Week Two: Cutting vegetables and fruits

Types of Cuts

Let the challenge this week be to practice knife skills and get ready to put prepared vegetables in the freezer. Even if it’s something like dicing a few onions for future meals, or cutting up some carrots for carrot stick snacks through the week. Both will last fine in the fridge for a few days.

Most fancy names for cutting are simply variations of slicing.

Slicing and dicing

Slicing is simply the action of separating food into sections. Dicing is slicing an ingredient 2-3 times in different directions to form dice or uniform cubes.

French chefs came up with terms to name different cuts. Instead of saying cut carrots into 1/8×1/8in cubes, they would just say brunoise. For slicing they would use names like batonnete, julienne and chiffonade. Just fancy names for one basic cutting process: slicing. By adjusting the width of your slices you can obtain any kind of cut.

**If you visit this link http://chasingdelicious.com/kitchen-101-knives-basic-cuts/ you will find a TON of information, diagrams, charts on knives and how to use them.  You may wish to bookmark this or print the information out for your kitchen binder – fantastic info there.  There is also a chart on common cuts and measurements if you scroll down.  You may wish to laminate that and compare your cuts to the chart to see if you can routinely match your cuts to the template. **

To be completely honest, I don’t use many recipes that use the traditional French names. They simply say minced, sliced, diced, and sometimes give measurements. But now you can know what the names mean should you encounter them in your cooking.

Cutting starts with safety. Always keep your fingers above the blade.

Cutting Strategies for Different Types of Foods

Focus on 3 things –

  1. Stabilize the food you are cutting so it doesn’t move. This may mean cutting round objects in half or cutting a small portion off to create a flat surface.
  2. Anchor the knife, either in constant contact with your middle lower knuckle or the cutting board.
  3. Keep your fingers safe – ask yourself as you are cutting, “if the knife slipped right now, would my fingers be safe?”

Ingredients come in many shapes and sizes, requiring different approaches to cut and slice. I will try to come up with examples of how to break certain vegetables down so you can either slice or dice them. When you read instructions for cutting vegetables into strips, keep in mind those can be your julienne depending on thickness and length. You may need to cut them into strips the first time which may be wide, then stack and cut into strips again. When you re-stack the strips to cut into cubes, those become your dice.

Ultimately, we are essentially using slicing to cut the vegetable into something small enough to finalize with the rolling technique.

Long, flat ingredients, such as celery:

Celery should be turned over so the flat edges come in contact with the cutting board. Otherwise, the round edge may roll as you try to cut it. Cut off the ends and discard (save for stock if you wish), then slice to your desired thickness. In order to dice, it will first need to be sliced into even strips. Insert the tip of the knife in the middle of the celery and drag it down the length to cut the celery in half. If you want a thinner dice, you may wish to separate each half in half again. Bunch the celery strips together, and using the rolling technique slice the strips to your desired thickness. They will fall on the cutting board as a dice.

Long round shapes, such as a cucumber:

Peel first if you wish.

If you want nice, round slices, you may slice your cucumber while it is still intact. It will be less safe, however, because the cucumber may roll around. Anchor firmly and be aware at all times as you slice. If you don’t mind a slight flat edge, you will be safer to remove a portion off the side to give the cucumber a flat surface to rest on as you cut..

If you do not want seeds in your dish, cut the cucumber in half lengthwise and scoop out the seeds using a spoon. From this point you may slice or dice your cucumbers.

To Slice:

Place the cucumber cut side down and, using your middle lower knuckle as a guide, slice the cucumber into your desired thickness.

To Dice:

Cut the cucumber into strips, lengthwise, thickness depending on your preferences.

Stack the slices up in a small mound and cut across these strips to form a dice.

To work with smaller segments and dice in an alternative manner:

Cut a cucumber into 4 segments. Then, cut a small bit off the side to create a flat side. Now that it won’t roll, you can cut it into slices. It’s too tall to use the rolling technique, so use the up-down technique keeping the point of the knife in contact with the cutting board and the knife blade continually being placed against the guide knuckle before each cut. At the end when you run out of room to move your guide hand back but still need to make a final slice, pinch the end and cut in between your thumb and forefinger. To dice, stack the slices and cut them into strips. Finally, re-stack the strips, pinch them together, and use the rolling technique to complete the dice.

For vegetables like carrots, you may want to keep the round shape and not level off the base. In this case, pinch it and apply downward pressure on the carrot to stabilize it. Cut your slices for nice rounds. To cut into strips, insert the knife and slice the carrot in half. From here, you can cut the halves into thin strips, re-stack and slice again into long, thin strips. Or, re-stack and cut into dice.

For soft, round ingredients: slight downward pressure from your guide hand is usually enough to keep it stabilized. Use the up-down motion, anchoring the knife to your guide knuckle with each slice. When cutting soft, round items (like tomatoes) you may need to use a bit of sawing motion to help the blade slice through. To slice, stack slices (not too high or they will slide around). Stabilize slices with pressure and cut into strips. Then, pinch strips together and dice. This is where a serrated knife would also do very well.

To cut into wedges, you can cut the tomato in half, place cut side down, then cut wedges on an angle from each half.

Another option for tomatoes is to core them. Cut each end off, then slice off the sides. Or, remove both ends, then insert your chef knife along one side like you are going to cut down, but only cut through on a downward angle until you have cut into the part of the tomato that is near the core, that holds the seeds. Slice down, but as you cut, also cut on an angle, turning the tomato as you go. The idea here is to cut the tomato and main meat off the core into a straight strip. As you near the end, to avoid cutting your guide fingers that are holding the core, reposition your hands so you guide hand is no longer in front of the blade but behind, and cut the core right off. Use your fingers to remove the seeds that cling to the meat of the tomato, then go ahead and finish slicing into strips or stack those strips into a bunch and make a dice.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dDt0L1-SaRg Very quick video showing how to core a tomato.

To cut cherry tomatoes and seedless grapes, gather them under a plastic lid that has a bit of a lip to keep them contained. Exert gentle pressure on the lid with one hand, and cut horizontally through the tomatoes from one side on the other. You have now cut a bunch of them in half at once instead of one by one.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DTmADlEcIQ8 Quick tutorial showing this method

Hard, round ingredients like potatoes, create a stable base by cutting off one side. Turn the vegetable on the flat side to cut. You will need an up-down motion and saw motion. Follow same technique for vegetables like cucumber – because its larger, use the up and down technique. Anchor knife against guide knuckle between each cut. For the last cut, pinch the last piece to stabilize and slice in between. To dice, stack slices, cut into strips, then pinch together and dice.

You may also choose to make round slices, where a flat edge may be undesirable. Anchor the food firmly to the cutting board and cut slowly, anchoring the knife to your middle fingers lower knuckle before each slice as a guide.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uzXh2tn99wE How to cut potatoes

Slicing large shaped ingredients: first create a stable base by slicing an edge off. For very hard items, like turnips, first safely insert the knife in the top of the vegetable, then place your hand on the top of blade to guide the blade down and cut the vegetable in half. Then turn the vegetable on its flat side, insert the knife in the middle on top again, keep one hand on the handle and one hand on top of the blade and push down again. You have created wedges that are much easier to deal with. You may also slice the top and bottom off the vegetable, then slice the vegetable into half, then slices, then take each slice and slice it into strips. You can dice it by stacking those thin strips again and cutting them into cubes.

For large but soft items, like lettuce, you can hold the top of the vegetable with your guide hand, and insert the knife between your thumb and remaining fingers to slice it in half. Then, place the lettuce on its’ cut side, extend your fingers on your guide hand a little to stabilize the large size, and begin cutting with the up-down motion, anchoring the blade to your middle lower knuckle with each slice.

Slicing Broccoli & Cauliflower-Hold the product upside down (stem up) and press to hold it down and stabilize. Cut off individual florets while rotating the head. At the end, cut off the central floret and slice any larger pieces in half. You may use the stem of broccoli with the rest of the broccoli florets.

Bell pepper – cut top and bottom off. Slice once, open it to clean out seeds. Lay it out flat and cut into strips. To dice, stack strips and slice again if a thinner strip is needed, or dice with a rolling motion. To cut wedges, lay a whole pepper on its side and cut in half lengthwise. Clean out seeds, trim out the stem end, then make large slices with an up-down motion.

Slicing bunched ingredients, like herbs. Bunch them up as much as you can. Anchor stems with guide hand keeping fingers tucked under. Using the rolling technique, chop leave off to the stem. Once leaves are roughly chopped you can use the pivot technique to finely chop them.

Jalapeno: a pairing knife is very helpful here. Cut the stem end off, then insert the tip of your pairing knife in the top and twist it around on the inside to remove the core and seeds. Spill them out. If you like heat, use the seeds. If not, discard them. You can finish this with a serrated knife if you wish, as the blade won’t slip as easy. Cut it in half with the pinch grip (thumb and forefinger on either side, inserting the blade between those fingers and slicing down). Placing the pepper cut side down, slice the pepper into thin strips for julienne, or bunch them together and begin a fine dice by slicing the julienne into much smaller pieces. Wear gloves if you wish and avoid any contact between your hand and eye!

Citrus: They have two elements – not only the juice (or “meat”) but the skin, too! For the sake of example, I’ll explain an onion – however most (if not all?) citrus works the same way.

To peel: Cut the ends off the orange (or lemon, lime, whatever you are working with). This provides a flat place to set the orange so you can cut it. Using a pairing knife, begin cutting strips off the orange starting from the top and going straight down, removing the white part and exposing the orange flesh below. Do this all the way around the orange. This prevents the orange from being torn as you try to remove the peel with your hands. It also prevents the skin from being stuck under your fingernails and a juicy mess left behind.

To slice, you can see, once the orange is exposed, white membranes that naturally divide the orange into sections. Using a pairing knife, use these as your guide and cut, following the same angle, to cut the oranges out. You may wish to leave a small amount of flesh on the membranes and cut the slices just to the side of the membranes, to remove wedges without a bit of white on them. You can then throw that bit into the juicer, or even snack on it as it still tastes like an orange.

To zest: using a pairing knife, carefully remove the skin in strips starting from the top and going to the bottom. Avoid the white part for zesting (you can go back and cut the white part off the orange as explained above once you have removed the outer, orange peel), but if you do take the white part off too, lay the peel out flat once you have cut it out and carefully run your knife horizontally across the peel to remove the white part. That white layer is bitter – you don’t want that in your meal. Once you have removed the colored part of the skin from the orange, lay the strips out and very finely julienne them – then bunch them to together and make a very fine brunoise. You will make teeny tiny bits that will be perfect for adding delicate citrus notes to your dishes.

You can then finish peeling, by again using a pairing knife and slicing the white bitter part off from top to bottom all the way around the orange.

Instead of peeling the orange layer off the orange, you can instead use a zester and run it along the skin, removing the colored part of the skin. The zester will naturally leave the white, bitter skin behind. This does tend to rip the zest, removing a lot of flavor properties and making things sticky though.

This zest can be dehydrated, refrigerated, candied, or any other variety of things.

Cutting Onions

Onions are quite possibly one of the most dreaded vegetables in the kitchen, because of the dreaded crying and pain that they can cause. But they add so much flavor to meals that it’s worth taking the time to learn “safe onion handling” so you don’t cry yourself out of the kitchen.

There seem to be a million and one ways to keep the onions from making your eyes burn and tear up (such as refrigerating the onion and cutting the onion under water), but perhaps the most surefire way is to wear swim goggles. Why? Because it’s the onion spray/vaper that causes all the eyes issues (well, it’s a chemical reaction that occurs when the onion is cut and the enzymes are released, this then reacts with stuff outside the onion and finally wafts up to our eyes).

There are ways to reduce how much onions affect us though – if we cut with spray in mind and reduce how much we expose the onion and in what way, we can make crying over onions a less common occurrence. Hopefully, anyway. The more we damage the cells of an onion, the more we are going to feel it and smell it. Cutting with the grain of an onion is helpful in reducing spray. Dicing and grating are the worst – and unfortunately it is one of the most common ways we prepare onions.

There are a couple of ways to cut an onion. There are the whole-onion slices that we like on burgers or can turn into onion rings. Plus the slices slices so common in salads or casseroles. Then of course the ever so common dice. Your slices and dices can be super tiny to bite size. You can even grate an onion, which will disintegrate in your meal leaving only taste behind.

I should note that onion ends and skins can be used in stocks! You can throw them in a freezer safe bag and place them in the freezer for the next time you make stock. I will be going through the fine details of homemade broths and stocks in a couple of weeks, so start saving veggie scraps now!

The whole onion slice is dangerous. If you have a mandolin slicer, you can use that a little safer than trying to cut a round object on your cutting board. But they don’t often fit our burgers that great, anyway (right?).

For the rest of the cuts, start by cutting the onion in half. Remove the stem end, then slice the onion in half from end to end. Remove the papery skin and then the first layer of slick skin below it. That is pretty tough and lends no benefit to your meal. Don’t fight with it. If you are preparing to dice, leave the root end for sure.

There are two ways to slice onions, and which way you choose actually matters when it comes to reducing tears, dish presentation and – most importantly – the outcome of your dish. Depending on the size of your onion, you may use the rolling technique, keeping the blade in constant contact with the lower knuckle on the middle finger of your guide hand. Or you may use the up-down technique, anchoring the blade to your middle finger with each slice. Because of the shape of an onion, you may find yourself in the position of the knife blade being above your knuckle and your guide hand no longer being above the knife and without more room to move back– fix this by flipping the onion over and anchoring your guide hand to the higher end of the onion, and finish slicing by resuming at the lower end.

After the onion is halved (from stem to root end) and peeled, you can make half moon slices, taking the halves and slicing from the exposed stem side towards the root end, against the grain, parallel to the equator of the onion if the stem end is north and root end is set south. This method is best used for fresh applications, such as salads, sandwiches, or meals where you want a stronger onion flavor. There is more cell damage done this way and therefore more odor, but also a stringy and unevenly cooked texture to cooked meals.

To slice onions for cooking, where they can be evenly cooked, have better texture and gentle flavor, and cause less odor, slice from pole-to-pole, with the grain, perpendicular to the equator if the stem end is north and the root end is south. When sliced thin enough in this manner, onions can actually break completely down during the cooking process lending lots of flavor without interrupting the texture of your dish.

To create slices from an onion, cut the core out on an angle or use a v-cut, then slice to your desired thickness. At the end when there is no more room to move your guide hand back, lay the onion down, cut a small portion of the edge off, and continue slicing.

Here is a helpful video showing how to slice an onion. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=coxVzC4tcYw

Dicing an Onion

Make horizontal cuts at your desired thickness, holding the onion with your guide hand on top. Cut only about ¾ of the way back – you don’t want to cut through the root end or your onion will deconstruct right before your eyes. Then, make cuts from the top of the onion straight down, only about ¾ way back (line it up as deep as your horizontal cuts went). Finally, cut straight down to dice onion starting from the stem end and cutting about as far back as you made your initial horizontal cuts. Save the root end to make stock. The size of your dice is dependent on how far apart your make your horizontal and vertical cuts.

It feels awkward at first. Bring the onion down to the edge of the cutting board so that your knife can make a straight cut without the handle causing an angle in your cut. If you try to make a horizontal cut in the center of your board, your hand and the knife handle take up so much space that the bottom cut may be huge, or angled, compared to the rest. By having the onion on the edge of the board, you can then hold your knife horizontally and make any size cut without the handle getting in the way.

Keep your fingers as far away from the knife as you can. Keep your fingers grouped together on the top of the onion as it lays on its side. Don’t keep a death grip on the onion or you will cause more friction which will cause your knife to get stuck. Check with every cut, that you fingers don’t start to slip and fall below the level of the blade where they could get cut.

Make sure the knife is nice and flat and lift it off the cutting board where you want your first cut to be. If your knife is touching the cutting board, it will cut angled pieces and they will slip around causing the onion to become unstable.

Use the sweet spot on the knife, gently push forward and sink the knife in. If the knife becomes stuck, and it will happen, don’t whittle the knife to complete the cut. Remember to slice your knife. Pull back and make a second cut, without completely removing your knife. Do not cut through the root end. A very shape knife makes dicing an onion easy. Hone your knife on a steel if you haven’t yet and get the edge nice and sharp again. If your knife is truly dull, you should get it sharpened. A sharp knife makes slicing so much easier.

Remove your knife, come up to make another evenly spaced cut, and slice in horizontally again.

Do this for as many horizontal cuts as you wish to make until you reach the top.

Now you are going to use a vertical cut to make the up/down cuts. You are going to use the front half and tip of your knife to make this cut.

Keeping the heel on the cutting board, you are going to be cycling the knife backwards. Rest the middle of the knife on top of the onion where you want to make your first cut. Carefully draw it backwards and let the tip sink in. You don’t need to apply much pressure. Let the tip of the knife fall all the way down and through the onion, but not past the root end. Watch as it goes down and don’t let that tip lower to finish the cut until it is in line with the end of the horizontal cuts you first made. Make as many vertical cuts as you wish.

Now you will finish dicing with a high cut (or up and down) starting from the cut/high end and slice down. Your onion will fall apart in a dice. Keep these final slices as evenly spaced as you can for evenly diced onions.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OiZr9cPPe1Q Here is a rather enthusiastic (hehe) video explaining the process of cutting an onion so you can see it in action. It’s about 4.5 minutes.

Garlic and shallots

Garlic is aromatic. Be careful with how you prepare it, because you can loose a lot of flavor by handling it or rubbing it on the cutting board too much. If you mash it to remove skins, you loose flavor. If you commonly use the pivot technique by chopping and dragging the blade across the board, you not only loose a ton of flavor but you dull your knife blade also.

If you are peeling a lot of garlic, put the garlic you will be using in two large metal bowls of about the same size. Place one bowl on top of each other to form a sphere shape. Shake it violently (avoid doing this when the baby is sleeping…..), the skins will fall right off. Peel in advance for the next few days. Peeled garlic will keep in the fridge. Or, use a garlic peeler. It looks like an oversize noodle. If you are only peeling a couple cloves at a time, place garlic inside and roll it on a hard surface.

Now, to cut garlic or shallots, a pairing knife can be handy. Use same techniques as you would with an onion as far as hand placement. Bring the garlic to the edge of the cutting board, cut horizontally, bring to the center of the board, now use the tip for your vertical cuts. Finally, use the rolling technique and cut the garlic into a dice. There is minimal flavor loss this way and as a bonus, your knife blade stays sharp and you don’t’ small like garlic either! Most of the diced garlic will stick to your blade – empty it right into your pot instead of wiping the garlic on the cutting board, or place in whatever dish you need to have it sit in until you need it – avoid sliding it across the cutting board to bring into a group.

Preparing Vegetables Ahead of Time:

Onions, peppers and celery can be frozen without blanching. Cut into your desired slices or dices, lay on a cookie sheet in the freezer until solid and then pack into freezer bags of containers.

Blanching for other vegetables is suggested to retain color, flavor and texture. Here is a helpful chart that gives preparation tips and blanching times for vegetables: http://andreadekker.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/Vegetable-Freezing-Chart.pdf you may wish to print this for reference.

Taking the time to properly prepare vegetables for the freezer will save a lot of time over the next few weeks when it comes to meal prep – even if only for your most commonly used vegetables. For us, that is onions and garlic. Those get used usually twice per day in our household – sometimes three times per day if I use them with breakfast.

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