Learning the basic culinary knife cuts is one of the first things taught to students in culinary school, and with good reason. The chef's knife is one of the most important tools of the chef. It is what the chef uses to prepare most of the ingredients and mastering proper cuts results in both food that cooks more evenly and food that has a more attractive presentation. This article will look at the importance of knife skills for both the professional chef as well as the home cook and then detail the most essential knife cuts every chef should know how to do.
Why Are Knife Skills Important For A Chef?
Think of any recipe that includes fruits and vegetables and try to imagine preparing it without using a knife. It would almost be an impossibility. Chefs use their knife skills in almost every recipe they make. Sure, almost anyone can use a chef's knife to cut their own vegetables or meats when preparing a recipe, but poorly executed knife cuts can lead to uneven cooking and a sloppy and haphazard-looking visual presentation for the resulting dish.
Uniform knife cuts are also vitally important when it comes to uniform cooking. This is best shown with vegetables. Larger pieces of vegetables will need more cooking time than smaller pieces in order to reach the same amount of doneness. If you use sloppy cuts to chop your vegetables and then try to cook them at the same time, the smaller cut vegetables will be overcooked by the time the interior of the large chunks reaches the desired temperature. Learning proper knife cuts will prevent this from happening to the food you cook.
Admittedly, the visual appeal of your food might not be the most important thing in the world if you are not a professional chef. That said, even the amateur chef wants to impress someone with their cooking at some point, and presentation, while not as important as taste, plays an important factor in that. Most people have positive reactions to symmetry and like when things are balanced and even. This even applies to their food. If you serve someone a plate full of haphazardly cut food, your dish will look sloppy and unimpressive.
What Are Knife Cuts?
Culinary knife cuts are a group of standardized cuts of food that result in a specific size and style of the item cut. Due to different applications and cooking methods, using the correct cut is essential for properly cooked food. They are primarily used for vegetables, fruits, and herbs but can also be used for other types of food. There are several cuts that most chefs should know, even the home chefs. The purpose behind the different knife cuts relates to how the pieces of food will be used and cooked.
Take, for example, the dice, which is a knife cut that results in uniformly sized cubes of food. This is a good cut when the resulting ingredient will be used in a soup as diced food can easily be eaten with a spoon. If, on the other hand, you wanted to use the ingredients in a sandwich, dicing would not be the preferred method of cutting as cubed ingredients on a sandwich make it harder to eat.
Unsurprisingly, French chefs, who have refined their cooking to an art form, take their knife cuts the most seriously. They have separated the basic cuts into an even larger catalog of different and extremely specific categories of knife cuts. Thankfully, for the home chef and even most professional chefs, this distinction is not too important. If you can learn the essential cuts described in the next section, you'll likely have learned all the knife cuts you need to make great food down pat.
What Knife Cuts Are Essential For A Chef To Know?
When putting together a list of the essential knife cuts every chef should know, we wanted to pare it down to the most essential cuts. There are a lot of specific and fancy cuts that might be used for a very limited number of dishes that are not vital for general cooking. As you progress in your cooking, this might change and you will need to learn the more esoteric cuts, but that is outside of the scope of this article.
For the purpose of our list of essential knife cuts, we will group together the similar cuts. This is one of the areas where the French influence on the culinary world might have gone too far as they separate similar knife cuts into completely different categories. For anyone not apprenticing under a strict French chef, this is likely overkill, so our list groups them together.
Dicing, as its name would imply, is a knife cut that results in uniformly cubed food that resembles game dice, though without the dots. Dicing is an excellent method of cutting food for soups or stews as cooking diced food in liquids helps keep their cooking even. This results in a uniformly cooked finished product. Unfortunately, most food items that you need to dice are often oblong, tubular or round shapes, but this is where learning the skill of the knife cuts come into play.
Vegetables are the most common food items that are diced so we will use them as an example. Begin by preparing your vegetables including washing, drying and peeling, if necessary. Once they are ready, try to find a flat side on the vegetable that you can put against the cutting board. This makes dicing them much easier. If you cannot find a flat area, trim one side of the vegetable until it is flat to make your knife cuts easier.
Dicing Thick Vegetables
For thick vegetables, such as potatoes, the first step is to cut them into steaks with the desired thickness of your dice. Once you slice your vegetable into steaks, put one of each round steak's flat side on the cutting board and cut it into strips, again cutting them to the size of your desired dice. The final cut is to turn those strips into cubes. You can stack together multiple strips when dicing to make this process faster. With thinner vegetables such as carrots, you can skip the steak step and cut the carrots directly into strips before you finish the dice.
Dicing onions can be a difficult proposition for inexperienced chefs and even some more experienced ones. In order to make it easier, follow these steps. 20 minutes before you want to dice your onion, toss it in the freezer. This will make it easier to dice as it will inhibit the onion's well-known ability to make people cry. Cut the onion in half by slicing downward from top to root, then peel it.
With the root end away from you, cut each half of the onion to your desired dice size while keeping the root intact. The next step is the most difficult and requires you to make similar horizontal cuts, again leaving the root intact. Be careful not to cut yourself when doing this step as you place your other hand over the onion to hold it against the cutting board. Finally, place the onion with its cut side down and slice against the previous vertical cuts to the size of your desired dice.
Depending on the intended use of the food, the size of the dice might vary but there are some standardized sizes. A cube that measures about a half-inch on each side is called a large dice and is usually used when cooking stews or other dishes with long cooking times. A medium dice is half that size with about a quarter of an inch on each side and it is also primarily used for soups and stews and the long-cooking dishes that need bite-sized pieces of food.
The smallest type of dice, known as Brunoise dice, results in cubes that are only about an eighth or sixteenth of an inch on each side. This is generally used for garnishing and is unsurprisingly one of the harder dicing cuts to learn.
The Strip Cuts
As with the dice cuts, there are a variety of strip knife cuts. These result in strips or long, thin pieces of food. Thankfully, strip cuts are often easier than dicing as they are made in the same way but without the last step. The resulting food from a strip cut is often used raw but it can also be cooked or even pickled depending on the recipe that it is used in.
Large Strip Cut
The largest of the strip cuts is called the baton, and it measures about a half-inch on either short side of the strip. This corresponds to the size of the large dice cut. Baton strips are often used to prepare foods that are intended to be served raw such as in a crudites plate of baton vegetables with dip.
Medium Strip Cut
Slightly smaller is the batonnet knife cut. This results in strips that are a quarter of an inch square on their shorter sides. In cooking, these can be used in dishes that use a larger portion of the cut item, as in a vegetable-based side dish. They can also be used to aid and presentation. Using batonette cut potatoes, for example, as the base of the dish will give the resulting food a greater height.
The Julienne Cut
The Julienne cut is the smallest and most common of the strip cuts. It also goes by the name matchstick cut as the resulting pieces of food are about the same size as a wooden match. The resulting food has the dimensions of about an eighth or sixteenth of an inch on each of the small sides. The julienne cut is so common because it is so useful. As with dicing and some other stick cuts, the julienne cut pieces of food can be used in soups or stews but they can also be used in many other different types of cooking.
Julienne cut vegetables are common in sandwiches. Banh mì is an excellent example of a sandwich that uses julienne vegetables. The matchstick sized pieces of carrot and radish are quickly pickled before they are added to this famous Vietnamese sandwich. Julienne vegetables are the perfect size for such a sandwich as they do not interfere with the bread or other ingredients. Larger or diced ingredients would make the sandwich more difficult to eat.
To use the Julienne knife cut, prepare your vegetables as you would for any of the other types of cuts discussed above. If you're cutting a thick vegetable such as potatoes, cut them into steaks first and then cut those steaks into 2 inch long strips. For smaller vegetables, such as carrots, create a flat surface to make cutting easier. Slice each strip into about eighth-inch-thick slices. After that, stack the slices and slice them again, creating perfectly Julianned pieces of vegetables.
The chiffonade knife cut gets its name from the French word for little strips. These are great cuts to use for leafy greens and herbs that will be used as a garnish. To perform chiffonade knife cuts, gather the leaves you intend to cut and stack them on top of each other. Tightly roll them as if they were a cigar. Once rolled, use your knife to slice the rolled leaves thinly. When doing this, make sure to cut all the way through the rolled leaves. Separate the cut leaf portions and then use them as a garnish or for whatever purpose you needed them for.
Mincing is one of the smallest of the knife cuts and is designed to break apart certain vegetables completely. This ensures that their flavor-producing compounds are fully activated. Garlic is a great example of this as the pungent spicy flavor of the garlic is intensifiedthe more cell walls within the garlic are broken. Mincing garlic will create a much stronger garlic flavor with which to season a dish.
To mince, dice the vegetables you intend to mince and then push them into a pile on top of your cutting board. Starting at one end of the pile, place the palm of your non-dominant hand on the dull side of your knife while holding it over the diced vegetables. Rock your knife repeatedly over the pile of the diced vegetables cutting them into much smaller pieces. Just before the vegetables begin to form a paste, your mincing is done.
Whether you are a professional chef or an amateur home cook, learning the essential knife cuts will enhance your ability to cook and make your finished products look that much nicer. Once you have mastered the knife cuts discussed in this article, you can even try to further your knife skills by learning the specialized and more difficult knife cuts. Remember, if you make a mistake with your cuts, you can always throw them into a stock pot so you have no excuse to stop practicing your knife cuts.