Technique: It's Easy to Master the Chiffonade

Don’t you just love those cool little ribbons of herbs sprinkled across your pasta dish? Ever wonder how the cook gets ‘em that way? It's called a chiffonade (pronounced "shif-oh-NOD") cut. The chiffonade is a technique used to cut fresh leafy vegetables and herbs into slender ribbons. (BTW, "chiffonade" is a French word meaning "made of rags".) I know it sounds fancy-schmancy, but it’s actually a pretty easy technique to master with just a little practice.

In many people's minds this technique is most-often associated with herbs (especially basil), but it can certainly be used with other pliable leaves. (As a matter of fat, I am using butter lettuce in the pictures you see here.) It’s a great technique to use on any delicate green like mint, sage, spinach, lettuce, arugula, etc. So, here's how:

As always, begin by thoroughly washing and drying your leaves. And then..

The "cigar-shaped" roll

The "cigar-shaped" roll

  1. Stack the leaves. For smaller leaves (like basil) you can usually slice 5-10 at a time. With larger leaves like lettuces, I’ve found that 2-3 is more the max. Stack them and align the center ribs. HINT: It works best to layer the largest leaves on the bottom and the smaller ones on top.
  2. Roll 'em up. Place your stack of leaves on your cutting board and roll them from the side, working from tip to stem. Roll them pretty tightly. But not so tight that you bruise them. It will look almost cigar-shaped.
  3. Slice the cigar. While holding the roll firmly with your non-cutting hand, slice the leaves thinly (maybe about 1/8 inch each) starting from the furthest end and working your way toward the hand holding the roll of leaves. The best technique is to rest the flat part of the knife blade against the knuckles of the hand that’s holding the leaves - and “walk” your fingers backward keeping the knife against your knuckles. OK, yeah, THAT takes a little practice.
  4. Unbundle. The slices often come out in bundles (because you rolled and held them firmly). You may want to separate them to sprinkle them over your dish.

A few other hints and tips about the chiffonade that you might find helpful: 

  • The cut edges (especially basil) will start to darken rather quickly, so it’s best to use them pretty soon after cutting.
  • Use a very sharp knife. Basil (and other herbs) tends to bruise quite easily. So if you cut with a dull knife, you will do too much crushing of their edges - and will bruise the leaves.
  • This is a slicing - not a chopping motion. Rocking (keeping the tip of your knife in contact with the cutting board) can speed the process up.
  • Some people find that using a paring knife (especially on herbs with smaller leaves) can work better than a chefs knife. The tip end of a paring knife is very sharp (after all, it's made for more precision cutting). So sliding a paring knife across your rolled up leaves might work great.

Sometimes cooks don’t want to use the center ribs. In my opinion, it just depends on how picky you are - and how firm the center ribs are. Two ways to approach that:

  1. You can just pick out the ribs after slicing and toss them. Ingenious, right? 
  2. You can use another, slightly different, approach. Instead of rolling the leaves, fold the leaves tip-to-stem. The center rib will stay right in the center of the pile. Make your slices until you reach the center rib. Flip the pile over and start slicing from the other side - until you reach the center rib again.
Like I said, pretty simple, right? This is one of those small touches that will add that little something extra to your dishes. Try it. You'll master it in no time!