Are you a vegetable hacker? I’m not making reference to the person who tries breaking into a carrot’s bank account to fleece all the money, but the person who takes that carrot and destroys it in an effort to add it to your stir fry. Well, you're not the only one.
I see it all the time on such occasions as going to friends and families houses for a meal and the like. I love my mother to bits and god bless her but I had the unfortunate experience of watching her try to chop a carrot recently. She was using what I think was a butter knife on a plastic flexible chopping board (I use the name chopping board loosely) and this was placed unevenly half on the kitchen bench and half over the stainless steel sink. I was looking, thinking to myself “are you serious? You’re not going to do that to that beautiful carrot are you?” It happened. I just smiled through gritted teeth and continued the conversation about the football game we were talking about. My mother is a fantastic home cook, she cooks beautiful food but I don’t think she has ever learned or been taught how to chop properly.
Now there were so many components wrong with my mother's treatment of this carrot from her equipment used and technique along with the treatment to the carrot itself. I will walk you through the correct way to perform this seemingly simple task of chopping a carrot.
KNIFE: First and most important, you need a quality sharp knife. A Gyuto (chef’s knife) or a Nakiri (vegetable slicer) would be best suited for this job. The knife must be sharp for a few reasons. A dull cutting edge can actually cause more cuts and accidents than a well-honed cutting edge. The reason being is if your knife is struggling to cut this is when you try to apply extra pressure and slip causing you to cut yourself. With a superior sharp edge, you don’t need to apply as much pressure instead you let the knife do the work with ease. If you haven’t experienced cutting and slicing with such an edge, you will know the difference straight away and get a real kick out of it! Professional chefs sharpen their blades on a daily basis. Most are a little obsessive and take great pride in the sharpness of their knife blades. In fact, professional chefs will tell you that using a sharp knife will actually make the food taste better as well.
How? Think about slicing a tomato with a blunt knife. You need to apply more downward pressure onto it and more than likely saw into it. This causes it to bruise the flesh around the cut area where you are bludgeoning a slice and this takes away from the quality of that slice. Now with your razor-sharp knife, you slice straight through the tomato without any impact to the flesh thus giving you a fresh unbruised slice. This taste better
If you don’t already have one, do yourself a favor and invest in a sharpening stone and a honing rod. A home cook should sharpen their knives every 3-6 months on the stone then hone the edge on the rod every week or so.
CHOPPING BOARD: I personally am not a big fan of plastic chopping boards, especially those flimsy flexible ones like my mother’s. I get the argument they are easier to sanitise but if you clean your wooden or bamboo board correctly and use a separate one for foods you cook and raw or uncooked foods you will be fine. Before you set yourself up, clear out your workspace on your benchtop to give yourself ample room. Wet a tea towel, cloth or paper towel and lay it out on the bench where you plan to place the chopping board. This prevents the board from slipping around on the kitchen bench as is gives the two surfaces grip to each other.
STANCE: The correct way to stand whilst chopping or slicing is to take one small step back with your dominant foot to have your feet roughly shoulder-width apart. Your non-dominant food should be up against the bench. Slightly twist your shoulders the way your feet are leading you. This gives your dominate chopping hand and arm room to move in front of you and if you need to apply any downward pressure you can lean over to put some bodyweight over the chop.
Japanese sushi and sashimi chef's when slicing raw fish using a Yanagiba or sushi knife take an extra step back from the chopping board to give around 30cm between their front foot and the bench base to free their arm for long horizontal slicing. Yanagiba blades are generally 240mm to 300mm in length. Some are up to 340mm long. This is so they can do one complete long cut of fish in the one stroke without having to push or pull because they run out of the blade.
KNIFE GRIP: There are many different grip and cutting techniques pending on the job at hand. The most common and the right one for this job of slicing the carrot is called the ‘Pinch Grip’ or it can also be called the ‘Blade Grip’ To achieve this grip you ‘pinch’ the knife between your thumb and forefinger on the blade just in front of the ferrule or bolster. Then the palm of your hand sits along the top of the handle and you wrap your remaining fingers under the handle to lightly hold it.
CHOPPING STYLE: There are a couple of ways you could attack this carrot. The dish you are making will determine the cut size you are gunning for. I am going for a Julienne cut so I'm going to use what's called a ‘Rock Chop’ This is where you leave the blade of the knife towards the point in contact with the chopping board. This anchors the blade and gives you precision control. You then rock the knife up and down and with your free hand, you feed the carrot under the chopping motion of the knife rocking on the chopping board.
With your feeding hand, you should have your fingers tucked under your knuckles so you don’t lose a finger and you work the chopping of the blade up against your knuckles for extra control. Be careful not to lift the cutting edge higher than your knuckle otherwise… you guessed it! You can slice off your knuckle. You slip your thumb underneath your hand and use this to feed the carrot under the chopping of the knife. This hand-feeding the carrot is known and the claw and it sort of looks like one.
Now back to the carrot. Firstly cut off the top and tail, then Cut a thin slice off one side of the carrot, around 3mm to give it a flat surface to stop the carrot rolling on the flat surface. Cut it into roughly 30mm-40mm lengths to the length you would like your Julienne. The slice lengthways around 3mm wide to give you flat uniform slices, then you can either pile them on top of each other or if your not that confidant do them individually you slice them to 3mm strips. If this all goes according to plan...Presto! You have perfectly sliced Julienne carrot batons 3mm x 3mm x 30-40mm!
Full disclosure…I have a mini food crush on carrots. I don’t think they get the credit they deserve in the Kitchen as a cheap and versatile staple, but that's a story for another day. Carrots through nature's design have a natural taper to them. A lot of people simply slice the carrot into discs before adding to food. This doesn’t cause a problem if it's in a rustic casserole you are doing low and slow for four hours, but in most other dishes this leads to fundamental problems such as; the thick end of the carrot will be larger in size than the smaller discs down the toe end. This means the big discs will need longer to cook than the small discs giving them bite and the small discs will go mushy. Or in a salad, for example, I like a bit of carrot, but I don’t like big chunks in it so much. These are examples of how the taste and texture of your dish are directly impacted by the way you chop.
If you have the right technique and understand the “why” to chop the carrot in a uniform and consistent manner then you will cook better tasting and better-looking food.