You Don’t Need To Chop Like A TV Chef To Get The Job Done

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This is “the claw.” CREDIT: Photo by Stacy Zarin Goldberg for The Washington Post.

Standing in line at the emergency room, makeshift bandage around my finger, I got to thinking: What could I have done differently while chopping those scallions? Are my knife skills really that bad? Am I going to bleed out through this wad of paper towels?

It’s possible nothing would have saved me the pain and embarrassment of slicing off a chunk of skin and nail from my left index finger while making a spicy tofu stirfry a few years ago. One errant chop left me with a wrapped digit the size of a sausage and quite possibly the smallest injury ever to require physical therapy. (Yes, there was lots of fingertip bending. And dips in hot wax.)

Still, I had to wonder, would “the claw” have made a difference?

Besides being the name of that really addictive arcade game, the claw is the common term for the way cookbooks, websites and many instructors tell you to hold whatever you’re chopping to avoid injury to the non-dominant hand, particularly the fingertips, as you guide food along a cutting board toward the knife in your other hand. It pretty much looks the way it sounds, but imagine the curled hand of an arthritic Disney villainess, and you’re just about there.

In the time since my trip to the ER, I toyed around with the claw when I cut the likes of onions and potatoes but never felt good about it. I was so uncomfortable, I was sure I’d end up achieving exactly the opposite of what I wanted to do and find myself right back at the hospital.

To try to overcome this apparent hamhandedness, I turned to Susan Holt, a longtime instructor and the co-founder of Washington recreational cooking school Culinaerie. Susan loves teaching knife skills classes. She’s the kind of person who can dice through a celery rib while maintaining eye contact with you. She knows the claw.

But Susan has news for you, which I am happy to convey: “You don’t have to do it,” she says. “You’re not on ‘Top Chef.'”

Chefs use the claw because that’s what they learn in culinary school. “We are inherent showoffs,” Susan tells me. “It’s not really necessary.” Susan even recalls having an ever-present divot between her two knuckles from where the knife kept skimming her finger.

I don’t need that. You don’t need that.

The truth is, if you are a typical home cook, you don’t have to hold the food that close to where your knife is slicing, or contort your fingers in a way that feels unnatural, because straining your wrist is a high price to pay for looking like Bobby Flay.

Instead of trying to do some as-seen-on- TV maneuver, you’re better off keeping in mind these simple tips:

  • Don’t use your non-dominant hand to push the food toward the knife. Use it to anchor the food. Your slicing motion should naturally lead you along whatever you’re chopping, and as that happens, you move your hand away from the knife.
  • Hold your hand as close to the knife as you feel comfortable.
  • Hold the hand guiding your food parallel or perpendicular to the one with the knife. Whatever you prefer.
  • Avoid distractions while chopping.
  • Know when to stop. One of my mistakes was insisting on getting every last bit of my scallions chopped. If there’s a little left, let it go. Or throw it on a salad. Or in your freezer bag of scraps for vegetable broth.
  • Keep your cutting board clear. If it’s too crowded, you’re going to start altering your motion, and that awkwardness could lead to a mishap.
  • Cut produce in half or slice off a thin edge so that you get a flat side you can put face down on the board. Safely gripping food is a lot easier when it’s not rolling around.
  • Please, make sure your knife is sharp. Dull blades mean sliding knives, which mean accidents, which means everything else I told you won’t matter.
  • MAKE SURE YOUR KNIFE IS SHARP. So that’s it, friends. You can master the claw – by not mastering it at all.
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