Friday April 12, 2013

This past week I have been threat to my own safety.

It began with too little counter space and too much cooking; I knocked the chef knife off the cutting board and onto the floor where, by some miracle, it clattered past my (bare) foot and succeeded only in leaving a stabby slice in the linoleum.

Then, a couple days later, I cut my thumb (with the same knife) while chopping garlic, eliciting very age-appropriate responses from our girls. "Did you cry?" asked Margot, aged almost-eight. "No." I replied. The thirteen-year-old asked "Did you swear?" "Not reallyŠ" was as close as I could get to an honest answer.

And then, last night I burned myself splattering hot olive oil on my hand while slicing garlic into the skillet while I was making croutons. I did manage not to cry or swear, but while running my hand under cold water that I realized that these incidents were probably not coincidences, but were indicators of something greater.

Each of these kitchen ‘accidents’ was completely avoidable and didn’t need to happen. I work in my kitchen every day and am comfortable with the space and my tools. Somewhere along the line the last week or so, I have been paying less attention to the act of cooking and I need to refocus a bit. Making sure that I take a breath, focus on the task at hand and approach my kitchen with respect will not only keep accidents at bay but will also help me to enjoy my time spent cooking.

I should have followed my own teaching advice and cleared my workspace as I went along, rather than hurriedly stacking and shoving things around on the countertop, pushing the knife to the edge. I should have chopped the garlic on a cutting board before carefully dropping it into the hot oil instead of haphazardly slicing it directly into the skillet which caused the splashing that burned me. And while I am very comfortable with my knife and felt that I was giving chopping garlic my full attention, I still managed to get a nasty cut; again, an avoidable injury, or at least much less likely if I had taken the time to maintain my knife and keep it sharp.

Yes, sharp. You’ve probably heard that a dull knife is more dangerous than a sharp one in the kitchen and it is perfectly true. Dull knives bounce around when using them, adding a frightening sense of unpredictability to any simple slicing, chopping or dicing task. This is what got me. Instead of taking the time to maintain and keep my knives sharp, I’ve been too eager to get immediate cooking tasks done and move on, promising myself that I would get out the honing steel the next time I pulled the knife out of the drawer, and never quite getting around to doing it. It’s a phenomenon very similar to cleaning the lint trap on the dryer - you mean to, but it doesn’t happen as often as you intend it to.

Honing is keeping an already sharp knife sharp by bringing the blade back to ‘true’ by straightening the blade’s edge. A new knife comes sharpened and ready to cut. But from the first slice or chop, that blade begins to lose that true sharp edge, curling under with each cut. What you use for a cutting surface can make this happen faster - glass is notorious for wrecking a knife edge quickly. Fortunately, the sharp edge is easily enough restored by using a honing steel, which straightens the edge by ‘pushing’ the curling edge back to center. It’s not difficult to hone, as long as you remember that evenness counts, in speed, angle and count. Plus, it gives you a ridiculous sense of kitchen professionalism each time you perform it. A little practice and you’ll be honing like a pro!

Draw your knife blade down the length of the honing steel holding it at a 20 degree angle, running from the heel of the blade to the tip, evenly. Remembering that what you do on one side you must do to the other, repeat on the other side. I alternate strokes, about 7 on each side. Some people would rather do five on one side, then five on the other, ending with two and two.  Regardless of how you choose to do it, always remember to wipe the blade of the knife off with a kitchen towel that is folded on the counter, not held in your hand as you don’t want to risk slicing that towel to ribbons (and possibly the hand holding it).

Honing should be done about once a day with a regularly-used kitchen knife, but this really depends on your usage and cutting surfaces. When the knife begins to balk a bit, give it a good honing. My problem is that I’m quite sure that it is time to sharpen my knives, as I’m not sure honing can bring the blades back to true.

Sharpening is making a dull blade sharp by removing metal from the edge, usually by grinding. It is recommended that you sharpen your knives at least once a year, again depending on usage. I’m not sure I’ve ever had my favorite chef’s knife sharpened and even though I had been pretty good about honing it up until recently, I’m quite sure it’s due, especially after the interesting dance it had with the kitchen floor recently.

You can sharpen your knives yourself rather than sending them away (or finding a door-to-door knife-sharpener) and I remember watching both my dad and grandfather sharpening various blades, from knives to scythes, with a wet sharpening steel. I’m not sure that I will be comfortable with this, fearing that my knives would end up looking like corrugated metal roofing after a sharpening stint in my hands, but there are enough video tutorials out there that I might buy the right equipment and give it a try. It certainly is time.

Don’t have a week like mine. Keep your knives sharp, your counters clear, your wits about you. Keep track of appliance cords, glass items, knives and large obstacles lying intentionally under-foot (like dogs). Utilize stools and follow usage on directions on both appliances and small hand tools. Wash and dry your hands and produce well and keep things clean. While our kitchens can be full of hazards, most injuries can be avoided by paying attention to what we’re doing and keeping our tools in good working order. Enjoy your cooking time, don’t fear it!