Cooking from scratch can seem intimidating, but you don’t need to be a master chef to prepare a delicious meal. When you cook at home, especially when you eat a plant-rich diet, a lot of the work involves prepping and chopping your ingredients. Once you learn basic knife skills, your favourite meals become much easier to get onto the table. That’s why knife skills are one of the first things we teach in the Culinary Nutrition Expert Program.
We like to keep it simple here in the Culinary Nutrition Expert Program – and that’s why we’re sharing some of our basic knife skills and tips so you can boost your kitchen confidence and start practicing!
Basic Knife Skills: Choosing a Knife
Choosing the optimal knife to use in your kitchen is very personal. If possible, we recommend going to test out a few knives – hold them in your hand, try a chopping motion on a cutting board, and generally see how the knife feels.
You don’t have to spend a boatload of money to get a decent knife – inexpensive knives are a handy and invaluable cooking tool.
Generally, we like having two primary knives in the kitchen:
A big knife
Anywhere from 6 to 12 inches, depending on your comfort level with using larger knives. A big knife is a great all-purpose tool for dicing and chopping all kinds of ingredients, particularly those larger fruits and veggies like winter squash, big root veggies or watermelon.
A small knife
A small paring knife can be helpful when slicing small fruits and veggies, such as hulling berries, de-coring apples, or slicing up some cucumber to pair with dip for a snack. They’re also useful for peeling larger veggies after roasting (such as beets or sweet potatoes), and can even be used for scoring crackers or meat.
More Tools to Aid Your Knife Skills
Of course, when using your knife skills you also need something to cut on. We prefer using bamboo cutting boards, which are:
- naturally antimicrobial
- environmentally friendly
- easy to clean and maintain
- attractive (you can even use them as a platter for healthy charcuterie boards)
Another helpful tool to have on hand when practicing basic knife skills is a bench scraper, which is also called a bench knife. This flat tool helps you scoop veggies off the cutting board into a bowl, container or pot (don’t use your knife to do this, as tempting as it may be – you’ll dull your knife and make a howling racket akin to fingernails on a chalkboard).
You can also use a bench scraper to cut and portion dough in gluten-free baking.
Basic Knife Skills: Types of Knife Cuts
There are plenty of fancy words for types of knife cuts, but that’s not really how we roll (or should we say chop?). When you strip the terminology away, knife cuts are really about taking ingredients and cutting them into different sizes.
You definitely don’t need to get your ruler out for these cuts; we’ve provided measurements so you can get a sense of the scale.
Also called mincing, a tiny dice cut is typically very small, 1/8 of an inch or less. Garlic, onions and garnishes are frequently minced for recipes.
A small dice is chopping fruits or vegetables into pieces that are about 1/4 inch.
A medium dice is chopping fruits and vegetables into pieces that are about 1/2 inch. We often refer to a medium dice as ‘bite-sized’.
A large dice is chopping fruits and vegetable into pieces that are about 3/4 inch to an inch.
Let’s Make One Fancy Knife Cut: Julienne
The julienne cut, also called matchstick, is slicing vegetables or fruits into long, thin strips. They’re usually about 3 inches long and 1/8 inch wide. The julienne style is great for garnishes and to add texture to salads.
Want to take your cooking skills to the next level? The Culinary Nutrition Expert Program can help you build your kitchen confidence and learn to make recipes that support your health, your family’s health or the health of your clients.
Cutting Herbs and Dark Leafy Greens
Due to their structure, cutting herbs and dark leafy greens is a little different – it’s tough to ‘dice’ them into chunks. There are a couple of easy ways to cut your fresh herbs and dark leafy greens.
Stack Them Up
Stack your herbs or dark leafy greens, then roll them up tightly. From there, it’s easy to cut them into thick or thin slices.
Pile up your herbs or greens into a bunch and slice them roughly into thick or thin pieces. This is a more rustic way to chop, but it’s easy and fast.
Pluck or Tear
You don’t always need to chop your herbs! Using whole sprigs can be easy, particularly if you’re making a one-pot meal or a broth/stock.
Stem or No Stem?
It depends on the herb. Some, such as thyme or rosemary, have woody stems you won’t want to use. Herbs with soft stems, including parsley and cilantro, are easily eaten, delicious and packed with nutrients.
You can chop the stems of dark leafy greens like kale or Swiss chard and add them to soups or stir-fries; but if you don’t want to cook with them – juice them.
* Low Waste Tip: Save your veggie trimmings for broth!
Optimal Knife Cutting Style: The Back and Forth
At home, there’s no need for loud, lavish knife chopping – the kind you see on television cooking shows where chefs guillotine their produce at a dizzying speed.
Instead, practice a smooth and gentle back and forth motion, where the tip of the knife stays in contact with your cutting board.
You don’t need to be lightening fast, but if you want to cook regularly we recommend increasing your comfort level with using a knife. Take your time practicing tiny, small, medium-sized and large cuts, which don’t need to be perfect. The more you practice, the easier it will be. (You’ll get plenty of practice in the Culinary Nutrition Expert Program, which has weekly recipe assignments. It’s the most delicious homework!)
When Should I Use Each Type of Knife Cut?
The knife cut you choose depends on a several factors.
The Recipe Instructions
If you’re following a recipe, aim to adhere to the recipe instructions for how to prep ingredients. There is typically a reason a recipe developer chooses each cut!
Whether you’re following or developing a recipe, sometimes you’ve just got to do what you know you love. If a recipe calls for minced garlic and you really enjoy large chunks, adapt the knife cuts as needed.
Small cuts will cook quicker than larger cuts. If you’re looking to cook something quickly, a tiny or small cut is your best bet. Whether you choose a large or small cut, ensure you cut everything to roughly the same size so it all cooks evenly – you don’t want some ingredients in your dish crunchy while others are overcooked and mushy.
If you’re changing the cut of a recipe ingredient, be sure to also adjust the cooking time – a longer time for large cuts and a shorter time for small cuts.
Consider the varying textures you’d like your final dish to have, and how that contributes to its flavour and overall experience for the person eating it. For example, most of us probably don’t want to bite into a huge chunk of raw onion in a salad, but a finely minced onion would be delicious – especially when whisked into a homemade salad dressing.
basic knife skills: Knife Safety
With knives, equipment and hot stoves, injuries can occasionally happen in the kitchen. Practice knife safety every time you’re cutting!
- Place a damp cloth under your cutting board so it remains a stable surface for chopping.
- Keep your knives sharp, because dull knives can lead to injuries if you’re trying to saw through a fruit or vegetable. It’s very easy for a knife to slip and cut you if it’s not sharp.
- Have a first aid kit in the kitchen. Honey has natural antimicrobial and soothing properties, while cayenne pepper can aid with blood clotting (don’t worry it doesn’t actually sting!). And bandages are handy to have around. Learn more about creating a natural first aid kit here.
- Create a flat edge on fruits and veggies so they don’t roll around. For example, trim a slice at the bottom of round vegetables like beets, carrots, sweet potatoes and squashes to make them more stable.
If you’re interested in learning more about practical cooking skills as well as a deeper exploration into the therapeutic properties of the foods you eat and how to prepare them, consider joining us in September for the Culinary Nutrition Expert Program. Registration opens on Tuesday, April 5th.