Monday, June 24, 2013

Knife Skills

I got an online coupon for a 5-lb bag of potatoes for only $1.17.  Great deal, but then you have five pounds of potatoes to eat before they start to sprout.

One of the things you use potatoes for in culinary school is knife skills.  What that really means is practicing all the classical vegetable cuts.  And then having hash browns or mashed potatoes for lunch, because you've just cut up pounds of potatoes.

Why bother?  Well, for everyday cooking, it isn't a big deal.  A six-year-old doesn't care if something is large-dice or julienned.  If it isn't something he likes, a fancy shape isn't going to help.  But for company or that special something you've always wanted to make, it shows you care enough to put the extra effort into it.  In some types of cooking, especially Chinese, having everything cut to a specific size really affects the cooking times and the final product.  At the very least, a perfectly diced garnish can turn an average bowl of soup into a mini-event.

Now, for the knives themselves.  The most common to use for this kind of work is the Chef's knife, which is the big one that is not serrated.  It has a solid, wide base and handle, and tapers to a point.  It is usually 7" to 9" long, whatever is most comfortable in your hand.  The other knife, for precise work, is the paring knife, which should be the smallest one in the set.  Both should be kept very sharp.  It sounds illogical, but a sharp knife is less dangerous than a dull one.  A dull knife will slip off the skin of a tomato instead of piercing it and cut your hand.

Let's start with the skill you're likely to use most...

Dicing an Onion
1.  Peel and wash onion, then cut in half crosswise, so you have a solid root or handle on each half.  Always cut an onion with clean slices, instead of pressing down and crushing the cells.  If you have time, soak in ice water for 5 minutes to reduce the amount of sulfuric acid that escapes (the reason your eyes water).

2.  Hold one half with the cut side facing your knife.  Slice in towards the base at regular intervals.  Then rotate 90º and do it again.  Hold firmly and slice down through the outer ring.  What falls off should be diced onion.

The Classical Cuts
In descending order of size...

Clearly, I failed tournée
Large Dice: 3/4" cubes.  That's pretty big, but it comes in handy for salads.
Batonnet: 1/2" by 1/2" by 2-1/2" stick.  If you were cutting something to cook with asparagus, this would be a good size.
Medium Dice: 1/2" cubes.  The most common size.  It's just a batonnet cut in 5 pieces.
Allumette: 1/4" by 1/4" by 2-1/2" stick.  Also called matchsticks.  A very useful cut for carrots and many other vegetables.
Small Dice: 1/4" cubes.  A nice garnish.  An allumette cut into cubes.  Sensing a pattern yet?
Julienne: 1/8" by 1/8" by 2-1/2" stick.  A common garnish and salad decoration.  Plus, you can say they're julienned and people will kind of know what you're talking about.
Brunoise: 1/8" cubes.  Really the smallest garnish size you're going to use.
Fine Julienne: 1/16" by 1/16" by 2-1/2" stick.  Looks feathery.  Pain in the butt, and at this point no one can tell how much effort you really put into it.
Fine Brunoise: 1/16" cubes.  Confetti.
Tournée: A very wasteful and time-consuming way of making seven-sided, football-shaped pieces of vegetable.  Only the most frou-frou of diners will even recognize what you did.  The shaved off parts are used in restaurants for purées, mash, and to flavor stocks.  This one uses the paring knife, as opposed to the Chef's knife for the rest.
Chiffonade:  Used primarily on leafy greens, it looks like long shreds.  The best way to do it is to make a stack of leaves and then roll them up, kind of like a cigar.  Then, when you slice the log, the strips just fall off.
The things I do for this blog....

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