Understanding the Basic Kitchen Knife Cuts
If you’re going to spend any time in the kitchen, you’re going to have to learn how to chop vegetables. Proper chopping, slicing, and dicing techniques help us reduce waste, stay safe, and improve the taste and texture of our dishes.
Those of us who grew up under tyrannical chef-fathers, toiling away in the Dickens-esque sweat-shops of their prep kitchens (sorry Dad, just trying to make a point…), may have spent months or years doing little else than chopping veggies, and take the techniques required in stride. For those who grew up playing outdoors, with other children, in the sunlight…the following steps will walk you through how to prepare almost any fresh vegetable for cooking, in your own kitchen.
First things first, make sure you are holding your knife properly.
Next, we need to prepare our veggies for chopping, as necessary, by rinsing, peeling, trimming, discarding roots etc.
It doesn’t matter how pretty, clean, or pristine they looked at the grocery store, there’s always the chance of residual contaminates from chemicals, pesticides, “color enhancers”, and, of course, that teenage stock boy’s hands (ick!).
Rinse your veggies.
Next, make sure to use the right knife for each job.
A paring knife has a 3-4″ long blade and is used for peeling and paring fruit and vegetables, and for trimming where a larger chef’s knife would be unwieldy.
A good chef’s knife will typically have a blade 8″ – 12″ long. This is the one you’ll use for slicing, dicing, chopping, mincing, and keeping nosy in-laws out of your kitchen. The side of the blade is great for crushing garlic, as well.
Now, before we start whacking away at our veggies, how do we want the final result to look?
Are we going for cubes, sticks, or julienne (for solid veggies) or coarse or finely chopped, for leafy ones? Feel free to vary the size of your cuts each time you make the dish (but keep them consistent for each experiment). You may find that you enjoy the texture and flavor of one cut size, more than another.
A good example is coleslaw. Some folks like a super-fine dice on their slaw, but I prefer a rough chop, so I really get the taste and feel of the cabbage…it’s all about personal taste.
Put your veggies on a dry, clean cutting board. (I suggest have multiple boards that are dedicated to either meat or veggies, to avoid cross-contamination between the two).
Kitchen Tip: there are heaps of cutting board options to choose from – wood, glass, marble, plastic…it can be a confusing choice. Let’s get two out of the game right away…glass and marble style cutting boards may be pretty, but they play havoc on your knives. These too-hard surfaces will quickly blunt your knife and damage its edge.
Keep your glass and marble boards for serving food only. When it comes to wooden and plastic boards, even the experts are divided as to which is best. It comes down to personal preference. Myself, I like bamboo boards.
Okay, back to chopping. With your non-dominant hand, hold the vegetable firmly in place. Firmly grasp your chef’s knife at the handle, keeping your index finger and thumb at either side of the upper part of the blade to ensure stability.
You want most of the pressure on the knife to be between your thumb and index finger, while the handle simply rests in your palm.
Move the knife to the right side of the vegetable (assuming you’re right-handed), cutting from the “point” to the “root”, and keeping the blade parallel to the knuckles of your free hand, with your fingertips slightly tucked under. Cut straight down (we’ll save those fancy bias cuts for later) and try to be consistent when in the size of your cuts.
A good sharp knife will do most of the work. Here’s another cooking tip: if you’re having to exert what seems like a lot of force to cut a carrot, celery, or tomato (jicama and turnips are another matter) …it’s time to have your knives professionally sharpened.
For smaller diameter veggies, like carrots, celery, etc…practice cutting with a rocking motion (you’ve seen to TV folks do it) where you keep the point of your knife touching the cutting board at all time, while you raise and lower the back end, feeding the veggies through like a chop-saw.
This technique is fun, fast, and impresses the heck out of your guests, but BE CAREFUL…it’s easy to get enamored with the rhythm of your own cutting and end up with one less nail to paint!
So, there you have it, these basics of how to prepare vegetables will get you through almost any recipe you’ll find.
Julienne & brunoise knife cuts Julienne is a culinary knife cut in which the food item is cut into long thin strips, similar to matchsticks. Sometimes called ‘shoestring’, e.g. ‘shoestring fries’.
Common items to be julienned are carrots for stir-fry, or potatoes for Julienne Fries.
With a sharp knife the raw vegetable is sliced to length and trimmed on four sides to create a thick rectangular stick, then cut lengthwise into thin, 1/8-inch slices.
Stacking these slices and again cutting lengthwise into thin 1/8-inch strips creates thin uniform square sticks. Julienne usually applies to vegetables prepared in this way but it can also be applied to the preparation of meat or fish, especially in stir fry techniques.
Once julienned, turning the subject 90 degrees and dicing finely (equal to other dimensions) will produce “brunoise” cut. Perfectly even 1/8th by 1/8th brunoised-cut vegetables are one standard by which the proficiency of a professional chef is judged.
Here are a few of my favorite recipes that use these cuts...
- Perk’s Pico de Gallo
- Caprese Tomato Bites
- Kale Bacon Slaw
- Bow Tie Pasta with Zucchini Shallot Sauce
Perk’s Pico de Gallo
- 1 white onion, finely chopped
- 6 ripe plum tomatoes, seeded and finely chopped
- 2 jalapeño peppers, cored, seeded and finely chopped
- ½ cup fresh cilantro leaves, chopped
- 1/2 lime, juiced
- 1 tablespoon minced garlic
- Salt to taste
Combine all the ingredients, cover, and refrigerate for an hour.
(Makes 2 ½ cups)
In Mexican cuisine, Pico de Gallo (Spanish for “rooster’s beak”), also called salsa fresca, is a fresh, uncooked condiment made from chopped tomato, onion, and sometimes chilis (typically jalapeño or serrano).
One of the sources for the name “rooster’s beak” could be the beak-like shape and the red color of the chilis used to make it. Another is that it is so called because originally it was eaten with the thumb and forefinger, and retrieving and eating the condiment resembled the actions of a pecking rooster.
In many regions of Mexico the term “pico de gallo” refers to any of a variety of salads, condiments or fillings made with sweet fruits, tomatoes, tomatillos, avocado or mild chilis — not necessarily with hot chilis, or any chilis at all.
Thus, the name could be a simple allusion to the bird feed-like minced texture and appearance of the sauce.
Caprese Tomato Bites
I love the combination of tomatoes, mozzarella and basil (a taste from the Italian region of Campania) in these bite-size appetizers. The juicy explosion you get when you pop one into your mouth is the genuine taste of springtime.
This is a new spin on a classic Italian dish, and no one knows how to showcase the tomato like the Italians. In Italy, unlike most salads, it is usually served as an antipasto (starter), not a contorno (side dish).
- 1 pint cherry tomatoes, about 16
- 16 mozzarella pearls
- 16 fresh basil leaves, small
- Extra virgin olive oil
- Sea salt
Scoop out and discard pulp and stem of the cherry tomatoes.
Invert tomatoes onto paper towels to drain.
Turn tomato halves over; drizzle with oil. Sprinkle with sea salt.
Wrap a leaf of basil around a pearl of cheese (like a taco) and insert into a tomato.
Chill and serve.
Kale Bacon Slaw
This is one of my favorite coleslaw recipes. I love cabbage slaw, but it has to be super fresh…the instant the cabbage starts to get soggy (which is pretty quickly) I lose interest.
One of the great things about kale is that it will hold up to the dressing and stay crunchy for hours and even days. Plus it’s got a great peppery bite!
- 1/2 head curly kale
- 1/2 large carrot
- 1/2 orange
- 1/2 lemon
- salt & black pepper
- 1/2 small red onion
- 2 slices of smoked bacon
- 1 tbsp. (rounded) mayonnaise
Cook the bacon till crisp, drain & cool on a papertowel and then chop. Remove the stem from the kale and slice into thin ribbons.
Grate the carrot. Juice the orange and lemon. Skin and slice the onion thinly.
Place the kale into a salad bowl. Toss with the carrot, orange juice, lemon juice, and salt, and using your hands, rub the mixture into the kale.
Add the onion, bacon, salt and pepper, and toss well. Add the mayonnaise and mix the slaw well. Refrigerate until ready to serve. The slaw can be made several hours in advance.
Bow Tie Pasta with Zucchini Shallot Sauce
Raw in salads or with dip, sautéed in butter or pan juices, baked in bread…just about any way you cook it, I’ll come back for seconds!
This was my first experience is shredding and saucing zucchini, and it was a BIG winner, adding a fresh, green, garden aroma and flavor to this simple sauce.
This is one of the recipes we’ve developed for our outreach to extremely low-income families. This recipe is less than $1 per serving, in season.
Oh, and if you get a heap of zucchini from an overzealous farming friend this year, shred some and freeze it in individual baggies for use in sauces like this.
The effect that freezing had on the crispness won’t matter a stitch in a recipe like this one!
- 2 cup bow-tie pasta
- 2 cloves garlic
- 2 medium zucchini
- 1 medium shallot, or small yellow onion.
- 1 Tablespoon grape-seed oil
- ½ cup Parmesan cheese, grated
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- 1 tsp. Better Than Bullion chicken base
- 1 tsp. ground black pepper
Cook pasta in salted water, according to package instructions. Prepare zucchini sauce while pasta cooks.
Peel and mince garlic, dice the shallot (or onion).
Rinse and grate zucchini.
In a large skillet over medium heat, heat oil. Add onion and minced garlic, with a dash of salt, and sauté until the onions are translucent. Add zucchini and cook until mixture softens and zucchini yields some liquid, about 5 minutes.
Drain pasta, reserving ½ cup cooking liquid, and mix in chicken base (with the liquid) to create a broth.
Add 1-2 teaspoons of the broth at a time to zucchini mixture. Add drained pasta. Stir, coating pasta evenly with sauce. Add more broth as needed (I used the whole 1/2 cup).
Transfer pasta to a large bowl for serving. Sprinkle with grated Parmesan.
Season with salt and pepper.
Toss to combine, and serve.