Thursday, June 24, 2010


Anyone can learn to chop, dice and mince.  All you need is a good knife and a cutting board and practice.

It is true that there are cooks and chefs out there who have spent decades perfecting their knife skills.  (Otherwise known as their chopping chops.)  Or who have spent many hundreds or even thousands of dollars on special knives.  (Serious chefs take care of their personal knives the way the late Yehudi Menuhin took care of his Guarneri or Stradivarius.)

But we are not going to let this intimidate us.  We are going to take a simple and common sense approach to a basic daily task -- cutting up fresh food so we can cook and eat it.  Chopping food is the gateway to increasing your culinary independence.  That means you can cook more cool stuff for yourself and your family so you don't have to pay someone else to do it for you. 

Choosing a knife - or even a cleaver
Cutting up food is easy if you have a good sharp knife.  If you do not have a knife that you like to use, please get one.  This is important.  And it is personal.  A knife that feels wonderful in my hand might be totally unsuitable for you.  An 8 inch blade is what most home cooks like - that is the kind I have.  Your knife should be comfortable to hold, well balanced and should fit your hand.  There are many good brands out there. Go to a reputable store and ask questions.  Maybe try some friends' knives.  If you don't want to spend a lot, check out the restaurant supply stores and ask to see an affordable chef's knife.

Some people like to use Chinese cleavers for everyday use.  Once you get good at it, this can be a more efficient tool than a chef's knife.  I have not graduated to the Chinese cleaver yet but I aspire to it.

Here is the chef's knife I use and the cleaver I aspire to.  My husband purchased the cleaver in a tiny kitchen supply shop in an alley in Beijing in 1988.  He had to walk past cobblers sitting on stumps and mending shoes to get to the door.  But that is another story.

Keep your knives sharp
Many people use a sharpening steel - every few days for a knife in frequent use.   This is another skill I have not yet learned.  Some day soon my husband and I will make a sharpening steel video for you and we can all work on this together.  He is really good at this. Once we all get good at using a sharpening steel, then we can graduate to using a whetstone!  Now that will impress your friends.
In the picture above you can see the sharpening for dummies tool that I use.  It is better than nothing.
The important thing to remember is that knives need to be sharp.  Then they are a pleasure to use.
 Safer too.  The sharper the knife, the less likely it is to slip and cut you. You also need less muscle power with a sharp knife.  

The cutting board
I prefer wood.  Wood is beautiful and easier on knives.   I have boards in several sizes - make sure your cutting surface is big enough.  It is so annoying when food keeps falling off the board when you are trying to work.   I keep my boards in a convenient location.  If you have to go digging in a back cupboard every time you want to chop you are making things too hard for yourself.   No matter what kind of board you use, you of course need to keep it clean.  Scrub especially after using for any type of meat or fish product.

Here is a great fact sheet from the USDA about cutting board safety and choices.  We pay for them to write all this stuff - so I say let's read it.

Chopping is nothing more than cutting food into pieces with a knife or other cutting tool.  Use common sense to decide how important it is for the pieces to be either uniform or of a certain size.  Some recipes will suggest an ideal size.  If you are making a stew, for example, you might want all the vegetables about the same size.  If you like the pieces big, make them big.  It just means they take a bit longer to cook.

Here are pictures of the chickpea potato spinach curry I made yesterday.  I decided to cut the potatoes into pretty big chunks.  But I could have cut smaller pieces and that would have been fine too.  Same thing with the spinach - I was in a hurry so I piled it up and cut big fat slices. 

Here is a short video about chopping

Tip - if you are working with something round, cut one side off or cut it in half so it has a flat surface and is less apt to roll or slip.   Much safer. 

Dicing is just chopping food into fairly uniform small pieces.  Dicing carrots, potatoes or celery is faster if you first cut them into long strips and then cut the aligned strips into pieces crosswise.  Again, with common sense and experience you will develop your own ways to dice or chop efficiently.

Mincing is chopping something very finely.  Start by chopping roughly.  Then rock the knife blade back and forth - repeating in different directions - until you reach the desired fineness.

Tomorrow:  Focus on Parsley

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