The Institute of Culinary Education is one of the largest culinary schools in the world, offering both professional and recreational programs in New York City. Here, chef Michael Garrett of their School of Culinary Arts gives PEOPLE his step-by-step guide to chopping like a pro.
If there’s one thing that will make your time in the kitchen effortless, efficient and enjoyable, it’s tackling basic knife skills. Below you’ll find my essential tips for how to cut three common vegetables that are surprisingly tricky to break down: an onion, a pepper and a head of cauliflower. Before we get into it, though, let’s start with some basic knife tips.
1. The average cook only needs three knives in the kitchen: a chef’s knife, a paring knife and a serrated knife. The first is for general slicing, dicing and cutting. A paring knife is ideal for peeling or more intricate work. A serrated knife is essential for cutting any food items with a hard outside and soft inside—like bread or tomatoes.
2. Proper knife handling: Grip the handle of the knife with your dominant hand, and place your thumb and forefinger on either side of the base of the blade. The other hand’s job is to prevent food from sliding around on the cutting board. For safety purposes, it is best to tuck your fingertips in (curled under like the legs of a crab), while maintaining a steady grip. To slice through an ingredient, rock the blade from tip to base (and repeat).
3. The role of a honing steel: Contrary to what many believe, the honing steel is not a sharpener. Your steel merely straightens the “teeth” of the blade, while a sharpener sharpens the blade. A honing steel restores the edge of your knife and improves cutting ability. To maintain good knives over time, you will need to both hone and sharpen your blades. You should hone your blade every 2-3 times that you use your knives, while sharpening can typically be done just once a year.
4. Knife sharpening: It may seem counterintuitive, but the sharper your knife is, the safer you will be while using it. A dull knife will slip off of objects—and right onto your fingertips. Sharpening is a special skill, so if you haven’t been properly trained, there are many knife manufacturers or restaurant supply stores that offer reasonably priced knife sharpening.
Now, let’s get into the specifics.
How to Julienne and Dice a Red Pepper
1. With a chef’s knife, slice the top and bottom off of the pepper.
2. Slice down through the wall of the pepper from top to bottom. Pull the sides apart to insert your knife.
3. To remove the seeds and white part of the flesh, turn your knife, so the blade is parallel to the cutting board, and run it along the inside of the pepper from one side to the other, gently separating the seeded core from the rest of the flesh. Remove this and discard.
4. To make it easier to handle, cut the pepper into three-inch sections.
5. One section at a time, slice the pepper piece into thin strips.
6. To dice, slice your pepper into strips, then rotate them 90 degrees and repeat the same slicing motion.
7. To julienne the pepper, remove most of the watery flesh from the thick outside wall before slicing it into ⅛-inch slices.
How to Dice an Onion
1. With a chef’s knife, cut off both of the ends of the bulb, but only cut off the tip of the root end, identified by the small sprouts or “hairs.”
2. Standing the onion on one of the flat ends, slice it in half lengthwise.
3. Peel the onion skin and the first layer of the onion’s flesh away from both sides, using either a knife or your fingers.
4. To dice, lay one half of the onion (flat side down) on the cutting board. With your knife parallel to the cutting board, run the knife through the onion, three or four times, creating multiple layers. Be sure not to go all the way through the onion, as leaving the stem intact will stabilize the onion for creating the next cuts.
5. Rotate the onion 90° clockwise, with the cut end facing you. Cut vertical slices through the onion, again making sure not to slice all the way through the stem on the opposite end.
6. Rotate the onion 90° counterclockwise, and slice through the onion, moving from one end to the other.
How to Chop Cauliflower into Florets
1. With a paring knife, trim the outside leaves from the stem.
2. Remove the stem from the head of the cauliflower by pointing the paring knife in towards the center of the cauliflower, piercing the stem and working the knife around the circumference of the stem.
3. Working in a circular fashion, cut large florets from the head by slicing through the individual “branches” within the “tree” of the cauliflower.
4. Smaller-sized florets can be created by repeating this technique on the smaller stems within the large florets.