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The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

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Grazie mille!

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Sharpening Your Knife Cuts

What's a Brunoise and Why Should I Want To?

Knife cuts are a necessary skill in any kitchen, home or pro. And by “knife cuts” I mean the ones you make intentionally involving food items, not the ones you make accidentally involving fingers. Proper basic skills and practice will enhance the former and eliminate the latter.

Now, we've all seen the TV chefs chopping through vegetation at astonishing speeds, their knives beating out an amazing rhythm as they dispatch mounds of perfectly cut carrots without ever even looking at what they are doing. They smile and talk to the camera as they chop an onion into tiny bits and never once do they lose a fingertip. TV magic? No. Skill and practice.

Do they do this because they want to impress the viewing audience? Yeah, maybe a little. But more importantly, they are trying to cut everything in perfect, even pieces because perfect, even pieces cook perfectly and evenly. When you take a knife and whack a potato into ten pieces and each piece is a different size and shape, the little bitty pieces are going to cook in just a few minutes, while the big clunky chunks are going to take much longer. By the time the big pieces are done, the little ones are overdone. And the reverse is true. You get really nasty mashed potatoes when you try to mash up the tender little pieces while the big ones are still hard and half raw.

Besides, even cuts just look pretty. And as you know, we eat with our eyes first. I once served hash brown potatoes to a breakfast guest and the first words out of his mouth when I set the plate in front of him were, “Man, how did you cut them up so small and even.” Skill and practice.

Believe me, I'm no blazing blur with a knife and I don't try to be. Most of the time when I'm doing my prep work it's just me with my favorite knife and a cutting board. No cameras and no live audience. So what if it takes me the better part of a minute to cut up an onion instead of a flashy six seconds? My cuts are neat and precise and the results are perfect and even, and that's what counts when you put 'em in the sautè pan.

From Le Cordon Bleu to your local community college, the first thing culinary students are taught are knife skills. It's an essential part of being a good cook. And if you ever get a first-time job in a professional kitchen, you can almost count on being the one who gets to cut up the vegetables for your first few weeks on the job.

Because I believe strongly that a person should never stop trying to learn, I often hunt up local cooking classes just to see what I might pick up. I once checked out an advertised “knife skills” class at a local culinary store and was extremely disappointed to see that it was a “demo only” class and that the demonstrator was far more concerned with selling her store's knives than she was with teaching people how to use them. When I asked her to demonstrate a chiffonade, she did it but she seemed annoyed that I had intruded on her pitch.

I can't do “Knife Skills 101” in this format and I'm not going to try. There are lots of step-by-step video courses available online. Or you can check out a local culinary store, but walk right out the door if someone doesn't show you at least a few of the basic cuts that I'm going to tell you about.

The CIA – the one in New York that teaches you to cook, as opposed to the one in Langley, Virginia that does not – breaks basic cuts down into six categories: chopping, mincing, julienne, dicing, oblique, and shredding and chiffonade. Of course, the French have a long list of fancy names for specific cuts, and just so you can tell somebody you know how to brunoise a potato, I'll use some of them here.

Before we start cutting, though, let's talk about how to hold a knife. Even though a knife is a tool, you shouldn't hold it like a hammer. The way you hold a knife matters because the proper grip dictates stability and control when cutting. The “pinch grip” is the go to grip for most pros because it affords the most stability, balance and control. It is not the most comfortable grip to learn, but it grows on you with practice. Grab the knife handle with three fingers – middle, ring, and pinkie – wrapped around the handle right at the point where it meets the blade. “Pinch” the blade between the outside flat of your index finger and the inside flat of your thumb. Your instructors will give you high marks for learning and using this grip, but if you've got small hands, it can be really uncomfortable. Smaller-handed people might do better with the sabre grip, where you wrap all four fingers around the handle and rest your thumb along the top of the handle near where it meets the blade. Using your index finger as a “pointer” along the top of the blade is generally frowned upon, but it can be useful when making delicate cuts. Unless you're cutting up fifty pounds of potatoes that way, it'll be okay.

Obviously, your other hand – the guide hand – needs to be involved, too, and that hand should be formed into the “claw” position, wherein you hold your food item with your fingertips tucked slightly under and your thumb held out of the way. The flat of the blade should should rest against your knuckles, thus keeping you from cutting off your fingertips.

Okay, let's cut to the chase. (Sorry about that.)

Rough chopping is used when finesse isn't mandatory. If you're going to mash or purée your food item or remove it from a finished dish, then just whack away at it and let the pieces fall where they may. Just make sure the pieces are all about the same size, though. You still need to think about even cooking.

Otherwise, the first basic cut is the battonet (bah-tow-NAY). French for “little stick,” this cut yields a strip that measures ½ inch × ½ inch × 2½ inches. Think of your average French fry.

Next up is the allumete (al-yoo-MET), also known as a matchstick cut. Measuring ¼ inch × ¼ inch × 2½ inches, it's basically a battonet cut in half.

A julienne (joo-lee-EN) cut is, you guessed it, half of an allumete, measuring 1/8 inch × 1/8 inch × 2½ inches.

By the way, an easy measuring tip for gauging 2 1/2 inches: unless you have big old gorilla hands, your four fingers held close together should measure about 2 1/2 inches.

Cut a julienne in half – 1/16 inch × 1/16 inch × 2 1/2 inches – and you have a fine julienne.

Going the other way, a large dice (carré - “kah-RAY”) is a cut that measures ¾ inch × ¾ inch × ¾ inch. A medium dice (parmentier – “pahr-men-tee-YAY”) can be achieved by cutting up a battonet into pieces measuring ½ inch × ½ inch × ½ inch. You get a small dice (macédoine – “MAH-see-dwan”) when you cut an allumette into ¼ inch × ¼ inch × ¼ inch pieces.

The aforementioned brunoise (broon-WAHZ) measures 1/8 inch × 1/8 inch × 1/8 inch, or a cut down julienne. A fine brunoise is a fine julienne cut to 1/16 inch × 1/16 inch × 1/16 inch dimensions.

See how easy all this French stuff is?

The smallest cut is the mince. There are no set dimensions for a mince; just chop until you get the smallest possible pieces of a relatively uniform size.

A chiffonade is a cut usually applied to leafy vegetables and herbs (i.e. spinach, basil, etc.). “Chiffon” is French for “rag,” and the cut is designed to yield long, thin, ragged strips. It's fairly easy to do; simply stack up the leaves, roll them into a tight roll, and then cut across the rolled leaves, producing long, fine ribbons. The only difference between a chiffonade and a rough shred is in the fineness of the cut.

The oblique cut that the Culinary Institute cites as one of the basic cuts is actually one of a whole separate category of slices, a category which includes rondelles or rounds, diagonals or bias cuts, and diamond cuts or lozenges. The oblique cut is also called a roll cut and yields a small piece with two angled sides. You do it by holding your knife at a 45 degree angle and making the first cut, then roll the piece a half turn and, keeping the knife at the same angle, making another cut. It's pretty, but I don't know that I'd include it with “basic” cuts.

It goes without saying – but I'll say it anyway – that your knife needs to be super sharp to do any and all of these cuts. There is nothing more dangerous than a dull knife. When you're executing these fancy cuts, a sharp knife moves smoothly and evenly through the food item. A dull knife requires more pressure and force and is far more likely to slip and hack off a piece of your finger. I'll say it again; sharp knives are imperative to proper knife skills.

Okay, armed with all this nifty knowledge, head on into the kitchen and brunoise something. If you're still a little shaky, just enter something like “basic knife skills” into your search engine and you'll find tons of photos and videos illustrating all these cuts and techniques. You'll also find lots of little tips and tricks like topping and tailing and flattening the sides of vegetables to form stable cutting platforms. You'll be ready to give Masaharu Morimoto a run for his money in no time. In the meantime...

Buona fortuna e buon appetito!

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