Friday, February 3, 2012

Knife Skills Part 2, or Ode To The Humble Onion

Its been a busy few weeks for shewearsboots.  Among the myriad of January adventures (6 shows in 4 days with the Don't Tell Darlings, June Apple Kitchen debut impending, selling more produce for Horse & Buggy, oh, and Western wear shopping adventures),  I've been reading Mark Ruhlman's Twenty.  The "cook manifesto" genre appeals to my little home-cooking soul. This isn't really a book of recipes to follow, but a series of techniques/concepts that Fancy Pants (that's Ruhlman) decided were the 20 most important things a cook could know and understand.   Seriously people: this is my kind of book. There's an entire chapter on things like "Onion" and "Butter" and "Poaching" and "Water".   Ruhlman works his way through the building blocks of how we create, build, and manipulate flavor, instead of just giving a set of instructions.  You know the old adage: give a woman a fish, and she'll eat for a day, but teach a woman to cook, and she'll make that truffle-duck-aspic-flambe she saw last week on the Food Network. (Not true. There was no duck-aspic-flambe. Actually, there might have been, I don't know. Who's got cable?!)

Anyhow, in the aforementioned "Onion" chapter, Fancy Pants discusses the merits, nay WONDERS of the ordinary onion.  He says "... if onions were as rare as truffles, chefs would pay dearly for them", and that onions perform daily culinary miracles, but since they're cheap and easy to get, we take them for granted. You know, like how sometimes a home cook's AMAZING ABILITIES can be taken for granted because he/she makes you supper every night, yo'.  (Have you said thank you to that person lately? Do it RIGHT NOW please. And if its yo' self: please do a little self-love victory dance RIGHT NOW please. Go on. I'll wait.)  Most insightfully, he says:

"To harness the power of the onion, the first thing to recognize is that onions are not a one-note ingredient, like, say, lemon juice.  Lemon juice is always lemon juice.  Add more, add less, and it's always lemon juice.  Onion has a volume knob controlled by how much heat you bring to it, and for how long, before you add the other other ingredients it will support. Used raw, onions have one effect on a soup or sauce or stock; lightly cooked but not browned, another effect; cooked for a long time but still without color, still another effect; taken further and browned, still another. Poach onions, and they're different again.  Roast them, and they're a unique preparation. Macerate onions in vinegar, and you have yet another effect."

Powerful stuff from the humble onion.  (Also: who poaches an onion? Seriously?!)  He includes a recipe for French Onion Soup, that, I must say, is to die for and you know what's in it? SEVEN POUNDS of onions. And that's about it.  A little water. A little salt and pepper. A little sherry and/or red wine. That's it. There's no stock, no herbs, no cream. And its incredible.  (More on that later.)

So, for all you home cooks out there: learn to love your onions. This is like, the Number 1 Knife Skills Lesson I can give you. Except for the last knife skills lesson. Which is don't cut the hell out of yourself with a knife. Actually, that's probably the Number 1 Knife Skills Lesson. WHICH IS WHY I called this one Lesson Number 2. See? I have everything under control.

Knife Skills, Part 2: Dicing an Onion

So, to dice an onion is pretty simple, but everyone does it differently. Here's a way to manage all those little bits and bobs and get an even dice, every time. The knife for the job: a chef's knife. If you've been cutting your food with a paring knife all these years, please go get a chef's knife (this one's my favorite, and its only $25. It will do every job in the kitchen for you without fail, and you'll soon be a convert. Plus, it looks a hell of a lot better when you brandish it threateningly.

1. Check your grip: look at how you're holding your knife. To maneuver a knife well, your thumb and forefinger should grip the actual blade of the knife, just above where the handle meets the blade, with your other 3 fingers resting comfortably around the handle. "But if feels WEIRD!" Cry me a river, girl. Pull it together, try something new, and accept that its gonna FEEL WEIRD.  Try this grip every other time you hold your knife. You'll start to notice how much more control you have, and I promise, if you give it a real shot, you'll be a convert in a week.

2. Form the "claw": for your food-holding hand. We all know that I have a propensity to slice myself open. If you perfect the "claw" grip on your food (Clawhammer players: see, all that frailing was useful for something!), you'll never nearly cut off the tip of your finger again. Curl your fingertips under, with your thumb curled behind your fingers, (notice how I am FAILING to do this in the photo!) and put pressure on your food with the flat of the first segment of your fingers, so your knuckles are the closest thing to the knife blade. It feels awkward, I know, but so did wearing a bra for the first time. Get over it, practice, repeat. Enjoy having all 5 fingertips.

"Claw" demo. Ignore my crappy form. Also: don't use this grip when you slice an onion in half. Obvious reasons.

3. Slice your onion in half, pole to pole. Leave the root end on each half, for pete's sake! It's like some compulsion that the first thing people do is to cut it off, but those roots are your friend. They are the little handle that you'll hold onto when you really get going.

2. Cut off the top end, and now that you can get a grip on them, peel back the dry outer layers.  Move your onion to the edge of your cutting board, and your cutting board to the edge of your surface.  Hold the onion so the round edge is closest to the edge of the cutting board, along the "pole" line.

3. Put all your fingertips together, and pretend you're going to say, kiss them and say "Bella!" Do that. Feels good, eh?  Place your gathered fingertips on the top of your onion, comme ci.  This is how you hold the onion for the next step.

No "Bella!" hand here. SOMEBODY's gotta take the photos.
4. Horizontal Cuts: Turn your knife so the flat side of the blade is parallel with your cutting surface. Place the edge of your knife 1/2" up the onion from the board (if you're doing a 3/4" or 1" dice, then amend all these measurements to the size dice you'd like, just be consistent). Put the edge of the blade closest to the handle at the onion, and draw the knife back towards you, slicing a horizontal cut in the onion as you do.  DON'T cut through the root end!  This step is a fine balance of how much pressure you need in the "Bella!" hand to keep the onion in place, but still be able to draw the knife back.  When you finish, you should have a slice that runs parallel to the board, 1/2" up, and runs all the way through the onion half, front to back.

5. Repeat. Make several more horizontal slices in the exact same way, each 1/2" apart.  Make sure to keep the onion half at the edge of the board, so your hand and knife handle have space to maneuver.

5. Vertical cuts. Now you're going to make slices that parallel the "pole" line from the top of the onion half.  Move the onion away from the edge of the board, and look down on it (in a nice way). From the top view, move your "claw" to the root end of the onion. Take the tip of your knife, and position it 1/2" from the rounded edge, and press down with the knife. Repeat until you've created 1/2" cuts all the way across the width of the onion.

You have no idea how hard it was to take this photo. Is someone else holding the camera? Is someone else holding the knife? Did a third limb sprout from her abdomen? YOU'LL NEVER KNOW.
6. Final cuts.  Here's where the dice is finished. Reposition the onion so you're looking at it from the top, but your knife is now perpendicular to the "pole" line.  With a light rocking motion, draw the knife down through the onion, perpendicular to those cuts you just made. You'll have perfect little cubes fall off the end. Using your "claw", move your hand back along the surface of the onion, and grasp the root end when you reach the end.

See the root end? How handy it is! Told you so. Now, discard the root end, revel in your glory, and get cooking.

PS: Eyes burning? That's from sulfurous compounds that are released when the cell walls of onions are punctured. Need relief? Get a pair of swim goggles or go get your snorkeling mask. Don't laugh. No, actually, please do, its freakin' hilarious. But it works!  (Seriously though, I have no idea who that guy is.)


  1. Good tips on cutting. That whole first part about how many ways to get different effects terrifies me that I'm sending the wrong message with my onions, but at least I will look like a pro when I cut them now.

  2. It took me a while to get used to that horizontal cut part. Its easily the hardest and most frustrating part. But not as frustrating as a bunch of unevenly-sized onion pieces, half brown and half raw on the bottom of your soup pot.

    I'm planning some taste test experiments to determine the different tastes of various treatments of onions, and just how variable it is.. I'll report back. :)

  3. Hey Megan!! I wanted to nominate you for the Liebster Award... check out more information here: