Q. What are the proper cuts for vegetables and fruits and how do you make them?
A. There are several cuts you would be taught in culinary school if you were becoming a chef de cuisine:
1. Dice: Cutting food into uniform pieces that look like squares. It is best to first cut the vegetable into strips of the width you will want, then cut across them to form the size of small squares or cubes. From here you go to medium dice and finally the smallest, small dice. But all of these are uniform pieces.
2. Julienne: this is a long cut of about 1/16 inch or a little wider. You square your item, and then make your small cuts lengthwise. Then you turn them and cut those the same width. It is called matchstick cuts. You are looking for long, uniform strips.
3. Brunoise: This is a very small dice made by taking your thin julienne strips and cutting them into tiny squares. Really, it's a fancy name for a perfectly small dice.
4. Baton: This is the largest stick you can cut. If you were making homemade French fries, you would cut them into batons.
5. Batonnet: This is a thinner matchstick. Some people would call this cut an allumette.
6. Rough Chop: To cut food into irregular, fairly carefree pieces. This is used when uniformity is not important and the size can be big. It is used when you are going to cook something down or eventually puree it, too.
7. Chop: you cut food into irregular pieces, but smaller than a rough chop.
8. Mince: To cut food into very tiny pieces, usually to scatter over your pan. Garlic and onions are most often minced, so that their flavor can be evenly distributed throughout what you're cooking. You often use a smaller knife for small mincing jobs.
9. Chiffonade: To stack up and then roll it like a cigar, and cut into strips. This cut is used on leafy things, such as basil. Often you chiffonade herbs to use as a garnish.
Why is it important to be uniform in our cuts? This helps things to cook evenly. If some cuts are small and some are large, obviously the smaller ones will cook faster and probably burn before the larger cuts are done. Think of an onion, which most of us have hurried through because our eyes were burning in their sockets. Luckily, a slightly burned onion is caramelized to sweetness. But once it turns black, it's all over for that piece.
The downside of making your cuts uniform is that there will be waste because you will be squaring off the vegetable first and all those irregular pieces you just cut off are “throw away.” Throw those puppies right into a plastic bag or container and eat them in your salad later, or use them for stock. We Americans won't turn our nose up at a few misfits!
Q. How much should I pay for a good knife?
A. As in cars and clothes, you can spend a fortune on a knife. Some custom made knives are several thousand dollars. These are made just for your height, weight, hand size and build. But who can do that besides a celebrity chef or a knife aficionado? I would say a good chef's knife from Germany would be between $150 and $250. A good Japanese knife can go up to $350 at Williams Sonoma, but there are other wonderful Japanese knives for around $200.
A good knife is an investment that should last you a lifetime. (I have a pair of scissors and a carbon steel knife that were my mom's, and they are as good as new when sharpened.) When you use a really good knife, you will wonder how you lived without it. Yes, good knives are worth the money. You don't have to buy a set all at once. Buy the kinds you need and shun the pizzazz of the others you don't. Go into a quality kitchen store, and hold different brands and different sub-categories within the brands. Find one with a weight that fits your hand and arm. If the salesperson doesn't let you hold the knives while considering which one to buy, do not buy one there!
Next, grab your computer and go to http://bit.ly/DropDeadCulinary. Read my previous article on knives and what to look for in a knife.
Find the knife you want and save for it. If you get a designer coffee every day, consider skipping it for a few weeks and you'll soon have enough, or make another change of some sort — because knives are to cooks as brushes are to painters. I think that should be a SAT logic question.
Laura Wilson, owner of La Dolce Vita in Roanoke, is a Le Cordon Bleu-trained chef. She answers questions in The News-Sentinel every other Tuesday. Have a question for Laura? Submit it to firstname.lastname@example.org or call 461-8284. We'll pass on questions to Laura. This column is the personal opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinion of The News-Sentinel.