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, 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 contaminants from chemicals, pesticides, “color enhancers”, and, of course, that teenage stock boy's hands.
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 a 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).
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. I like bamboo.
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 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 carrots Julienne 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 brunoise-cut vegetables are one standard by which the proficiency of a professional chef is judged.
Chef Perry’s Pico de Gallo
(Makes 2 ½ cups)
- 1 white onion, finely chopped
- 6 ripe plum tomatoes, seeded and finely chopped
- 2 jalapeno 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.
In Mexican cuisine, pico de gallo (Spanish for “rooster’s beak”), also called salsa fresco, is a fresh, uncooked condiment made from chopped tomato, onion, and sometimes chilies (typically jalapenos or Serrano peppers). One of the sources for the name “rooster’s beak” could be the beak-like shape and the red color of the chilies used to make it. According to food writer Sharon Tyler Herbst, 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 chilies — not necessarily with hot chilies, or any chilies at all. Thus, the name could be a simple allusion to the bird feed-like minced texture and appearance of the sauce.