While modern times (a.k.a. Google) have made it easier to know a thing or two about cooking (*types ‘how do I boil water’ into the search engine*), the convenience of pre-chopped produce, precooked meats, and a dozen different meal delivery services aren’t doing us any favors when it comes to learning basic techniques. Let’s face it: No amount of portioned-out garlic is going to teach us how to mince the little cloves.
If you’re wondering how to dice, mince, chop, and slice, these cooking tips from top chefs (and personal live-and-learn lessons) bring you all of the essential knife skills you need to learn by the time you turn 30 (or 20 or 40) to feel confident while cooking.
Before You Start
The Blue Jean Chef, Meredith Laurence, is a firm believer that your kitchen knives are the most important tools in your kitchen, so we asked her for tips to get us started.
Have the right knives.
“It’s important to have different knives for different jobs. A good knife-starter set should include an 8-inch chef’s knife, a 4-inch paring knife, and an 8-inch serrated bread knife (also called a tomato knife). You can do most jobs with those three knives in your arsenal,” Laurence says.
Keep your knives sharp.
“A sharp knife is safer than a dull knife. You’ll be able to keep your knife sharp by honing it with a kitchen steel or a countertop knife honing tool,” Laurence says. But they should also be sharpened by a professional knife sharpener once a year. And wash your knives by hand! While stainless steel is usually dishwasher safe, dishwashing detergents are tough on knives, and they can get a knocked around in the dishwasher.
The Basic Techniques
“Choke up” for more control.
Don’t worry, this is just a chef’s term for keeping your thumb and your index finger on the handle of the knife, closer to the actual blade. “Your thumb and knuckle of your forefinger should grip the blade of the knife, while the rest of your fingers wrap around the handle. This will give you better control and make it easier to use,” Laurence says. But don’t hold it in a death grip—you want control, but you don’t want to strangle the knife. “Choke up” is an expression, people!
Cut your round produce in half first to create a flat surface.
This makes it easier to chop, mince, slice, etc. without the fruits and veggies rolling around. Quick physics lesson: Keep the knife at about the height of your elbow to put more control and pressure into the cut because you’re using gravity and muscle weight to your advantage.
Always grasp the item you’re cutting with your fingers curled like a claw.
Your fingertips should be pointing down toward the cutting board. That way, you won’t expose your fingertips in the event of a mishap—this one takes practice and patience so it can take longer to get it right. This means that with the hand holding an onion, your knuckles, not your fingertips, are facing the blade doing the chopping as you move along. (Moment of truth: We still don’t do it. But you probably should.)
Use a sawing motion when you slice through foods; don’t push up and down.
“Keep the tip of the knife on the surface of the cutting board and lift the handle up and down with a repetitive front-to-back sawing motion. With time you’ll be able to do this quickly and efficiently, and keeping the point of your knife on the cutting board allows you to instinctively know where your knife is at all times,” Laurence says. Safety first.
The Best Tips for Tricky Produce
Dicing an Onion
Start by slicing off the smallest possible amount from the stem of the onion to create a flat surface, but keep the root intact. Then, with the stem end on the counter, cut the onion in half.
Place the flat cut side of the onion down on the counter with the root end away from your knife. Slice into the onion from stem end toward the root, but don’t cut all the way through the onion. Stop before you get to the root, which will hold the onion together while you dice it.
Next, make more slices down the onion from root to stem, but again, don’t slice all the way through the stem and leave the root intact. Finally, make a third set of slices across the onion, and the onion will fall into perfect dice (we say “perfect” lightly).
According to Chef Daniel Holzman, co-founder of The Meatball Shop and founder of Project Foodie, chopping herbs tends to crush them, releasing all of their subtle flavors before they get to your dish. To keep this from happening, he says it’s important to use a very sharp knife and always slice rather than rough-chop the herbs.
“I start by chiffonading them, which is a fancy French word for cutting them into thin strips. Start by bunching, stacking, or rolling a small pile of leaves, then slice them thinly in one direction. After that, rotate the stack 90 degrees and slice the strips into tiny squares. This gives you an even chop at whatever size you’d like with a minimal number of cuts. It saves time and keeps your herbs fresh and flavorful.”
First of all, peel the garlic. Perfect. You’re crushing it. Now, you may want to actually crush it instead of mince it by pressing down with all your weight on the side of the knife, laying flat like a (terrifying) blanket over the garlic itself. Alternatively, you could also slice it, then just keep roughly chopping, collecting it into a pile, then chopping some more until you’ve gotten them into pieces small enough so that your dinner guests won’t be pulling them out of their mouths in confusion and disdain.
In general, you really want to avoid serrated knives for small dices, opting for a smooth, thin blade and a knife that is strong enough to cut through some tougher veggies, but not so large that you can’t get what you need into tiny 1/8-inch cubes.
Small Dice (Fancy name: Macedoine)
“I find that a small dice, roughly 1/4-inch cubes, are one of those knife cuts we use for many things. The size of it fits well on a spoon, and lets you get multiple things into one bite. It works for soups, salads, and raw dishes,” says Ted Hopson, head chef of L.A.’s The Bellwether. For this, you start off by cutting 1/4-inch planks, then turn those on their side, and cut them into 1/4-inch strips. Gather those strips up, turn them again, and cut them into a small dice.
Super-Small Dice (Fancy name: Brunoise)
This cut will allow you to cut things into 1/8-inch cubes. To do this, use the exact same method mentioned previously, just make it smaller. “I usually use this when working with strong-flavored items, like onions. People don’t love huge bites of onions—so we cut them smaller, then you get the flavor but it blends nicer into whatever you’re cooking,” Hopson says. “When working with raw dishes, like tartare and crudo, this works great to add lots of flavors in small bites. This knife cut is probably too small for hearty vegetables, like celery root, but perfect for shallots.”
Now go dominate your prep-work like the master chef you are (just please, don’t cut yourself!).