Back to Basics

It’s odd to post something like this after so much time writing a cooking blog, but something happened recently that reminded me that sometimes, basics are what people crave.

I can’t recall how I used to cut and chop things before I went to culinary school – I must have done it, I know…? This was brought home to me when I was at a conference with a colleague and we watched a cooking demonstration. The chef doing the demo was chopping an onion, and my friend turned to me with wide eyes and said, “THAT’s how you cut an onion? I never knew that! That’s soooo cool….” At first I was amused, but then I remembered having the same reaction to the process in Culinary 101 – it was really a revelation that there’s a proper (and safe and efficient) way to do something that seems so elementary it shouldn’t need explaining.

So at the risk of posting the obvious (what my 11-year-old would call a “duhhhhh moment”), maybe it’s time to talk a bit about something so elementary as proper cutting and chopping techniques. Once you learn to do these properly, you’ll not only be safer and more efficient in the kitchen – you’ll also notice that food properly and beautifully cut will make every dish look better, more professional, downright gourmet!

Of course, as with any other skill, cutting and chopping need to be practiced over and over again, which could result in a lot of wasted food. I suggest that, as we did in culinary school, you practice on inexpensive ingredients that will be used in your home cooking: onions, garlic, carrots, and celery are good candidates – you can use them to flavor all sorts of soups, sauces, and gravies and their shape and size will be relatively unimportant. You can also freeze them, all cut or chopped, for future use.

Before actually beginning to cut, though, let’s take a look at the basic shapes that you’ll end up with. In culinary school, you’re taught all the French names for the shapes, but in most cookbooks, it’s more likely you’ll find the simplified terminology, so here I give you both.

  • chop: to cut into irregular pieces
  • chop coarsely (concasser): to cut into large irregular pieces – this is used for foods that will be cooked a long time or pureed, so the shape is less important
  • mince, chop finely: to cut into very fine irregular pieces – used for foods that will be cooked a short time, fresh herbs used for garnish
  • slice thinly (emincer): to cut into 1/8″ or thinner slices, can be done by hand or on a mandolin
  • shred: to cut into 1/8″ or thinner strips, can be done by hand or on a mandolin
  • dice: to cut into regularly shaped cubes – see below for sizing.

One of the skills we had to practice over and over in Culinary 101 was cutting “sticks” and dicing. By the end of the class, we had to present the chef with 3 perfectly shaped and sized (yes, we carried rulers in our toolboxes!) samples of each:

  • matchsticks (julienne, also called allumette): 1/8 x 1/8 x 2.5″ sticks
  • batonnet: 1/4 x 1/4 x 2.5 to 3″ sticks
  • French fry: 1/3 x 1/3 x 3″ or 1/2 x 1/2 x 3″ sticks
  • fine dice (brunoise): 1/8 x 1/8 x 1/8″ cubes
  • small dice: 1/4 x/ 1/4 x 1/4″ cubes
  • medium dice: 1/2 x 1/2 x 1/2″ cubes
  • large dice: 3/4 x 3/4 x 3/4″ cubes

But HOW do you get perfect cubes from vegetables that are essentially round??? First, remember the most important rule of cutting: the fingers of your non-knife hand should be curled so that the knife, when reaching the point where you’re holding the vegetable, is simply guided by the second knuckle on your fingers – there’s no danger of cutting your fingertips or fingernails.

slicing/dicing long, rounded vegetables

The safest way to cut a carrot, zucchini, or other round vegetable into sticks or cubes is to first “square off” the vegetable. This means cutting just enough off one side to give it a flat surface on which to rest – this will keep it from rolling around on the board and endangering your fingers! In a very fancy restaurant kitchen, you would continue to square off other sides until you literally have a square vegetable, but why waste all that food? (To be fair, most restaurants would use the scraps for soups, stocks, etc., so they wouldn’t be really wasted. You can do the same or just not worry too much about the fact that sticks and cubes from your vegetable won’t be perfectly square – they’ll still be plenty attractive!)

  1. Square off the vegetable along one long side.
  2. Resting the vegetable on the flat side, cut it into 2.5 – 3″ pieces.
  3. Cut the vegetable lengthwise into slices of the desired thickness.
  4. Stack the slices together (you may want to start with small stacks or even one slice at a time) then cut lengthwise again into sticks of the desired thickness.
  5. If you’re dicing the vegetable, bring a few sticks together (you may want to start with one at a time), and cut crosswise into cubes of the desired dimension. Again – remember to keep the fingers of your guiding/non-knife hand curled. When you’re moving slowly, you may feel this is a waste of effort, but once your knife hand becomes more adept and you can slice/chop more quickly, your guiding hand will already be accustomed to the initially awkward curled position.

slicing/dicing onions

When you try to cut an onion, very often the layers slide around and make things difficult. The secret is to keep the root end intact up to the last step. The process I use varies slightly from what you’ll see other trained chefs use: I find it simpler for home cooking and just ignore that the pieces won’t be as uniform in size – they’ll be pretty enough!

  1. Square off the onion by cutting a slice off the stalk end.
  2. Place the onion on the flat stalk end, and cut in 1/2 through the root end.
  3. Now peel the onion halves – much easier once they’re cut!
  4. Place the onion flat side down on the cutting board.
  5. Putting the tip of your knife very close to the root end, slice downward, essentially cutting the onion into half again (but leaving the root end intact).
  6. Continue cutting this way from (but not through!) the root end to the cut edge, angling your knife toward the middle of the flat side of the onion and spacing your cuts the desired distance apart where the onion is largest. You’ll end up with wedges (like orange sections), all connected by the root end.
  7. If you want slices of onion, carefully slice off the root end at this point, and your wedges will fall into slices.
  8. If you want diced onion, place the root end of the onion beneath the palm of your guiding hand, curl the fingers of the guiding hand, and cut across the wedges into the desired size dice. (The dice from the inner layers will be smaller.)
  9. If you want to cut the onion into 1/2 rings, after step 2, hold as in step 6, and cut the onion crosswise into 1/2 rings – the layers will fall apart as you slice.

slicing/mincing/creaming garlic

  1. The steps for slicing and mincing garlic are similar to slicing and dicing an onion. (And once you know how to do this, you’ll never want to buy the jarred minced or creamed garlic again!)
  2. With the flat of your knife blade, gently press on a clove of garlic until you hear the skin pop. It should now peel off easily.
  3. Square off the peeled clove of garlic by slicing in 1/2. (No need to cut off the stalk end.)
  4. Place the half clove on the flat side and slice from (but not through) the root to the tip, creating wedges as with the onion.
  5. For slices, cut off the root end at this point.
  6. For minced garlic, cut the slices very thin, then cut crosswise, working from tip to root end and being sure to keep the fingers of your guiding hand curled.
  7. For creamed garlic, mince the garlic very finely, then turn the knife with the flat side of the blade to the cutting board. Gently hold down the tip of the knife with your guiding hand and work your knife hand wrist up and down, crushing the minced garlic into a paste. Some people like to add a pinch of salt to the minced garlic before creaming, as it seems to bring out more juice and make the paste form more quickly.

chopping

Chopping into irregularly shaped pieces involves a different way of holding the knife. A good food to practice on is fresh parsley leaves.

  1. Pile washed parsley leaves in the center of your cutting board.
  2. Place your guiding hand on the tip of the knife and hold it down gently – the idea is to keep the point on the board, but allow the knife to move.
  3. Raise your knife hand up slightly higher than the pile of leaves and bring it up and down quickly and repeatedly.
  4. When the pile is too spread out to chop efficiently, carefully scrape it back together with the edge of the knife and continue chopping until the desired degree of fineness is reached.

 

Technique: Smack

It sounds rather funny, but I’ve gone with “smack” for the Mandarin word pai for lack of a better translation. This technique may appear unusual to a western cook, but it’s rather like using a meat tenderizer on vegetables (and it’s a great way to get rid of some extra stress).

The method is used when you want to create irregular pieces of vegetables that will be salted to drain out excess liquid and then marinated – the jagged sides expose more surface area. For examples of recipes using this technique, see the second recipe under Variations on a Cucumber Theme and Sweet & Sour Radishes.

  1. If you aren’t up for a lot of spraying juices, place the vegetable under a clean kitchen towel. If you need to collect the juices for later use, place the vegetable in a plastic bag.
  2. Using the flat side of the knife blade, smack the vegetable until it cracks open. If your knife blade is not wide, you may want to use a rubber mallet or even a hammer, but you will need to take care not to smash the vegetable completely – the goal is just to crack it open.
  3. Cut the vegetable into bite-sized pieces.

Technique: Roll cutting

This is an interesting technique that is peculiar to Chinese cuisine as far as I know. Its goal is to expose more surface area of a vegetable so that when stirfried, it cooks more quickly. (Unfortunately, it’s sometimes more difficult to pick the chunk up with chopsticks, though!) This method is used to cut long, thin vegetables (carrots, okra, celery, etc.)

  1. Begin by washing and peeling the vegetable if necessary.
  2. Hold the vegetable on your cutting board (with your left if you’re right-handed and vice versa), and turn the knife handle 45 degrees to the right (the point rotates toward your other hand). Keep your non-knife hand fingers curled a bit to keep the tips away from the knife! Make the first cut.
  3. Roll the vegetable away from you 90 degrees (1/4 turn) – the top of it should now be longer than the part that touches the cutting board.
  4. Keeping the knife at 45 degrees, make the second cut.
  5. Repeat steps 3-4 until you have reached the end of the vegetable.
  6. If you practice this a lot, it’s good to have help with the resulting pile of veggies!