From trimming and peeling to slicing and dicing, many vegetables and herbs need advance preparation before they are ready to serve or to use as an ingredient in a recipe. Presenting perfectly cooked, aesthetically beautiful dishes begins with the mastery of these fabrication techniques.
The best dishes begin with the best-quality produce. Handle fresh produce carefully to maintain its flavor, color, and nutritional value. One key to preserving quality in produce is to perform all cutting tasks as close as possible to cooking time. Another important factor is the ability to select the right tool for the job and keep it in proper working condition. A steel should be on hand whenever you are cutting any food to periodically hone your knife blade as you work. Regardless of the vegetables being prepared, always try to make the cuts a uniform size to ensure even doneness in cooking.
All fresh produce, even if it will be peeled before cutting, should be washed well. Washing removes surface dirt and other contaminants that might otherwise come in contact with cut surfaces by way of the knife or peeler. For the best shelf life, wash vegetables as close to preparation time as possible.
Not all vegetables require peeling before cooking, but when it is necessary, use a tool that will remove the skin evenly and neatly without taking off too much of the edible flesh. Chef’s knives are better for larger vegetables or those with very tough rinds, such as celeriac or winter squash. Remove fibrous or tough skins from broccoli and similar vegetables by using a paring knife or swivel-bladed peeler to trim away the skin.
Some vegetables and fruits have relatively thin skins or peels. Examples include carrots, parsnips, asparagus, apples, pears, and potatoes. Peel these with a swivel-bladed peeler. These peelers can be used in both directions, so that the skin or peel is removed on both the downward and upward strokes. A paring knife can be used in place of a peeler in some instances. Hold the blade’s edge at a 20-degree angle to the vegetable’s surface, and shave the blade just under the surface to remove a thin layer.
When cutting vegetables into precise cuts, such as a dice and julienne, it is important to use the “slice” technique. To do this, the knife should be held firmly with a balanced grip and the wrist should be stable. Do not press the knife straight down or grip the knife with a loose wrist. The slicing motion should move either forward or backward and have a slight rocking motion.
Slicing. Slicing creates strips of a fruit or vegetable, like the peppers in fajitas. A recipe may call for thinly sliced, which is generally about 1/4-inch, but about 1/2- to 3/4-inch is appropriate for sliced foods. To slice foods with a core, cut off the sides, or lobes, of the fruit or vegetable, around the core. Discard the core, and then slice strips from each piece.
Chopping. Chopping is done with a straight, downward cutting motion. Trim the root and stem ends, and peel the vegetables as necessary. Slice or chop through vegetables or herbs at nearly regular intervals until the cuts are relatively uniform. This need not be a perfectly neat cut, but all the pieces should be roughly the same size.
To chop herbs, gather the herbs into a tight ball using your guiding hand to hold them in place, and slice through them to form coarse pieces. Once the herbs are coarsely chopped, use the fingertips of your guiding hand to hold the tip of the chef ’s knife in contact with the cutting board. Keeping the tip of the blade against the cutting board, lower the knife firmly and rapidly, repeatedly cutting through the herbs.
Mincing. Mincing is a very fine cut that can be used for many vegetables and herbs. Onions, garlic, and shallots are often minced. Finely mince vegetables and herbs by continuing to cut until the desired fineness is attained.
Chiffonade/Shredding. The chiffonade cut is used for leafy vegetables and herbs, and the result is a fine ribbon, often used as a garnish. For vegetables like radicchio, remove the leaves from the core and stack them. Make parallel lengthwise cuts to produce a shred. For greens with large leaves, such as romaine, roll individual leaves into cylinders before cutting them crosswise. Stack smaller leaves, such as basil, one on top of the other, then roll them into cylinders and cut. Use a chef ’s knife to make very fine, parallel cuts to produce shreds, or ribbons.
Julienne. Juliennes are long, rectangular cuts, like matchsticks. Trim and square off the vegetable by cutting a slice to make four straight sides. Cut both ends to even off the block. These initial slices make it easier to produce even cuts. The trimmings can be used for stocks, soups, purées, or other preparations where the shape is not important.
After squaring off the vegetable, slice the vegetable lengthwise, making parallel cuts of even thickness (about 1/8-inch). Stack the cut slices, aligning the edges, and make thin, even parallel cuts of the same thickness.
Julienne shredders will work great on soft vegetables like zucchini, to save some time.
Dicing. Dicing produces cube shapes. Different preparations require different sizes of dice. From smallest to largest, the names given to the dices are small (1/4-inch square), medium (1/2-inch square), and large dice (3/4-inch square). To begin, trim and square the vegetable as for julienne, in whatever thickness corresponds to the size of your dice. Gather the pieces and cut through them crosswise at evenly spaced intervals to make squares.
Onions are diced and minced using a different method. Peel the onion, taking off as few layers as possible: Use a paring knife to cut thin slices away from the stem and root ends of the bulb. Catch the peel between the pad of your thumb and the flat side of your knife blade and pull away the peel. Trim away any brown spots if necessary. Cut the onion in half through the root and stem ends. To dice or mince an onion half, lay it cut side down on a cutting board. Use a chef ’s knife to make a series of evenly spaced, parallel lengthwise cuts with the tip of the knife, leaving the root end intact. Cuts spaced ¼ inch apart will make small dice; cuts spaced ½ inch or ¾ inch apart will produce medium or large dice.
To mince the onion, space the cuts ⅛ inch apart. While gently holding the vertical cuts together, make two or three horizontal cuts parallel to the work surface from the stem end toward the root end, but do not cut all the way through. To complete the dice, make even, crosswise cuts working from the stem end up to the root end, cutting through all layers of the onion.