I made beef stew tonight. No. I made gorgeous white wine and onion stew with beef bits tonight. During the preparation, I took care to re-visit the technique of “dicing an onion” put forward in Christopher Kimball’s The Cook’s Bible (p. 59), a great book with lots of nice and informative illustrations. However, in the manner of Bibles, not everything is equally well explained and a lot of the content is left to the belief of the reader. The onion cutting technique is one of these topics.
Kimball tells us that the onion is first halved. Then – onion-half flat on the cutting board – one makes “a series of horizontal cuts parallel to the work surface” before making the north-south cuts and the east-west cuts known from home cooking. For the horizontal cuts and for the north-south cuts, Kimball quotes the technique of “some chefs” to stop short with the cut before the root end, in order to keep the onion together.
And that is where I begin to lose it. Why does an onion not keep together otherwise? Quite so: because it’s made out of layers, as opposed to carrots or chunks of lard, for example. Is it really true that the “distance of the [horizontal] cuts will determine the size of the dice”? Not so, unless one makes cuts that are closer together than are the layers of the onion we’re dicing (that would be a truly biblical amount of horizontal cuts). The advantage of Kimball’s horizontal-layer-technique shows itself along the sides, where a simple north-south-east-west vertical-cut technique tends to produce a few too big and oddly shaped bits of onion. But the downsides outweigh this small advantage by far:
– one has to keep the onion-half down with one hand while making the horizontal cuts with the other, towards the fingers of the hold-hand. Cutting towards one’s hands or other body parts is the greatest of all no-nos of workshop lore. You always cut away from your body: you take care not to have anything of yourself in the way if you put pressure on your blade. No matter whether I imagine the knife to be sharp or not, this approach makes me very uncomfortable.
– stopping short before the root end is indeed absolutely necessary, otherwise one creates a heap of slithering matter that is impossible to chop properly. But this is fiddly to achieve – especially in the horizontal cuts the risk is great that one cuts through the onion in any case. Is this a way for Kimball to tell the reader just how gifted a real chef is?
Scarcely. A real chef would be able to make the north-south and east-west cuts so darn narrow that he would need only three extra knife strokes through the finished pile of dice to complete the work: this would be safer (we’re talking about professionals here. Safety is an issue), quicker and finer all in one go.
Am I missing something? Oh, yes, we were making dice and I have instead produced a heap of finely chopped onion. Is there a difference? If you are curious, open CorelDraw or something, create a three-dimensional graph that shows, for the sake of simplicity – only one layer of onion (a hollow hemisphere with walls a millimetre or so thick) and draw in Kimball’s cuts. How many true cubes will be the result? Just as many true cubes as in the standard technique. Otherwise, you’ll get some bits – perhaps a little smaller ones than those in my heap of random snippets, but in terms of non-diciness, they are not different at all.
It all boils down to being a matter of personal preference, whether one is a Chef or someone altogether else: if one’s cutting technique is sufficiently refined for wielding the horizontal-layer-approach in a safe and exact manner, it might be slightly more effective, though hardly much quicker. If not, one is both safer off and just as close to the final pile of onion if one does as the Dutch herring sellers have done for centuries: own a sharp knife. Slam down an onion-half on the plank. Make the north-south cuts, keeping the sides of the onion together with your other hand. Make the east-west cuts while holding the not-yet-cut part of the onion together. Chop the few larger bits that have escaped your knife. Done.
(I dice garlic like Kimball dices onions. Works great, unless one wants to make a whole mound, as when preparing an antipasti party. In that case, I use the Genius Garlic cutter M3, whether you believe it or not.)