There’s nothing like a chunk of raw onion in an otherwise nicely cooked dish to make it memorable. Or overcooked bits of vegetable – any vegetable – mixed in with other well-cooked ingredients to really demonstrate that you weren’t paying attention while you were preparing the meal. Good knife technique is about more than making your food look nice; good knife technique ensures your ingredients cook evenly and in an appropriate period of time. And, yes, that they look good, too.
Let’s start with that most basic ingredient, the onion. If you’re a fan of food television, you’ve no doubt watched celebrity cooks – calling the majority of them chefs seems unrealistic – whip through an onion with an impressive rat-a-tat-tat of their knife, producing hundreds of uniform, tiny squares of onions in mere moments. With practice, it’s an easy feat and one that will serve you well.
In this case, I’m simply going to defer to Craig Claiborne.
Place the onion on a chopping board and slice it in half length-wise with a stainless-steel kitchen knife. Place half the onion cut-side down and slice from right to left at intervals from 1/8 inch to ½ inch or more depending on whether you want the onion finely or coarsely chopped. Slice almost but not quite to the root end. Give the onion half a quarter turn. Hold the knife horizontal to the board and slice once more at intervals from 1/8 inch to ½ inch or more, slicing from bottom to top. Now, slice downward with the knife at desired intervals…
You should end up with a nice pile of neat, consistently cut onions that will cook evenly and look good in whatever you’re preparing. The same technique, more or less, can be applied to other vegetables, as well, such as celery.
Pull off as many ribs of celery as you need from the stalk and then trim off the white root end and the leafy top portion. (You can discard the root end but the leafy end opens up some interesting possibilities. While you can just toss them into your compost bin, celery leaves are strongly flavored – too strong for some dishes – but they can be added to stocks and used as a flavoring themselves whenever you think that strong celery flavor has a place in whatever you’re cooking.) Now, cut the trimmed ribs in half across the rib and then slice them again at ¼ inch or smaller intervals, length-wise, from top to bottom. Bring the celery sticks neatly together, and then cut across them again, producing a fine pile of diced celery.
Carrots are another vegetable you’ll find yourself needing to dice. While, like celery, they’re fine in a rough cut for chunky stews, they’re fibrous enough that you’ll want to dice them so they cook evenly with other ingredients in most other dishes. There are two ways to do this.
The first way is very easy, uses nearly all the carrot, but produces less consistent cuts. After you’ve peeled it – assuming you’re peeling it – slice across the root on a sharp diagonal in thicknesses anywhere from 1/8 inch to ¼ inch wide. You’ll end up with several elongated slices. Now, cut those slices length-wise the same width you’ve been using. You should end up with a nice little pile of orange matchsticks all, more or less, about the same width. Finally, slice across the matchsticks and, there, you have a pile of finely diced – albeit not overly consistent – cubes of carrot.
The second way makes use of far less of the carrot, but produces very consistent results. Place the carrot on a flat surface, trim off both ends, and then cut a very thin slice from one side. Turn the carrot so that the newly sliced, flat edge is face down on the cutting board and cut another thin slice. Continue doing this until you have four, squared off sides. Now, cut the block length-wise into four slices and then cut those slices, length-wise again, into matchsticks. Slice across the matchsticks and, voila!, you have a pile of neatly cut diced carrot. Of course, you also end up with a fair amount of unused carrot but that can be saved for use in stock.