I had a friend in college who believed that celery was the worst vegetable, and I admit it—as sticks, they aren't all that exciting. Add some blue cheese or Green Goddess and I'd happily eat them, but it's really only when you start adding them to other dishes that they reveal their true purpose: Best Supporting Role.
My celery-hating friend certainly enjoyed eating out at restaurants, and most of them were undoubtedly flavoring any number of sauces, stews, salads, soups, and braises with the vegetable. Along with pungent onions and sweet, earthy carrots, celery's slight bitter edge forms the backbone of at least half the dishes in the Western repertoire. A potato salad or lobster roll wouldn't be the same without its distinctive crunch and fresh flavor, and the Chinese learned long ago that it's particularly flavorful in a spicy stir-fry. Even the leaves can be used as a flavorful garnish.
This guide will help teach you to cut celery into all of the major shapes and sizes. Learn these cuts well, and you'll be using them all your life.
Shopping and Storage
When buying celery, look for whole heads still attached at the root with tightly bundled stalks and a bright green to yellowish-green color. Skip any heads that have bruised brown spots or that look overly fibrous. Avoid those kept in sealed packs, which can often hide blemishes. A good grocery store will keep their celery stalks lightly misted with water to keep them fresh and crisp.
Once home, celery can wilt in a matter of days. It's best to keep it in a slightly opened plastic bag, or a perforated plastic bag to help retain moisture, but still give it room to breathe. Use your vegetable crisper drawer if you've got one. Properly stored, celery should last up to a week and a half in the fridge. Stalks that have started to go limp can be revived by cutting them off and standing them cut-end-down in a cup of water in the fridge.
If you want to use leaves as garnish, pick the pale yellow leaves closest to the center of the stalk (darker green leaves can be tough or fibrous) and store them in a container of water with a few ice cubes in the fridge until ready to use. They make a great addition to mixed green salads.
Cleaning and Trimming
You'll need a head of celery, a sharp chef's knife or santoku knife, and if you want to get extra fancy, a vegetable peeler (more on that later).
Step 1: Separate Stalks
Separate the individual stalks from the bunch by gently prying them out from the bottom until they snap off.
Step 2: Wash and Trim Stalks
Wash the individual stalks under cold running water to remove any dirt and debris, then trim off the large white section off of the bottom of each stalk. Reserve for stock, compost, or discard as you wish.
Step 3: Peel Stalks (Optional)
For gently cooked preparations or when using celery in larger batons or chunks, the fibrous skin on the outer (convex) surface can be distracting. Using a vegetable peeler, peel each stalk by holding the base against the cutting board and pulling down the length with a smooth, even motion. Repeat until entire outer layer is clean.
Large chunks are primarily used for stocks and sauces which will eventually be strained, or for rustic stews. Using your chef's knife, cut the stalks into 1 to 1 1/2-inch pieces.
Stop cutting at the joint where the main stalk meets the beginning of the leafy sections. Save this section for stock.
For slices to use in salads or sautées, cut into 1/8th to 1/4-inch half-moons crosswise.
Slicing the half-moons on a bias (at an angle) to the main stalk will yield slightly larger, heartier pieces perfect for things like stir-fires or hearty sautees.
Step 1: Split Stalks Lengthwise
For fine dice, use the tip of your chef's knife to split the stalk lengthwise, keeping it attached at the leaf end (cutting it crosswise into two or three shorter sections can help if this step is difficult for you at first).
Step 2: Continue Splitting
Split the stalk a few more times. The total number of splits will determine the size of your final dice. For medium dice, split once in half. For finer dice, split into quarters. For brunoise, split every 1/8th to 1/16th inch or so.
Step 3: Cut Crosswise Into Dice
Rotate the celery stalk and cut crosswise to form fine dice. The split section of the stalk should hold together as you cut.
To make batons for soups or salads, split the stalk lengthwise just as you would for fine dice, then cut crosswise into 1 1/2 to 2-inch pieces.