The first practical exam I took in culinary school was all about knife cuts. We spent a couple weeks learning and practicing the precise size and knife technique for a dozen different classical French vegetable cuts. Then I spent eight months practicing five of those cuts for competition. Compliments are few and far between in classical culinary competitions but one of the best I received was when those French & German Master Chefs I talked about before turned my eight tournéed potatoes out on the table, checking for consistent sizes among all eight. They picked them up, examined them on all sides, then one of them looked at me and said, “you’ve done this before, yes?” In other words, “you’ve practiced a lot, yes?”

“Yes, chef.”

For our written exam in Knife Skills, we had to know each classic cut’s name and dimensions. For the practical portion, we had to execute them but without a model or ruler in front of us. We were given a piece of parchment paper and told to produce two ounces of each cut, place them on the parchment, and label them. As we finished, my chef instructor walked the room with a ruler and measured everyone’s little piles of carrots and potatoes. Our grade depended on how accurate our cuts were.

Let’s move on to ten common classic French knife cuts. Here’s an example of the models we used when we practiced so you can get a visual image of what I’m describing.

  1. Tourné – Looks like a seven-sided football. It’s 2-inches long, 1-inch thick at the center, and it’s rounded to 1/2-inch thick at the ends. Each of the seven sides should be the same size and perfectly smooth from end to end, indicating that you made the cut with one long motion without stopping in the middle of the cut. This requires the tourné knife I showed you way back when we talked about knives. I practiced this cut until my hand cramped and I couldn’t do it any longer. Every. Single. Day. For weeks. 
  2. Paysanne – This cut can be square, round (think sliced carrots), or triangle. We focused on square and its dimensions are 1/2″x1/2″x1/8″.
  3. Large Dice – Cube shaped; 3/4″x3/4″x3/4″
  4. Medium Dice – Cube shaped; 1/2″x1/2″x1/2″
  5. Small Dice – Cube shaped; 1/4″x1/4″x1/4″
  6. Brunoise – Cube shaped; 1/8″x1/8″x1/8″
  7. Fine Brunoise – Cube shaped; 1/16″x1/16″x1/16″
  8. Batonnet – Shaped like a matchstick; 1/4″x1/4″x2″ long
  9. Julienne – Shaped like a matchstick; 1/8″x1/8″x2″ long
  10. Fine Julienne – Shaped like a matchstick; 1/16″x1/16″x2″ long
So what’s the big deal? Why are the French so uptight about their knife cuts? Several reasons but it all narrows down to one idea; they take pride in their food. It should look perfect and it should be cooked perfectly. It’s impossible to cook food properly if you have about 326 pieces of brunoise carrots in a pan and they’re all different sizes. 
Clearly, it’s not as imperative that all your carrots are exactly 1/8″x1/8″x1/8″ but you’re doing yourself a disservice if you don’t put in enough effort to get your vegetable cuts somewhere close to the same size.  I’m definitely not as precise when cooking at home (as you’ll see below) but I at least make an effort.
Here is a photo demonstration on the easiest way to efficiently get the most frequently used knife cuts. I’m using my chef’s knife and only using the back third of the blade, closest to the handle. Keep the tip of the knife on the board and raise the back to slice in to the carrot. You can raise the whole knife and keep it parallel to the board (blade facing down at the board) and slice through if you’re comfortable but I find it easier for newbies to keep the tip on the board. Does that make sense?

Peel your carrot and lop off the two ends.

(Man, I cut off some usable product. Shame on me.)

Cut your carrot into 2-inch(ish) pieces.

I like to start with the fat one first. Cut off a 1/4-inch plank. Notice the flat end (where I sliced off the plank) is facing to the right.

Now roll your carrot so that the cut side is flat against the board. This will keep your carrot from rolling around while you cut the rest of the planks.

Continue cutting 1/4-inch planks and let them fall to the right of your knife.

Once the planks are cut from all three of your carrot pieces, slice your batonnets. Stack two or three planks together and cut 1/4-inch pieces from them.

Here’s a photo of all the stages together. Once I cut my batonnets, I was able to cut them into a brunoise by turning the batonnets and slicing them into 1/4-inch cubes. I clearly didn’t pay much attention to detail when making my cuts, I’m a little embarrassed at how bad they are! You’d think I’d have a little more pride since I’m putting them online for scrutiny but apparently not. These are fine for general cooking but I’ll always be in competition mode when slicing veggies and these wouldn’t fly! Sheesh. *Palm to forehead*

The same method is used for cutting potatoes, celery (sort of), beets, turnips, parsnips, squash, eggplant,… anything where the result you want is a dice or a matchstick-ish cut. Just adjust the size of your planks based on the final size you want.

As you’ve heard me say before, stick with a good method. The more you use proper knife skills, the better you’ll get and the less time you’ll spend prepping food in the kitchen. I promise.

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