If you’re going to spend any time in the kitchen, you’re going to have to learn how to chop vegetables. Proper chopping, slicing, and dicing techniques help us reduce waste, stay safe, and improve the taste and texture of our dishes.
Those of us who grew up under tyrannical chef-fathers, toiling away in the Dickens-esque sweat-shops of their prep kitchens (sorry Dad, just trying to make a point…), may have spent months or years doing little else than chopping veggies, and take the techniques required in stride. For those who grew up playing outdoors, with other children, in the sunlight…the following steps will walk you through how to prepare almost any fresh vegetable for cooking, in your own kitchen.
First, we need to prepare our veggies for chopping, as necessary, by rinsing, peeling, trimming, discarding roots etc.
It doesn’t matter how pretty, clean, or pristine they looked at the grocery store, there’s always the chance of residual contaminates from chemicals, pesticides, “color enhancers”, and, of course, that teenage stock-boy’s hands.
Rinse your veggies.
A paring knife has a 3-4″ long blade and is used for peeling and paring fruit and vegetables, and for trimming where a larger chef’s knife would be unwieldy.
A good chef’s knife will typically have a blade 8″ – 12″ long. This is the one you’ll use for slicing, dicing, chopping, mincing, and keeping nosy in-laws out of your kitchen. The side of the blade is great for crushing garlic, as well.
Now, before we start whacking away at our veggies, how do we want the final result to look?
Are we going for cubes, sticks, or julienne (for solid veggies) or coarse or finely chopped, for leafy ones? Feel free to vary the size of your cuts each time you make the dish (but keep them consistent for each experiment). You may find that you enjoy the texture and flavor of one cut size, more than another.
A good example is coleslaw. Some folks like a super-fine dice on their slaw, but I prefer a rough chop, so I really get the taste and feel of the cabbage…it’s all about personal taste.
Put your veggies on a dry, clean cutting board. (I suggest have multiple boards that are dedicated to either meat or veggies, to avoid cross-contamination between the two).
Kitchen Tip: there are heaps of cutting board options to choose from – wood, glass, marble, plastic…it can be a confusing choice. Let’s get two out of the game right away…glass and marble style cutting boards may be pretty, but they play havoc on your knives. These too-hard surfaces will quickly blunt your knife and damage it’s edge.
Keep your glass and marble boards for serving food only. When it comes to wooden and plastic boards, even the experts are divided as to which is best. It comes down to personal preference. I like wood.
Okay, back to chopping. With your non-dominant hand, hold the vegetable firmly in place. Firmly grasp your chef’s knife at the handle, keeping your index finger and thumb at either side of the upper part of the blade to ensure stability.
You want most of the pressure on the knife to be between your thumb and index finger, while the handle simply rests in your palm.
Move the knife to the right side of the vegetable (assuming you’re right-handed), cutting from the “point” to the “root”, and keeping the blade parallel to the knuckles of your free hand, with your fingertips slightly tucked under. Cut straight down (we’ll save those fancy bias cuts for later), and try to be consistent when in the size of your cuts.
A good sharp knife will do most of the work. Here’s another cooking tip: if you’re having to exert what seems like a lot of force to cut a carrot, celery, or tomato (jicama and turnips are another matter)…it’s time to have your knives professionally sharpened.
For smaller diameter veggies, like carrots, celery, etc…practice cutting with a rocking motion (you’ve seen to TV folks do it) where you keep the point of your knife touching the cutting board at all time, while you raise and lower the back end, feeding the veggies through like a chop-saw.
This technique is fun, fast, and impresses the heck out of your guests, but BE CAREFUL…it’s easy to get enamored with the rhythm of your own cutting and end up with one less nail to paint!
For a fresh, simple, and delicious dish you can use to practice your veggies cutting skills, check out our Thai Shimp Boat recipe (pictured above). It’s one of my favorites, and makes a great healthy appetizer, salad, or entree!
So, there you have it, these basics of how to prepare vegetables will get you though almost any recipe you’ll find.