Kitchen Fundamentals: Basic Knife Skills

by Matt Moore on April 20, 2011 · 26 comments

in Blog

1 Onion, diced
2 Tomatoes, roughly chopped
1 Jalapeno, finely diced
2 Cloves Garlic, minced

As someone who writes recipes for a living, it’s my job to make cooking easy and enjoyable for others. I suppose my “job satisfaction” comes when people tell me that a recipe of mine turned out to be one of their favorite meals. However, I’m not always so lucky.

Things that may seem clear to me can look like hieroglyphs to others.

For example, check out the list of ingredients at the top of the page. Hopefully, the ingredients themselves are recognizable to everyone. What may not be so clear is the actual state of the ingredients. What do I mean by diced, chopped, minced?

Honestly, it’s somewhat of a gray area.

You see, each writer, chef, cook, etc., has their own explanation of such terms. Some go as far as providing exact descriptions–“dice your tomatoes into ½ inch cubes .” I suppose that’s nice, but such rigid descriptions remind me of baking–not my forte.

I’d rather not pull out a Webster dictionary, so instead I’ve put together a simple picture to demonstrate the following state of ingredients in descending order based on size: Roughly Chopped, Julienned, Diced, Finely Diced, and Minced. Keep in mind that this is my definition. You or others may envision a fine dice to be finer, or a rough chop to be rougher . . . that’s okay. I come from the school of thought where recipes are meant more to be guidelines than scientific formulas. Again, that’s probably the reason why baking is not my strong suit.

When working with peppers as pictured, always cut from the inside out–the waxy outer surface can cause the knife to slip.

I’ve put together a few picture reels to assist you in learning some of the very basic knife skills. Specifically, I’ve included photos on the best way to go about dicing an onion, mincing/pasting garlic, and finely chopping herbs. I find that these are the skills that I use most in preparing meals.

How to Dice an Onion

By keeping the root end intact, this method ensures that you can quickly dice an entire onion without creating a mess. Keep in mind that the more narrow your incisions, the finer the dice.

Step 1: Slice off the top of the onion, about ½ an inch into the surface.

Step 2: Rest the onion vertically, slice in half through the root end, and peel back the outer layer.

Step 3: Make vertical incisions down to the root end.

Step 4: Make horizontal incisions down to the root end.

Step 5: Dice the onion accordingly and repeat with the remaining half.

How to Mince Garlic

This method will allow you to quickly peel and mince garlic. By smashing the entire clove, you also release the flavorful juices. Adding kosher salt and making a paste comes in handy when adding garlic to a salad dressing or marinade.

Step 2: Peel away skin, and run the knife through the garlic until it is finely and evenly chopped.

Step 3: Add a few pinches of kosher salt to work as an abrasive.

Step 4: Use pressure and the flat side of your knife to work the ingredients back and forth on the board, until the mixture resembles the consistency of a paste.

How to Chop Fine Herbs

This process is actually defined as a “chiffonade.” For herbs which bruise easily (basil, sage, etc), this method allows you to cleanly and delicately slice herbs without damaging their texture.

Step 1: Stack 6-8 leaves on top of one another.

Step 2: Carefully roll up the leaves starting from the root end up to the tip.

Step 3: Use a knife to finely chop the herbs, resulting in long, thin strips.

Of course, these are just the fundamentals. Master everything here, and we’ll move on to butchering wild game in the near future.

Keep those knives sharp!
MM

Kitchen Fundamentals Series:
How to Make a Whole Roasted Chicken
The 6 Knives Every Man Should Have in His Kitchen
Basic Knife Skills

{ 26 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Chef Paul April 20, 2011 at 9:02 am

Great post! A small point…your “mince” example appears to be “brunoise”. Minced typically has an irregularity about it…like the rough chop but wee smaller.

2 Chad Smith April 20, 2011 at 9:49 am

Great job getting some must know knowledge out there! I agree with everything except one step while chopping an onion. The idea of making horizontal cuts (step 4) seems to be a fancy new thing some TV chefs are trying to do. The onion is natuarally layered so just chopping as in step 3 and 5 is more than sufficient. The onion will break apart into the perfect size pieces without struggling to make the horizontal slices. I hope that made sense, check out http://chefmichaelsmith.com/tips-tricks-hints/onion-chopping-101/ He explains it much better than me!

3 Chefboots April 20, 2011 at 11:38 am

As a culinary student it’s great to see someone explaining this for the masses. A lot of chefs want to turn what we do into magic and like Chef Tony says in Skills 1, none of this is magic.

4 John April 20, 2011 at 12:57 pm

Another top notch article. The only thing I would add, is the knife has to be SHARP! As a corollary to that, poor quality knives cannot be sharpened properly. Any knife that is cheap is likely not worth buying. Also any knife that claims “never needs sharpening”. These knives are made of steel that is too hard and cannot be easily sharpened. You want high quality high carbon steel. Stainless is a no no. Stain resistant high carbon is okay. Have a good whetstone and a good butcher steel and know how (and when) to use each.

Never buy a knife that is advertised as being able to cut a tin can, a work boot, or a cement block….. Unless that is the only thing you will use it for! A good 8 or 10 inch classic chef knife and a paring knife or two is all anyone needs.

5 Aaron April 20, 2011 at 2:47 pm

Whoever is slicing that onion is just begging to cut their finger off. This is a valuable article, but I think it’s much much much more important to teach someone how to hold a knife and use their fingers as a guard BEFORE teaching them more technical skills like dicing an onion.

6 Joel April 20, 2011 at 3:32 pm

I have to agree with Aaron. If you do the horizontal cuts with a nice sharp knife and you place your hand behind the onion like that you better have a one-handed dialable phone handy because if you cut too deep (happens often when dicing like that) you’re gonna lose a finger and alot of blood.

7 Jason April 20, 2011 at 7:09 pm

This article seems to be missing something about knife skills: the different types of cuts used with a knife and how to hold the knife properly. Showing the end results is good (dice, mince, julienne, etc) but I was hoping to see the chop, the slice, and the dice. There is a different movement to properly do those techniques without cutting your fingers off and also get the food to look right.

8 Topher April 20, 2011 at 9:20 pm

Nicely done. I like the photo comparison. The herb technique is new to me, so I can’t wait to try it.

9 JeffC April 20, 2011 at 10:28 pm

Thanks, Matt: that was very good.

Within the last two years I learned to dice an onion as described in the article, and I’ve never been happier. I never feel my fingers are in danger.

Maybe if commenters are nicer to the author, instead of complaining, he will be inspired to write more articles, which might include the very topics whose absence said commenters bemoan.

10 JG April 21, 2011 at 12:23 am

How about a manly review of manly kitchen knives AND pots, pans and other manly kitchen essentials?

11 Eddie Guanajuato April 21, 2011 at 8:31 am

Great Post…..This helps so much
Thanks for adding to my knowledge of things I believe I should already know but don’t.

Eddie in INDY

12 Jonathan April 21, 2011 at 9:33 am

Using my knives is pretty much my favorite part of creating a meal. Love the herb chopping technique! Great pictures, thanks!

13 Paul April 21, 2011 at 1:56 pm

Awesome post, I’ve just been starting to hone my knife skills so this was great timing. The pictures were perfect. I’m embarrassed at how I attempted to cut herbs and mince garlic.

Jamie Oliver has a really good video that has been beyond helpful too, it goes along with the basics and the safety that Aaron and Joel were concerned about (and me, I’d be terrified to attempt that cut). Here’s a link to the YouTube video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qG7GzPVI4bs

14 Bryce April 21, 2011 at 11:21 pm

Great article. I just kind of wanted to add on to what Aaron wrote. I believe that the method for mincing an onion described above is an older “classical” way. One newer technique, the technique I was raised with (I am a young-un) is to cut it in half just as you said and lay it flat on the table just as you said. However, instead of making graph cuts like you did, you make a series of cuts almost lengthwise around the axis of the onion (don’t cut completely through the root and then go through the other end. they should look like wedges but still be connected) Then you make perpendicular cuts like the last step you described. This way is a bit faster, but your way works just as well. I just thought you may like to keep that in mind in your future chopping adventures.

15 Alan April 22, 2011 at 9:12 am

The way I cut onions is to cut off both ends, slice down the middle… and that’s about it really, as the layers are easily separated.

Then again that’s for my daily stir-fry…

16 Roger April 23, 2011 at 9:45 am

Thank you for your onion dicing instructions. I am no stranger to cooking, but my onion dicing techniques always ended up with variable results and a mess around the cutting board.

17 Joel April 25, 2011 at 2:12 pm

@JeffC Yes, I was being a bit snarky about the “losing a finger” comment but the point is still valid. You always want very sharp knives and when you’re dicing onions with this technique its common for the knife to slip through the back end (particularly if you just started to learn this method). So don’t be put off by the snarkiness and take the warning for real: Don’t hold the onion that way when you’re making those cross cuts. Put your fingers on top and if the knife is properly sharpened you won’t have an issue with the cross cuts – it’ll cut to the base no problem.

18 Henry April 27, 2011 at 9:46 am

A small point for sure, but I learned to chiffonade rolling along the length of the herbs. Also I would reccomend if possible to try to avoid cutting into the root (other than cutting in half). Most of the chemicals that make people cry are there, so by not cutting into it you save yourself some discomfort.

19 Phil Doyle May 7, 2011 at 3:11 am

Agree with Arron.

The cutting technique is sound but the author does not hold the knife correctly nor guard his fingers of the “off” hand in any regard. Pretty basic stuff. Tuck in the finger tips and keep the thumb behind the cutting plane first and foremost. Diced epidermis is a lousy addition to any dish. The knife hand should grasp the topside of the steel blade forward of the handle to control the torsional movement while slicing, Just google it, plenty of pro chefs have youtube vids with proper technique

20 Health Coach May 9, 2011 at 11:39 am

The author forgot to mention the most important part – tuck in your fingertips! I used to chop things like such a klutz until I started practicing more often – still always make sure that my knuckles protect my fingertips.

21 Kiki May 10, 2011 at 8:54 pm

I will never understand people’s need to specify the salt be ‘kosher’.

NaCl is NaCl.

22 David April 13, 2013 at 8:16 am

Kiki, “Kosher” doesn’t have to do with the dietary laws in this context, it has to do with texture.
The Kosher Salt they’re referring isn’t a dense, square crystal, it’s got a light, flaky texture. And yes, because of surface area ratios and such, this *does* make a difference.

23 David April 13, 2013 at 8:18 am

I just don’t know why they didn’t introduce chopping some leafy Cilantro as the herb.
Combined, the tomato, onion, pepper (Jalepeno) and Cilantro–plus a little salt–makes a great homemade fresh salsa. So easy and delicious!

24 Frank November 25, 2013 at 6:33 pm

Knife cuts aren’t negotiable. There are specific guidelines that dictate the size of each cut as defined by classical French cuisine. This is why home cooks shouldn’t publish instructions. Your misinformation is extremely bothersome and brings great discredit to the Culinary Craft.

25 Mike December 22, 2013 at 6:15 am

Your illustrative photograph of the pepper cuts is perfect. That is exactly what the various cuts should look like. Good article.

26 J Petzke February 21, 2014 at 7:01 pm

Knife skills are hard to learn, I’m still refining mine after years of practice. Thanks for sharing this.

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