One of the most visually impressive parts of the cooking process is the knife work. Fancy restaurants sometimes have their chefs do the cutting and chopping in front of the customers as a boast of their speed and agility. But don’t think that you can’t accomplish the same techniques, just because you’re not wearing a tall, white hat.
We’re loving this helpful image (below) from Picture Perfect Meals, btw:
Tools of the Trade
You’ll need a (clean) cutting board and a knife. The basic chef’s knife suits for most cutting needs, though smaller knives can also be used. Use the knife that gives you the most control. Technique is more important than size (yes, it’s okay if you just chuckled).
Cutting properly will prevent slips, minimize dulling to the blade, protect your fingers, and maximize speed. Regardless of which cut you’re performing, you’ll be using the same basic motion:
- Grasp the handle of the knife, wrapping your middle, ring, and pinky fingers around the handle. Rest your thumb and bent forefinger on either side of the blade, just after the point where the blade meets the handle. This hold offers maximum control and minimizes the risk of slipping and cutting yourself.
- Angle your knife at 45 degrees from the cutting board, with the tip touching the board and the food item lined up on the cutting board under the raised portion of the blade.
- Gently rock the blade downward into the food item.
- Gently raise the blade back up, keeping the tip down, and pivot the knife slightly to scootch it over a notch.
- Lower the blade again, making a second cut about ⅛” from the first cut.
Once you get the rhythm down, this becomes a quick, small rocking motion that slices up the food without banging the blade around.
When a recipe tells you to chop something into “matchsticks,” it is referring to the julienne cut. Julienne is usually applied to vegetables or potatoes, particularly for frying. The goal is to cut the food into long, thin blocks, so it is typical to begin by cutting off the rounded sides of the food first to form a nice, even rectangle.
Take a pepper, for instance:
- Rinse the pepper and hold it sideways on the cutting board.
- Carefully cut a circle around the stem, then remove the stem and attached pith and seeds.
- Cut the pepper in half long-ways.
- Place one half of the pepper, inside down, on the cutting board.
- Cut off the edges on all four sides of the pepper to form a rectangle.
- Using proper cutting technique, slice the pepper half evenly into ⅛” strips.
- Repeat with the other half of the pepper.
While this process will vary slightly with the size and shape of the food item being julienned, the essential technique is the same.
The goal of chopping is to reduce food down to distribute flavor throughout the dish while maintaining texture. It is a very common technique for veggies and meats.
- To begin, follow the same steps necessary for a julienne cut, keeping the resulting strips close together.
- Cut short-ways across the strips in ½” sections, holding the strips tight together with your free hand.
- Bonus trick: when you julienne, stop just slightly short of completing your cuts, so that the strips remain attached. This makes it easy to keep everything together when you cut across from the other direction.
Dicing creates a smaller cut than does chopping. Instead of small blocks, you are cutting the item into roughly even cubes (or “dice”–hence the name). This releases still more flavor to be evenly distributed through the dish, and also alters the experienced texture of the food.
Onions and tomatoes are often diced, as are many other foods. Usually, foods selected for dicing tend toward the fibrous, because their firmness holds up to more minute cuts without falling apart.
- As before, cut off any rough edges or stems, lay the item down, cut in half, and place the halves cut side down.
- Cut across the the halves long-ways, making ⅛” strips, stopping the blade just before you finish each cut, so that the item remains in one piece.
- Cut across short-ways, also making ⅛” strips, this time cutting all the way through.
- Cut long-ways once more, retracing and completing your earlier cuts.
- Because this involves more minute movements, you will probably want to place the index finger of your free hand on top of the blade near the the edge to guide the point as you shift the knife down the food item.
The term “mince” derives from the Old English “minsian,” meaning “to reduce.” Mincing is basically dicing on steroids. It is the smallest cut and is used to reduce food down to an almost paste-like texture, releasing the maximum amount of flavor.
This technique is primarily used on garlic and other herbs, but can also be used on meats to make pâtés.
- Follow the earlier dicing procedure, but make the cuts as thin as you possibly can.
- Retrace your cuts and keep chopping until you’ve reduced the food down as much as possible.
Practice Makes Perfect (and spares your fingers)
Keep your blade clean, and dry it off after every rinse to prevent rust. If you cook often, sharpen your knives once a week. And always, always use a cutting board to protect both yourself and whatever surface you’re using to cut.
While you’re learning the different cuts, don’t push yourself to cut more quickly than you feel comfortable with–unless you’re looking for an excuse to visit the ER.
Cutting like a pro requires time and patience. If you botch your first attempt, you’re still one step closer to mastery. You will get there if you keep at it.
And sure, if it motivates you, get yourself one of those nifty white chef’s hats.