Do you know how to cut an onion? Sure, you know how to pierce an onion with a knife, how to slice it into smaller and smaller pieces. Everyone knows how to do that—even the most inexpert home chefs.
But do you know to cut an onion in such a way that creates perfectly diced, evenly sized cubes with minimal effort? I sure do, and it’s all because I took a cooking class that taught basic knife skills.
Way back in 2012, my friend and I celebrated my birthday by taking a cooking class at The Chopping Block in Chicago. As recent college grads, we were stuck in the boiling-Kraft-mac-’n’-cheese-definitely-counts-as-cooking phase, and we needed a push to get us out of it.
We decided that Knife Skills, which the cooking school bills as its “most popular class,” would serve us best as it taught everything from how to dice vegetables and chiffonade basil to how to sharpen and hone your knives at home. The only downside, we thought, was that we wouldn’t be eating anything during class.
This is the right way to cut an onion. Notice that the chef is using a chef's knife and is keeping the fingers on his non-knife hand curled under to protect them while chopping.
Turns out, not eating any food was not the only downside. It actually hurt our hands to take this class. No, the chef’s knives weren’t dull, they were some of the sharpest I had ever used. The problem was that we didn’t know how to hold the knives the right way. We had our hands far back on the handle, with our fingers wrapped around said handle. That was all wrong.
See, you’re supposed to have your hand on the bolster, with your index finger and thumb actually pinching the top part of the blade. When you cut, you’re supposed to never lift up the tip of the chef’s knife. Instead, you’re supposed to rock the knife back and forth while pushing your produce toward the rocking blade with your other hand.
“The knife should never leave the cutting board,” the instructor admonished all 16 of us students time and again. It seems all of us had been raised by wolves and those wolves never learned how to properly julienne a carrot.
He also stopped to tell us several times that if we didn’t curl the fingers on our nonknife-hand into a claw while cutting, we would slice them off.
By the time we cut up a yellow squash, carrot, and red pepper, my fingers hurt from all the awkward hand motions and the top part of blade pressing into them.
I wanted to quit, and we hadn’t even reached the hard part. That came next, when it was time to learn how to dice an onion. The instructor demonstrated how to keep it intact while somehow also cutting tiny squares out of it through careful cuts. It required a thoughtful plan, something I barely had while cooking, let alone prepping my veggies.
But we had several white onions in front of us and they needed to be a lot smaller and squarer. I’m sad to say that it just never really clicked while I was in the class, and I left feeling a little ashamed that I couldn’t figure out how to turn one big round thing into dozens of tiny square things.
Luckily, it was time to cut tomatoes, and I learned that when you have a serrated knife, it’s pretty simple to get a sharp cut. Then we moved on to cutting up herbs, and I expected that to be a disaster based on how I cut herbs at home. It wasn’t! Turns out, the rocking motion really helps you quickly chop up fresh herbs, especially because it sort of grinds them into the cutting board so they stay in a pile.
I even learned that when you roll up big flat basil leaves, you can cut them into skinny strips very easily. It’s called a chiffonade cut, and it looks like a lot of work, but it’s the easiest way to deal with basil.
It's a bit intense to cut strawberries with a chef's knife. Instead, reach for your paring knife to make quick work of them.
The ease of the chiffonade cut made me think that maybe the class was teaching me something worthwhile, despite the fact that it felt unnatural and a bit painful to learn the lesson.
I went home with a gallon-size Ziploc full of produce and a resolution to keep practicing using my chef’s knife the right way while cooking at home. I also decided to look up an onion cutting video on YouTube to see if I could figure out the technique. And Reader, I did!
To this day, I dice up an onion that way. I also still chiffonade basil and still keep my blade down on the cutting board. When I remember, I put my hands on the bolster. (The only thing I will not do is curl my left hand into a claw when cutting because I apparently don’t have time to prevent a potential finger catastrophe.)
If you ever get a chance, you should take a knife skills class. I promise it will make your home cooking adventurers easier, even if it does feel insanely uncomfortable at first. Just make sure you pay attention to the honing and sharpening part. I was so focused on figuring out the onion cuts that I tuned that part out, and it’s valuable information to have.
I just might have to take another class to fill in those knowledge gaps—and to finally get praised by the instructor for correctly dicing up an onion.