Knife Skills: How to Chop and Chiffonade Herbs

Knife Skills

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[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

Here's a bit of deductive reasoning.

Let's start with three base assumptions about you:

Assumption the First: You agree that fresh herbs play a vital role in many savory dishes, adding a last minute burst of flavor and color.
Assumption the Second: You do not live in the '50s, and your name is not Betty Crocker.
Assumption the Third: You have been known to cook on occasion.

Given these three assumptions, we can then conclude that inedible garnishes like whole sprigs of curly parsley around a canned pineapple-crusted ham are not something that are in your repertoire, nor do you desire for them to be.

From there, we can then conclude that you fall into one of two categories of people: Those who already know how to chop herbs properly, and those that don't, but would really like to learn.

This guide is for the latter group.

Shopping and Storage

Shopping for herbs is much like shopping for flowers. Look for specimens that have full, lively looking leaves. If you grab a bunch of leafy herbs like parsley from the stem and hold them horizontally, the leaves should stay relatively high. If they fall down limp, then keep looking.

Store whole stem-on herbs in loosely closed plastic bags in your refrigerators crisper drawer. Picked leaves should be washed, spun dry, placed on a damp paper towel, rolled up, the stored in a plastic bag left slightly open. Chopped herbs should be stored in a sealed container, underneath a layer of damp paper towel in order to help them retain moisture.

With proper storage, fresh herbs should last about five days in the fridge.

If you find yourself with a glut, the best way to store them for future use is to chop them, place them in an ice cube tray, top the wells up with water, and freeze. You won't be able to use them for garnish, but the frozen blocks of herb can be added directly to sauces and stews.

Without further ado, here's a step-by-step guide to chopping and chiffonading herbs.

Step 1: Gather Herbs

To finely chop leafy herbs like parsley, cilantro, or basil, gather the herbs into a tight ball using your fingertips.

Step 2: First Slices

Hold the ball of herbs with the fingers of your non-knife hand, making sure to curl your fingertips underneath your fingers, and keeping your thumb tucked inside in order to avoid cuts.

Hold the knife against your knuckles, and start cutting the herbs with a forward and back rocking motion, feeding more herbs into the blade with your non-knife hand as you go.

Step 3: Fine Chopping

Hold the tip of your blade firmly against the cutting board with your non-knife hand, and finish chopping the herbs by rocking the blade up and down over them until they are minced as finely as you'd like.

Step 4: Transfer

Transfer your herbs to your dish or to a sealed container using a bench scraper. Do not use your knife to pick up the herbs from the cutting board. This can dull the blade's edge.

Step 5: Store

Store chopped herbs in a sealed container underneath a layer of damp paper towels in the refrigerator. Use chopped herbs within two days.

To Chiffonade, Step 1: Gather and Align

To chiffonade (make fine strings) broad leafy herbs like mint or basil, start by gathering five to ten leaves in a pile, keeping their center ribs in alignment.

To Chiffonade, Step 2: Fold

Fold the leaves over crosswise (so that center rib still forms line down center of pile) and hold them firmly on your board with your non-knife hand.

To Chiffonade, Step 3: Slice

Slice the herbs as finely as possible by placing the tip of your knife at a spot about 6-8 inches away from the herbs, and slowly pulling the knife back towards you, again using your knuckles as a guide.

The goal here is to slice, not chop. The movement should be mostly forward and backwards, not up and down, which can crush the herbs instead of slicing them.

To Chiffonade, Step 4: Stop at the Rib

Continue slicing until you reach the center rib. Leave the center rib intact. Flip the pile over so that the other side is now exposed to your knife blade.

To Chiffonade, Step 5: Slice Second Half

Continue slicing the second half exactly as you did the first, once again stopping when you reach the central rib, which should at that point be only a sliver. Discard the rib.

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