I love to watch cooking shows on television--Master Chef, Chopped and the wonderful chefs on PBS. I'm pretty confident about my cooking skills, but am always in awe of how quickly a professional chefs whips through dicing/mincing an onion.
Do we need to chop onions like a pro?
If you are going to be a professional chef, create amazing dishes for an innumerable list of guests, you need to know how to whack through those onions in a hurry! But that doesn't describe me, and probably isn't you either (I'm guessing). We just want to prepare a lovely meal for ourselves, our spouse, our family, our friends or neighbors.
So what's the hurry?
This is all you really need to get started:
- good-quality cutting board
- sharp knife
- firm onion
The Cutting Board - You can "fake" some kitchen tools (for example you can use a mesh sieve in place of a flour sifter, or use a drinking glass as a cookie cutter), but you must have a real, honest-to-goodness cutting board to save your counter tops, your knives, and your fingers and thumbs.
Cutting boards come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and prices. Before making that purchase, consider that wooden boards need to be seasoned with oil. They don't hold up well after being washed in the dishwasher, and can become a breeding ground for bacteria. I avoid them.
My favorite cutting board is the plastic variety. They are easy to keep clean (sterile), don't splinter or chip, and typically have grippers on the bottom so that they will not slide away from you.
The next consideration is the shape, material, and structure of the handle.
- The shape of the handle should be comfortable in your hand. Pick up the knife, hold it, and imagine using it in your kitchen. Is it comfortable? I'm petite (5 feet tall) and so large tools feel very unwieldy for me.
- The material of the handle is also very important. Plastic handles will splinter and shatter easily. Look for a polycarbonate--dishwasher safe and sturdy.
- Another common feature of the best quality knives is that the tail of the blade, called the tang. It should be solidly riveted into the handle. The length of the steel should be visible from tip of the blade to the butt of the handle. If the handle solidly encases the blade, walk away.
But (you might ask), what is wrong with using a cheap knife? Less expensive knives are made from a much lighter gauge of steel which means that they will not keep a sharp edge for very long. The blades of cheaper knives are also often very thin, making them brittle and more likely to break or for the edge to chip. Handles made from wood or plastic perish very quickly and are usually not dishwasher-safe. Also, the blades are not always set into the handle very securely. All of this makes cheap knives more likely to be blunt which forces you to use more force when cutting with them which in turn makes them more likely to break or for the blade to come loose from the handle.
It's important to keep your knives sharp. Dull knives are a safety hazard and can be very dangerous.
The more blunt a knife's edge is, the more pressure it takes to cut something. The more pressure your hand and the knife apply to a piece of food, the more likely you are to slip and cut your finger instead. Sharpened knives also reduce the time it takes to prepare your meals, since your cuts will be faster and more accurate.
The onion - This might seem a little obvious but.....you need to have a firm onion. Any signs of mildew (the black stuff), large soft areas, or serious sprouting means that you should probably send your onion to that great compost bin in the sky.
A squishy onion is not a good onion to chop/mince/dice or slice.
So, are you ready to get started?
- Begin by placing the onion on the cutting board and slicing off the top and bottom ends. This is a good thing--it now has two flat sides and isn't so likely so roll around and slip away. Flip the onion over to that it is resting on one of the flat ends.
- Now place the blade of your knife across the center of the upward-facing flat end. The edge of your blade should aim for the center of the onion. Slice straight down.
- You now have an onion approximately cut in half. Set one half aside (for now).
- Peel off the skin from one half and then place it on the cutting board, flat side down, curved side facing up. The top and bottom ends should be pointing left and right.
- Next you are going to slice through the onion from right to left (if you are right-handed) and left-to right if you are a lefty. You will end up with semi-circular sections. (No fingertips please!
- (For the sake of brevity and my sanity, lets assume from now on that you are right-handed. Only 10 percent of the population--like me!!--is gifted with being left-handed).
- Now take a moment to read and understand this next step before you proceed.