Essential Knife Skills for Chinese Cooking: Julienne
Today’s Chinese knife skill is perhaps the most famous of cuts: julienne 丝 (sī). The recipe inspiration is another childhood favorite of mine, 酸辣土豆是 (suān là tǔ dòu sī), hot and sour potato threads from Sichuan. My college roommate and I used to crave it every time we missed home. Similar to Chinese Three Threads 炒三丝, 丝 threads here refers to julienned potatoes.
I remember the first time I ever made Sichuan julienned potatoes myself. At the time, it was a big test of my limited knife skills. I sent a picture of the finished dish to my parents, and my mom promptly declared that I’d made 土豆条 (tǔ dòu tiǎo) French fries instead of 丝 julienne. It was a bit of a blow to my ego, but I resolved to improve my knife skills.
Although one might think of julienne as a fancy French cut reserved for restaurants, it’s a key knife skill in Chinese cooking. The even, thin strips are essential for quick, even cooking in high temperature stir fries, where short cooking time keeps the food crisp.
Since I took the long way around to learning how to julienne properly, I’d like to help you learn faster with my new series on Essential Knife Skills for Chinese Cooking. Once I started to get the hang of it, I really fell in love with knife work. Put on some happy music, and come julienne some potatoes and carrots with me! And remember, even if your first attempt is French fries like mine was, the dish will still be delicious!
Chinese Knife Skills 101: Julienne 切丝 (Carrots, Potatoes, etc)
切丝 (qiē sī) cutting threads or julienne features prominently in many Chinese stir fries. Being able to cut even matchsticks really opens up fast weeknight dinner options. Most knife skills videos I’ve seen use giant, perfectly square carrots. But these videos did nothing for me since my local grocery always has skinny, uneven carrots .
My method to julienne is adapted from the method for 切丝 that Chinese chefs use. It’s minimal waste and super fast because we don’t need to perfectly squared off slabs. Bring on the scrawny, weird carrots — let’s julienne!
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If a picture’s worth 1000 words, then a video has to be worth 10,000 for learning knife skills. This video explains in detail how to 切丝 julienne a potato and carrot. The potato method works for any round food like beets and apples, while the carrot method works for any long, skinny vegetable like daikon, zucchini, and cucumber.
Step 0: Cutting Board and Knife
A knife and cutting board are the most essential kitchen tools for Chinese cooking, but they definitely don’t need to be expensive. For details on how to choose and care for your knife and cutting board, check out my post Essential Knife Skills: Knife & Board. If you find knife work frustrating, your tools could be part of the problem. If you’re using a “chef knife” out of a knife block set from a big-box store, your tools are really doing you no favors. Fortunately, just $15 can be a big upgrade!
A recap of my recommended equipment. I have and use all of these knives regularly:
Step 1: Peel Vegetable 削皮
If you don’t love your peeler, do yourself a favor and try this Kuhn Rikon Swiss peeler. We’ve given out a ton of them to friends because almost everyone who tries it falls in loves. This peeler is ergonomic and cheap, and it makes thin, even shavings that don’t waste your produce or your time.
Peel the potatoes and carrots. Make sure that you remove any eyes, sprouts, or green areas from the potato.
Step 2: Cut Thin Slices 切片
Form a flat, stable platform for slicing: cut off a thin slice or two from one side of the potato or carrot. This makes the next steps easier and safer.
For potatoes: lay the potato on the flat side, and cut even slices “hot-dog style” on the long side of the potato.
For skinny vegetables like carrots and cucumbers, cut on the bias for ovals of your desired length. Congratulations, you’ve now mastered 切片 (qiē piàn) or rondelles!
For most stir fries, I aim for 2mm slices, but the most important thing is to make sure that they are as consistent as possible. Keep your knife at a 90° angle to the board. This is the hardest step for me, but it’s the one that really sets you up for success. So take your time!
Step 3: Fan out the Slices 将片摊平
This is the Chinese knife skills secret. Gather your slices together. Next, flatten out the pile of slices like fanning out a deck of cards. We want to make an even, flat layer of partially overlapping slices. This allows us to cut quickly and evenly.
Step 4: Julienne = Thin Strips 切丝
Starting at one end of the deck, cut even strips. Make sure to always keep the fingertips of your guide (non-dominant) hand curled under, and your thumb bent behind your other fingers! This hand position is known as “the claw” and keeps your fingers safe. Holding the knife against the knuckles of your guide hande, make a cut every 2mm. Move your guide hand back as you work your way across the entire “deck” of vegetable slices.
Revel in the sense of accomplishment… you now have a perfect julienne with no waste!
Put Your New Skills To Use
The dish that drove me to get better at julienne was a childhood favorite, Sichuan Hot & Sour Potatoes 酸辣土豆丝. I can’t think of a better excuse to work on my knife skills. All you need is potatoes, carrots, and the ingredients from my essential ingredients pantry shopping list!
My favorite kitchen cleanout recipe, Chinese Three Threads 炒三丝. It’s an amazing way to use up any random vegetables and meats in your refrigerator!
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