange and peel an apple with a bird’s beak knife.
On YouTube there are additional videos, and some of the best are by Chef Desireé of Cooking for Kids. Her video segments deal with knife skills among other subjects, and the online content is free. She does a good job describing different knife cuts, technique, and types of knives. I also like how she introduces some cooking logic into the mix. There’s actually a reason to cut veggies in a similar size and to use a specific knife cut. She also takes on dicing onions, which most adults don’t even do properly. I would recommend part 1, part 2 and the knife safety video. You can also buy her entire cooking series from Title Set for $40.
Lastly, J.M Hirsch has a short video about kids and knives called Little Kids, Big Knives. The video doesn’t instruct so much as it gives Hirsch’s philosophy on involving children in cooking and his rules for handling knives, but if you are starting a child really young with a knife, I would probably take his advice. Though I must admit that I cringe a bit when I see the rolling cucumber being cut by his little boy.
Regardless, all of these sources provide valuable help and will likely ensure that your kid’s experience with that first knife is a lot safer. And let’s face it, kids these days are chiffonading at a much younger age. My next child will be cutting a lot earlier, and I am going to be prepared.
I recently picked up at Williams-Sonoma the Chef’n Stemgem Strawberry Huller, and I must say that it works pretty well. I am not a gadget person at all, so I was rather surprised at how easily it worked. You simply push the green button to extend the prongs, insert it into the strawberry, and then twist and pull to remove the hull. Here is a video from Chef’n on how to use it.
The one I bought didn’t come with instructions, but it only took about six strawberries to figure out. At first I was just inserting the prongs, letting them close (as much as possible) and pulling, and that didn’t work so well, but a small twist and pull made the stems come out nice and neat.
Of course, if you are handy with a paring knife, it will take about the same amount of time, but for kids this is perfect. The only thing I would add is that it does take some coordination to use for younger kids. They will have to push on the button at the same time as inserting it into the strawberry. That isn’t so hard, but if the prongs are too wide for a small berry, then it might remove half of the berry mass. Also, if the prongs aren’t opened enough or the berry is a bit riper, then the berry can easily be squished if too much pressure is applied.
You can get the Chef’n StemGem Strawberry Huller at Amazon for $9 (with free shipping) or you can buy it for $8 at Williams-Sonoma if you have a store nearby.
Lastly, if you don’t want to spend money on a gadget, you can also use a thicker drinking straw. You just push the straw through the bottom tip of the strawberry towards the hull and push it out. Here is a YouTube video on how to do it. Kids may actually find this technique just as fun, and it can also be used when you are on-the-go and don’t have the special huller or knife handy. Otherwise, for the adults out there, I prefer this method from Chowhound when using a paring knife.
I started to really get into cooking when I was a stay-at-home father several years back. During that time it was hard to finish tasks completely let alone get anything done, but cooking food was required. Preparing a meal was the one to-do-list item that had to get done (somehow). As the years went along, the meals became more elaborate and I learned a lot of technique. I usually prepared two to three new dishes a week, and it was a fun hobby and a nice break from the baby and toddler food fare that dominated breakfast and lunch.
With that said, I wish I would have had a resource such as the Rouxbe online cooking school during that time. Rouxbe has a lot of professionally produced videos that teach everything from technique to elaborating on ingredients and recipes, but the site is a great place to learn about food in general. Take this video about eggs below. I’ve cracked countless eggs but I also learned a lot in this 2½-minute segment. And when cooking with children, such information can really come in handy to answer basic questions and also learn along with your child.
Rouxbe has videos on numerous subjects that would be good learn-along aids with children. You can find out about pasta and how to cook it properly, and there is a lot of content covering rice and how to cook it properly. And when your kid gets to the knife-wielding age, learning to use the pinch-and-claw method for cutting will help make sure fingers stay out of the way. (I would also suspect that many parents could benefit from the knife-skill videos too.) Becoming a better cook is one of the most valuable skills to pass on to children, and proper technique will assist them long into life. I still remember when I taught my daughter that a good sharp knife will help prevent browning of fruit when you cut it, and to this day she recounts this lesson when I give her cut fruit. Some parents teach sign language, but I’m teaching cooking skills.
Many Rouxbe videos are only for paid subscribers, but you can always access limited content for free on their website. There is also a 14-day free trial to obtain full access if you want to check the school out more thoroughly. A couple of years ago I took advantage of the trial period and eventually signed up for a lifetime membership. If you want to improve your cooking ability and knowledge but don’t have the time or opportunity to attend off-site classes, Rouxbe might be a good option.
Real Simple magazine often has tips related to all areas of life to include cooking and quick recipes. Recently I have been going through a backlog of issues and here are some of the food-related ones that stuck out.
- Put marshmallows in your brown sugar to keep it from getting hard.
- Use wine bottles for boot supporters to preserve their shape. (Ok, that technically isn’t related to cooking, but it is good to recycle those bottles.)
- Drop a few raisins in flat sparkling wine to give it some added bubbles. (This seems a bit weird, but I am willing to try it if the wine has already gone flat.)
- Use an old ketchup bottle as a pancake-batter dispenser. (You might end up wasting a lot of time trying to get the batter in the bottle though, so choose one with a wide neck.)
- Clean your kitchen sponge by heating it in the microwave for one minute. (That sounds reasonable.)
- If you want to clean hard-to-reach places in bottles, put some egg shells in with some warm water and a dash of soap. The shells will help scrape away the residue inside the bottle. I guess it’s worth a try.
A lot of Real Simple’s tips though border on the absurd. For instance, chopping tomatoes with a scissors. Seriously? I know there are hundreds of ways to cut things with different sharp implements, but I can’t see this really saving time. Another tip recommends switching water in flower vases with a turkey baster. That sounds ten times harder than just pulling the flowers out, dumping the water, and refilling the vase. And do we really want to cut up old Ugg boots to use as pot holders or use Crocs as hanging planters?
From this issue, I am going to cull some of my favorites from the top 100, and the first one is The Fresh Loaf bread making website. I’ve never seen this site before, but it looks amazing and certainly deserves attention if want to make your own bread or already bake your own loaves.
According to the website The Fresh Loaf describes itself as providing “news and information for amateur bakers and artisan bread enthusiasts” and the site “contains featured recipes, lessons, book reviews, a community forum and recipe exchange, and baker blogs.”
The Fresh Loaf certainly does all of that, but the description also doesn’t do the site justice. Simply browse the baker blogs to get an idea of what you can do with the help of this site. In the blogs you will be lavished with picture after picture of fabulous looking bread with very detailed instructions on how it was created. Just looking at the pictures is inspiring (see above). So while the site does offer a lot of resources for the bread baker, even more importantly it offers inspiration.
The backbone of the site, however, is instruction. There is a bread baking handbook with useful information, and specifically I found the baker’s math section of interest as it gives you the basic proportions for ingredients and the math to adjust your recipes. There is also a lessons section that offers five instructionals such as “Your First Loaf,” “Glazing” and “Time and Temperature.” And if you ever have questions about baking a particular loaf or want to know what went wrong if you have less-than-satisfying results, there are plenty of places to post questions for individualized guidance.
This is a great site all around if you love bread.
The USDA has longadvocated cooking pork to an internal temperature of 160 degrees, which cooks the meat to medium doneness, but now many chefs are cooking it only to 140-145 degrees, which is medium-rare. The concern for a long time has come from a parasitic disease called trichinosis that is caused when trichinae (a type of roundworm) infect the intestines.
Technically, this parasite is killed off at 137 degrees, so the lower temperature of 140 isn’t going to make you sick, but food safety concerns continue to linger.
Trichinosis, however, is not the problem it once was in the US. There are less than 50 cases per year nowadays, and many of those don’t come from pigs but other forms of game meat. Essentially, modern pork is a lot safer and less contaminated than it once was.
But you can even cook pork at lower temperature and still kill the parasite if you can ensure an even distribution of heat throughout the meat and maintain it for a longer period of time, but I wouldn’t recommend this for most home cooks. For instance, if you cook meat to 132 degrees and maintain it for 15 minutes, the trichinae worms will also be killed. Sous-vide cooking in a water bath achieves this type of heat distribution and control, but that cooking technique is not often in the repertoire of the the average home cook.
The reason for the higher recommended temperatures by the USDA and CDC (which recommends an even higher 170 degrees) is because most cooks can’t ensure an even distribution of heat and maintain it for a long enough period of time when cooking meat. Depending upon the cut of meat and cooking method, internal temps will vary, so a safer higher temp is recommended to ensure all parasites are killed. So in other words, the recommended cooking temperatures reflect our inability to cook and compensate for our ‘errors’. It is not, however, what is best for the taste of your food. At 170 degrees, you can kill everything off in a very short period of time, but there is also very little moisture left in the meat.
The main issue with foodies when cooking pork medium-rare versus medium, is about texture and moisture. Some cooks find medium-rare meat too chewy, but others find it juicer and more flavorful. The higher the temperature, the more the meat proteins shrink and expel moisture, so at lower temps moisture is preserved better.
But then again, not all cuts of meat are equal. Fattier cuts also preserve moisture and are more forgiving than lean cuts of meat when cooking. Heritage pork meat, for instance, is darker and fattier, so it is harder to overcook than exceptionally lean supermarket pork.
And then you can always artificially enhance moistness by brining your pork. Essentially you marinate the meat in a water, salt and sugar mixture to enhance both tenderness and moisture content. Cook’s Illustrated gives a couple recommendations for brining pork.
- For 4 bone-in chops (1 1/2 inches thick), combine 1 1/2 quart water, 3 tbs salt, 3 tbs sugar and let the chops soak for 1 hour.
- For a pork roast (3-6 pounds), use 2 quarts water, 1/4 cup salt, 1/4 cup sugar, and let the meat soak for 1 1/2 to 2 hours.
What brining meat does is change the structure of the proteins. The ions from the salt force the meat proteins to adjust and they become more tender in the process, and the salty water is also absorbed into the meat through osmosis. Salty water evaporates less than regular water so the meat retains more moisture during the cooking process, and the end result is added moisture and more tender meat.
Lastly, it is important to keep in mind that the internal temperature of meat will rise as you let it rest after cooking. This happens because the exterior of the meat is hotter than the center, and that residual heat will have a ‘carry-over’ cooking effect even though it isn’t directly being cooked.
For instance, pork tenderloin recipes usually suggest letting the meat rest for 10 minutes after cooking, so you should actually take the meat off the heat before the internal temperature reaches your desired doneness. This allows some room for the carry-over cooking effect to finish your meat without over cooking it.
I personally take my pork tenderloin off at 135-140 degrees, which allows a rise of 5 degrees to 145. I like mine more medium rare as the tenderloin is very lean and will quickly dry out if cooked too much. At that temp, the loin ends are more towards medium and the center more medium rare.
The other day I was at the grocery store and avocados were on sale. After picking out five for $5, a lady asked me how to tell if they are good or not. I told her that unfortunately most of them were too ripe. They were squishy to the touch, and not worth buying.
So how does one pick out avocados at the grocery store?
I eat an amazing amount of avocados, and now I can just touch them and tell if they are perfectly ripe or will be ripe in a day, two days or longer, so I usually just choose the ripeness according to when I think I will use them. If you want one that is ready to eat or close to it, you should try to buy an avocado that gives slightly when lightly squeezed. You want a firm tenderness; not rock hard or too squishy. But don’t squeeze them too hard or else they might bruise.
An avocado that is rock hard will probably take more than three days to ripen, but you can speed up the ripening process by sealing the avocado in a paper bag with a banana or apple. These fruits release ethylene gas, which is a ripening agent. If an avocado is already ripe and you are not ready to eat it, you can store it in the fridge for up to a week.
For instruction on how to cut avocados, I found three internet videos useful. All three are good, but I have only embedded the Epicurious.com one in this post. You can also check out Chowhound and Rouxbe for their videos on how to pit and cut an avocado.
Since avocados can be rather expensive, especially when not in season, preservation is also a key. Avocados, once cut, will quickly start to brown, so when I make guacamole, I squeeze a bit of lemon juice over the top so the leftover guacamole doesn’t brown.
If you are only going to eat half an avocado, you can also store the side with the pit in it in the fridge. A lot of people first squeeze lemon juice on it to prevent browning, but the Chowhound video below uses onions in a plastic container. It’s a good tip, and one which I will try the next time.
Avocados are often used to make guacamole, which is very easy to make in its most basic form. It is simply ripe avocados, salt and garlic, but a lot of recipes add other ingredients. Rick Bayless, the acclaimed chef and restaurateur, gives his recipe in stages so you can add different flavors as you see fit. Bayless also has his signature chunky guacamole that he serves at his restaurant, and you can find that version at The Recipe Link. If you search the web, you will no doubt find dozens of other guacamole recipes to suit your taste.
As for me, I often take the easy way out. I use Rick Baylsess’ Frontera Guacamole Mix. I know it isn’t fresh and might be missing some of those prominent lime, onion and tomato flavors, but it is still very flavorful and spicy. I think it is a good substitute if you like a hotter type of guacamole or you don’t have limes, cilantro, or other fresh vegetables around. Everyone I have served this to has commented on how much they like it.
If you want to know more about Rick Bayless and how he came to be one the premier chefs for Latin cuisine in the US, you can listen to this story on NPR. The NPR website also gives his recipe for roasted tomatillo guacamole.
Yesterday I purchased off of eBay the vintage wooden butter mold pictured to the right. One of my cooking goals for 2010 is to learn how to make my own butter. I know it isn’t that difficult, so I held myself to a higher standard of making butter for a special occasion. And even that seemed a bit too easy, so that led me to buying the butter mold, and now my plan is that on Christmas Eve I am going to bake a loaf of bread and make my own butter too. I think that will be a good combination.
So after buying my mold, I started looking into how exactly to make butter and ran into this video. You just have to shake heavy whipping cream in a jar for several minutes and rinse. That seemed too easy, and I had some cream already in the fridge, so I gave it a quick try. You are supposed to leave the cream out at room temperature for 6-12 hours to culture it first, but since I had a partial pint of cream already in the fridge and about to go bad, I decided to skip that step. So I got a Mason jar, poured in the very thick cream and started shaking.
After about 3-4 minutes I started to vigorously shake the jar as I wasn’t seeing the results that were in the video. He had a deliberate and steady shake, but I had to upgrade to a wild and violent shake. Maybe it didn’t form as quickly because the cream was chilled — I don’t know. Regardless, I did get the cream into a very thick state, but I still didn’t have the little globules of butter, so I just put in about a half cup of cold water and started shaking again. It only took about 10 seconds after that and I had nice, tangy fresh butter. I rinsed it a couple of times, smashed in some freshly ground pepper and kosher salt, and made some hot butter toast.
It took me only 10 minutes from the end of video to having warm toast with fresh butter. That was nice. And I think my daughter is going to like making ’shake’ butter too.
There are a lot of videos and instructional material on the web on how to make butter, but in addition to the video referenced above, I thought these two articles were interesting. One is from Cooking For Engineers and the other is from Saveur magazine. I will probably use a combination of their techniques when I make my final holiday butter.
If you want to buy butter molds, cookiemold.com has some nice hand-carved ones and Ruby Lane has interesting vintage molds and presses available. Just do a search for ‘butter molds’ on their website. Other than that, you can always check on eBay as I did.
After failing at my first attempt at making mozzarella cheese, I succeeded the second time around. A couple of weeks ago I wrote about my less-than-satisfactory effort, so I made some changes and all worked out fine. Basically, the last time I felt that the microwave step of heating the cheese to get it all stretchy, along with the firmness of the cheese curds were the big problems. So here is what I did differently.
First of all, since temperature is important, I boiled some water and re-calibrated my thermometers, then picked which thermometer was best. It turns out the thermometer that came in the cheesemaking kit was completely off, almost ten degrees lower than the boiling point at 212 degrees. I can’t imagine anyone would have an easy time making cheese with that thermometer.
The next thing I changed is I let the curds and whey cook to a higher temperature than recommended by a few degrees, and then let the mixture sit twice as long. This ensured that my curds were nice and firm.
After the curds set, I cut them up with a knife, stirred them a bit, and reheated the mixture to the higher temp for the waterbath, all according to the recipe. I sided with using the hot waterbath method instead of the microwave, and that helped a lot. Last time, the microwave unevenly heated the cheese curds, and they ended up breaking down into a ricotta-like texture. The hot waterbath, even though a bit more time consuming, worked great for getting the mozzarella all stretchy so it could be kneaded and formed properly. It was a lot more forgiving than a microwave.
I also divided the curds into two batches so if I messed up one time, I could still have a second attempt. Both batches turned out, but it was good to have a back-up plan. For flavoring, I added thyme, freshly ground pepper, and salt.
So I am on my way to completing my top 10 cooking goals for 2010. One of those goals was making cheese, and though I will not stop with just mozzarella, I probably won’t be going crazy with home cheesemaking any time soon. I will, however, be ordering the book: Home Cheese Making (shown above) to plan out my longer term cheese projects, but the next attempt will just be a simple ricotta cheese. A while back I made some Italian gnudi (boiled ravioli stuffing) from a recipe by Giada De Laurentiis, and in that recipe it calls for ricotta. I think I will make some fresh cheese and try that instead.
Well, making mozzarella cheese is both easier than I thought and harder than I thought. First of all, let me say that I failed to do what I wanted to do: make mozzarella cheese. And that is by no means my picture to the right.
Things were going well, and all looked pretty much like the photos until the whole microwaving thing at the end. The recipe I used was a quick, 30-minute mozzarella recipe from the New England Cheesemaking Supply Company, and in the recipe they give the option of using the microwave or a water-bath when getting the cheese all stretchy at the end. I used the microwave, and I don’t think that was a good choice.
Now with that said, I did end up with nicely broken down cheese curds that resembled a ricotta cheese, so I first gave a bowl to each of my dogs and then added fresh ground pepper and salt for me. It tasted really good, so I guess I didn’t completely fail. I just didn’t make the cheese I wanted to make, but did end up with to very happy dogs.
So what went wrong? Well, it could be many things. What I learned today is that in cheese making there are a lot of variables that can go wrong. Your milk may be too pasteurized or not fresh enough. The temp of the milk may be too high or too low. The curds might be too weak or your microwave too strong. I think these last two were my problem, and just browsing the FAQs at the New England Cheesemaking Supply Company site gives some indication of how many things can go wrong. I don’t think it is hard to make this kind of cheese, but I think it is easy to go wrong.
So for my next round, I am going to do a few things differently.
(1) Get a better thermometer. The one in the kit I bought was pretty basic and cheap, and I used another thermometer to double check the temp. At one point I had three thermometers in and they all had different readings. Not a good sign. And proximity to the bottom or edge of the pot affected the temp as well as stirring. It was a guessing game regarding the temperature of the mixture.
(2) I think my curds were too weak, so the next time I am going to read up on how to fix this.
(3) I won’t use the microwave. They say the temp is important at the end, and if it gets too hot the curds break down. On the other hand, if it is not hot enough, it won’t allow the cheese to get to the stretch stage for proper kneading. When I heated the bowl of curds in the microwave, the bottom portion of the cheese against the bowl was really hot and breaking down, yet the interior was not nearly hot enough. It’s the same problem with microwaving any food I guess, so I don’t know why I thought delicate cheese would be any different.
I guess I learned a fair amount in this process, and I am not going to give up after one mishap, but I do have mixed feelings about the cheese kit itself. In the package I received citric acid, cheese salt, rennet tablets, cheese cloth, a thermometer and an instruction book. The whole kit seemed a bit on the cheap side though.
From what I understand, instead of cheese salt you can just use non-iodized kosher salt — the key here being non-iodized. The thermometer is a waste really as you probably already have one or will end up buying a nicer one. You may have cheese cloth around too or you can easily pick it up locally. It is really just the citric acid and rennet tablets that are useful, but if you have a good health food store, you can probably find it there too. And once you factor in shipping, the kits seems less worth it yet. I even used the website recipe more than the cookbook that came with the kit.
So that is my first try at cheese making. I hope things turn out better the next time — though I am sure the dogs like it just the way it is. My failure equals their food.