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Culinary Lesson #8 - Slicing and Dicing

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Q8:  I've finally saved up enough money to buy my first few kitchen knives!  Now what are some of the main cuts I can learn to impress?

A8:  Before any of the cuts are discussed, there's one major topic to hit first: knife safety.  You may have heard that sharp knives are safer than old dull knives, and you're right due to the fact that dull knives can slide off of whatever you're cutting, whereas with sharp knives only go where you guide it.  Now with that said, sharp knives are only safe when you keep the following in mind:

  1. Speed means nothing when accuracy and precision are ignored.  When giving your new chef's knife a test run, it's tempting to want to be the next Iron Chef.  But know that speed only comes after years and years of dedication to the art of cooking.  With each cut, rather, concentrate on the uniformity of your end product.
  2. Be familiar with the correct way to grip both your knife and whatever you're cutting.  For your cutting hand, pinch the heel of the knife with your pointer finger and thumb, while wrapping your middle, ring, and pinky finger around the handle.  For your other hand, you want to grip whatever you're cutting as though you're gripping a baseball; this is called the 'claw grip'.  The key is that the tips of your fingers are vertical (parallel to the knife) and are used to guide the knife.  Fingers perpendicular to the blade of the knife are just an accident waiting to happen.  Here's a quick video that illustrates the proper technique being used.
  3. Cut on stable surfaces.  There are two items to keep in mind for this one:  your cutting board and the food you are cutting.  If you've ever had a cutting board slip on you, you understand the frustration that is caused and the lack of safety that results.  A simple fix this is to find a towel similar in size to your cutting board, get it damp, and place in between the counter/table and cutting board.  As far as the food portion goes, anytime the food you're cutting has rounded edges, carefully make your initial cut either down the center or side of the food, and then use the newly created flat surface to your advantage for the remaining cuts.  Stability equals safety.
  4. Never grab a falling knife!  When a knife gets bumped off of a counter or slips out of your hand, our initial response would be to catch it, but for obvious reasons, this can be extremely dangerous.  Rather, make sure you're out of its path, then retrieve it when the coast is clear.

Of course there is a whole list of knife safety tips to keep in mind, but I believe that the ones previously listed highlight the most important points.  Now with that said, we can handle the original question and touch on some of the main cuts to learn.  The following is an image I've prepared that illustrates the main 'slices and dices', along with a condensed cheat-sheet that describes all of the main cuts:
  • Basic verbs:
    • Chop - to cut into smaller pieces using a forward and down motion.
    • Mince - to cut into very small pieces (picture minced garlic or shallots).
    • Slice - to cut into thin pieces (picture a sliced loaf of bread or block of cheese).
    • Dice - to cut into small cubes (picture diced tomatoes).
    • Pare - to trim by cutting off the outer edges.
  • Strip cuts:
    • Batonnet [bah-tow-NAY] - 1/2" x 1/2" x 2" to 3" (when translated, means 'little stick').
    • Allumette [al-yoo-MET] - 1/4" x 1/4" x 2" to 3" (aka the 'matchstick' cut).
    • Julienne [joo-lee-ENN] - 1/8" x 1/8" x 2" to 3".
    • Fine julienne - 1/16" x 1/16" x  2" to 3".
  • Dice (cube) cuts:
    • Large dice - 3/4" x 3/4" x 3/4" (less commonly known as carré).
    • Medium dice - 1/2" x 1/2" x 1/2" (less commonly known as parmentier).
    • Small dice - 1/4" x 1/4" x 1/4" (less commonly known as macédoine).
    • Brunoise [BROON-wahz] - 1/8" x 1/8" x 1/8".
    • Fine brunoise - 1/16" x 1/16" x 1/16".
  • Miscellaneous
    • Chiffonade [chiff-fe-nod] - used mainly for herbs or leafy vegetables, and is achieved by stacking leafs on top of each other, tightly rolling, and cutting fine ribbons using a rocking motion with a chef's knife.  Shredded cabbage in coleslaw is an example of this cut.
    • Tournée [tour-nay] - method of cutting and peeling root vegetables into a seven-sided, football shape.
    • Paysanne [pay-SAHN] - similar to the batonnet, only sliced 1/8" thick (rather than 2" to 3").
    • Rondelle - coin-shaped slice of a cylindrical vegetable (commonly done on carrots).

To put the above information into practice, it is often recommended to try out each cut on root vegetables (such as potatoes or carrots) due to their availability, affordability, and simplicity.  French fries, scalloped potatoes, and hash browns are nothing more than allumette cuts, fine slices, and julienne or fine dice cuts.  I also recommend finding a common reference that will get you used to the actual size of an inch or fraction of an inch without having to pull out a ruler each time.  For example, I know that the tang of my chef's knife is exactly 1/8" and the last segment of my pinky finger is exactly 1".  It may sound odd, but just by knowing those two reference points, I'm able to accurately produce any type of cut without a ruler.

As with many topics in the kitchen, the above is just a fraction of the information out there dealing with knife safety and cutting techniques.  If you want to learn about a specific techniques or a certain cut, for example, feel free to comment below.

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