Sometimes in a cooking class, when student is cutting something, he or she will ask—how big should I chop it?
If you’ve ever wondered the same thing, this post is for you.
Different sources will tell you different things, but generally speaking chopping means 1/4- to 1/2-inch pieces. Dicing means the same, but those pieces should be cubes. And mincing means 1/16- to 1/8-inch pieces.
There are also baton and batonnet cuts (sticks, like for french fries), julienne (matchsticks), brunoise (sort of another word for mince), and others. But, with the occasional exception of julienne, you’re not going to see those terms in a home cooking recipe.
So then, back to chopping, dicing, and mincing. There’s a big difference between a 1/4-inch piece and a 1/2-inch piece. When a recipe says “chop,” what’s correct?
Here’s what I tell my students.
Imagine you’re making salsa—perhaps the Simply Good Summer Tomato Salsa pictured here. If you chop the cilantro finely—say, into 1/16-inch pieces—your salsa will have mild cilantro flavor through and through.
If, though, you chop it coarsely—say, 1/4-inch pieces—your salsa will have more occasional, but bigger, hits of cilantro here and there.
With a couple of caveats which I’ll get to in a sec, neither is more correct than the other. It’s just a matter of what you like and are trying to create.
Me, I tend to like things more coarse because it helps each bite taste a little different, which to me keeps a dish interesting.
But my love of coarseness doesn’t always apply.
If I add jalapeno to my salsa, for example, I generally prefer it more finely chopped, so that it adds mild heat rather than making an occasional bite noticeably hot. Same with raw garlic. Maybe some wouldn’t mind a big hit of it, but I’d rather it be mild throughout.
So cut your salsa’s tomatoes into 1/2-inch dice or 1/8-inch, depending on how chunky you want it. Cut your soup’s vegetables into 1/2-inch pieces or 1-inch, depending on how much you want to experience the vegetables in a medley or how much you’d like individual bites of each. Chop your potato salad’s dill fine or coarse, depending on the impact you want it to have.
It’s totally personal, and all good.
One caveat, one that’s kind of between the lines here, is that if you chop something other than a recipe instructs, you’re changing the texture and possibly the eating experience of a dish. Salmon tartare that’s chunky, for example, might not deliver the silky, sexy experience of tartare that’s more finely diced—an experience that, in my opinion, is part of the lure of salmon tartare.
Does that mean chunky tatare is wrong? Not at all. I’m just saying that changes have effects. And if you’re going to go through the time and trouble to make a dish, they’re worth considering.
The other caveat is that if you chop an ingredient other than a recipe instructs, you’ll effect its cooking time (if any). So you have to compensate accordingly.
Bottom line—in salsa and in life, it’s probably more worthwhile to think about what makes you happy than what’s the “right” thing to do.
That takes a little more thinking. But ultimately, it’s more fulfilling.