Let’s be safe out there. 

By Stacey Ballis
April 01, 2020
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After nearly a decade of gluten being the enemy of the people, in the course of one short month (also known as the longest month in history) people have gone so deep on bread baking and sourdough starters that yeast is almost as valuable a commodity as toilet paper and hand sanitizer, and all over Google people are searching for bread recipes and starter maintenance techniques.

Me? I’ve been keeping a sourdough starter and baking most of our household bread for many years. It allows me, as a Type 2 diabetic, to continue to enjoy breads that don’t spike my blood sugar the way store-bought breads do. But I am not here to tell you what or how to bake.

I am here to tell you how not to cut the bejesus out of yourself when slicing your fresh breads.

Sure, you probably think that slicing bread is not really a complicated thing (maybe that’s because you’ve been buying pre-sliced bread?). But crusty loaves of artisanal sourdough and no-knead breads are a different beast, and a potentially risky one (no one needs a trip to the ER right now for a finger gash).

I have written before about the dangers of slicing sourdough. The wobbly shape and the thick crust create an environment ripe for accidents. My poor 14-year-old goddaughter Charlotte, a skilled baker in her own right who is currently keeping a piece of my starter as a new pet, recently cut her finger badly while slicing one of her loaves. There is no worse feeling as a parent, according to her mom, than looking at an injury you know you would take for professional attention any other time and having to go all Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman in your kitchen instead.

Here’s how to avoid needing medical attention in service of good toast.

Pay attention.

There is no more important rule when cutting anything than paying attention, but this is doubled when working with sourdough and crusty breads. My own injury happened when I was distracted, and it was a painful lesson to learn. It takes less than a minute to slice however much bread you need at any given moment: Take a breath, focus, and do it safely.

Use the right knife.

A serrated blade is the only blade to use on any bread, but hard-crusted breads in particular. You need the teeth to grab the crust securely to prevent knife slippage. An 8-inch blade allows for clean cutting and good control; longer can get unwieldy. Long, smooth sawing motions are better than short choppy ones. I love the Shun Classic Offset Bread Knife, williams-sonoma.com.

Cut on a stable surface.

Cutting boards sliding about can create potential danger, so be sure to secure them properly. This is true of any cutting, but especially true for breads. Take a paper towel or thin tea towel and dampen it with water, then lay it between your counter and your cutting board to create a no-skid surface to keep your board from moving around.

Always try to cut through the bottom crust on the perpendicular.

This is not intuitive, so bear with me. Your bottom crust will almost always be tougher and thicker than the top crust. This is why, when you slice from the top of the loaf downwards, it can feel like you are just sawing away trying to get through your bottom crust. This difficulty makes things especially risky for your delicate digits! Here’s a step-by-step.

1. Start by standing your boule or bâtard on its side

2. Slice down through the middle to create two halves of bread. This allows your knife to go through the bottom crust much easier.

3. Place the new flat-cut edges of your bread on the cutting board for stability, and slice straight down from the heel side to the flat cut side into slices, making it much easier to get through.

Does this mean you will always have slices that are sort of half-moon shapes instead of whole slices? Yep. But think about it this way… isn’t it better to have toast and sandwiches pre-done in halves and have all of your fingers intact with which to pick them up? If you must make whole slices, start your cut carefully, and once your blade is about an inch embedded in the loaf, take your holder hand and lay it flat across the top of the loaf and blade. Hold firm as you continue to slice, protecting your fingers from getting in the way.

Small, thin loaves like baguettes want to be torn by hand.

Any French person will tell you, unless you are making canapes, baguettes, ficelles, epis, that any long thin bread is supposed to have its servings torn off in chunks and not sliced. No danger at all! If you must make slices, again, use a serrated knife, and keep your hand about 3-4 inches down the loaf from where you are cutting.

Invest in a Kevlar glove.

Are you a total klutz? (I am.) It isn’t the worst thing in the world to invest in a glove designed to protect your flesh from meeting blade. Butchers use them all the time, as do some oyster shuckers. You can find them reasonably inexpensively online; just don’t let the presence of a glove make you less generally cautious (see tip #1).

Too late, I’m bleeding. Now what?

If you do cut yourself, the two times you definitely need to go to the ER or Urgent Care is if you cut through the nailbed, or if there is any even minute chance you have nicked your bone. Either of these injuries really put you at risk for serious infection and are not to be trifled with. Check with your doctor by phone to determine your best course of action if you have anything that is less than a small superficial flesh wound.