In Culinary school, first comes sanitation, second comes knife skills. One of the most valuable things you can do to improve your kitchen techniques is to learn how to properly use a knife safely and effectively. You will have less kitchen accidents and better looking food. Consider this post a quick 101 on what, I think, are the five most vital knife cuts you can master for all of your future cooking endeavors.
1/6 inch tall // 1/6 inch wide // 2 inches long; think matchsticks
Begin by squaring off what you are cutting. Slice the product into planks that are 2 inches long by 1/6 inch wide. Cut the planks into 1/6 inch from there.
2. Small Dice:
1/8 inch // 1/8 inch // 1/8 inch
Begin by squaring off what you are cutting, slice into planks and into strips of 1/4 of an inch, and cut into cubes. This cut is great for making clear soups, when you want to sweat an onion down and make it invisible to the eye, and impress people with a fine cut in a salad. I use this one the most often, as far as square cuts go. It simply looks the best and cooks down faster.
3. Medium dice:
1/4 inch // 1/4 inch // 1/4 inch
Medium dice is the knife cut that will be turned into to something else to me, such as potatoes for boiling, bread for croutons, or chocolate for melting. Follow the same procedure for small dice, but use the 1/4 of an inch measurement.
I use this for garlic mostly, but it can be used for onions, shallots etc.
Garlic- Crush the garlic with the side of your knife by laying it over the it and taking your other hand and pressing down on the knife. Peel the garlic and begin slicing as finely as possible. Run your knife through the garlic until it is in small bits. Place your knife on its side over the it again. Pressing with your other hand, glide the knife over the garlic at a slight angle a few times. This should produce a paste.
Onion/Shallot: Cut in half and peel. Slice 3/4's of the way inwards as close together as possible. Then, slice inward 3/4's of the way horizontally splitting into two. Finally, slice down close together to create a finely diced end product.
Chiffonade is used for oval leaves such as basil, mint, or spinach. It works well for garnishing or adding the flavor without having to bite into a leaf. Pick your leaves and layer one on top of the other in size order (bigger on bottom; smaller on top). Roll these leaves together as tightly as possible. Holding the roll at one end, begin slowly slicing down the other end. You should end up with thin strips of the leaves, but if they are thicker, don't worry. It took me 2 years to get mine to look this good.