Cutting the vegetables, meats and fish in a certain direction according to the direction of the grain or muscle will change the mouthfeel, as well as the taste such as level of bitterness and sweetness. It even changes the nutritional intake.
I find this a logical way to go about cooking; there is the how and the why with the enhanced results. It makes sense to adapt the style of cutting to suit the dish for culinary excellence.
In simple speak, cutting AGAINST the grain means that you are cutting the fibres short. This means that the ingredient would be less chewy as you won’t have to chomp down as much. But it also means it won’t hold shape so well (think pillars and columns missing on a building = it doesn’t have a strong structure and so would crumble down readily). By cutting against the grain, as the cutting knife glides through, you’re essentially slicing in to the cell structure and damaging and rupturing it, and from here, the aroma compound, the flavour compounds, the nutrients readily oozes out. Perhaps this sound horrendous, with all those lovely compounds escaping out, but, the art is in the knowledge that this can be advantageous at times: for example, you can enjoy the maximum fragrance of the herb if you clap your hand on it and rupture the cells which would release the aroma compound.
Cutting TO the grain would make the ingredient harder to chew. This is because it has more fibre to chomp through, but on the plus-side, it holds it’s shape well. This might be an important factor in cooking, for keeping the shape of the ingredients intact in long-cooked stews. Also, as the cells are not cut through, the nutrients and the water content within the ingredient remains within those cells. Which sounds very positive, but it is important to say that there is no right or wrong way of cutting. It all depends on the application. For example, in a raw salad, cutting the white cabbage vertically to the grain may be too much work for your jaws to crunch!
So here are the common characteristics of cutting ‘to’ and ‘against’ the grain:
TO THE GRAIN
- Crunchier and crispier.
- Maintains shape in stews.
- Water is retained in the vegetable.
- Looks voluminous.
- Nutrients remain in the vegetable.
- Less likely to make you cry when cutting onions as the irritant doesn’t seep out as much!
- Takes longer to heat through.
- Application: Stir-frys: cutting along the fibre is less likely to make the stir fry watery. Soups like miso soup and minestrone where the shape of the ingredients should remain intact.
AGAINST THE GRAIN
- Easier to chew.
- Loses the shape when cooked for long like in stews.
- Looks limp-er.
- Nutrients seep out easier. Think of the grain like drinking straws that has a hole: if you cut the straw short, it will leak.
- The flavours from other ingredients would soak in better.
- Takes less time to heat through.
- Pronounced sweetness but also bitterness/ astringency.
- Tears easier.
- Application: Onions for risotto, steak, pureed soups.
Here are some examples of how to cut the ingredients, whilst also considering the balance of their ying and yang in each slice.
The direction of the grain is very visible on this vegetable. It’s the lines that run from top to bottom, arching out from the core.
Onions are the indispensable side-kick of many dishes, and could win the best supporting role in an award. Astringent when raw, but sweet when cooked. When you cut against the grain, the astringent compound oozes out from the broken cells, and the onion taste characteristically more ‘onion-y’. Whenever you’re adding raw onion slices to salads, you might find the instantly astringent, almost spicy flavour unwelcome, so, to avoid this, slicing it ‘to’ the direction of the grain from top to bottom, would make the onion less so.
Whereas in a stew, you might want to tease out the flavours of the onion and melt it entirely into the stock. Here, you would cut horizontally, which is ‘against’ the grain. (Nutrients escapes from the ruptured cells, but this won’t matter too much if you are making a stew or a soup, as those nutrients will be just transferred to the soup liquid.)
You see, it’s all about bringing out the best out of them in each scenario. In my crazy mind, when cutting an onion, I think about preparing the stage for Mr. Onion, to outstandingly perform, sometimes doing a funky jazz number, and then sometimes doing a melodic solo, all thanks to my direction… Lol. (Anyway, sorry, back to reality!)
The macrobiotic way of cutting the onion (and infact with anything round) goes a step further than considering the fibre direction, and is cut to the grain using the core as axis, pole to pole, to incoporate every slice with the ying part of top and yang part of bottom, and the yin part of outside and yang part of inside. By doing this, each slice has the upper, lower, outer, and inner parts in a well-balanced manner. Interestingly this method of cutting the onion hardly make your eyes water. This is because less cells are cut through, hence not releasing as much of the tear-jerking compound.
Application: When incorporating onions in salads (i.e. Greek salad), try thin vertical cuts to make it less astringent. You could dunk the slices in cold water for a while to rinse off the astringent harshness too, although whilst this method makes for a milder onion, it also replaces the nutrients in the cells with water instead.
Perhaps the penultimate example of how the cutting direction affects the food is how sushi chefs cut the sashimi. The best sashimi obviously starts with a very fresh fish and a sharp knife that cuts effortlessly and won’t squash the tender fish, but just as important is the ‘way’ the fish is cut. It mustn’t be chewy (or sinewy) yet it also mustn’t be too soft that it is mushy.
Each and every type of fish has a different grain pattern. White fleshed fish is typically cut along the grain somewhat to maintain the bouncy resistance. On the other-hand tuna has very strong grain, so it is cut vertically against so that the grain is the shortest it can be. This way, one doesn’t have to chew so much to break it down.
The thickness of the slices also play the part in how chewy it is, AKA, how much grain there is to chew through. A good sushi chef would adjust the thickness by type of fish and by the individual catch to achieve the perfect eating experience.
On a side note, you know that little mountain of stripped daikon radish condiment that often accompany sashimi dishes? This is another example in case. The cutting direction of the daikon is well-considered too. If it’s cut horizontally (against the grain), it’s called Yoko-ken (横けん= horizontal sword), and vertically cut would be called Tate-ken (縦けん= vertical sword). ‘Ken’ means sword, so as you can imagine, the vertical one standing up straight like swords. Maybe something to observe when you next go to a good sushi establishment!? 😉
Since you’re looking at sashimi, also admire how the slices are arranged from the back to the front, and from the right to the left, spreading out lower, like a river flowing from a mountain. The back has height from the right to the left, which makes a sense of depth as well as so that it is easier to take the sashimi (most people are right handed). It’s so thought through! By the way, the chef would put the day’s most recommended sashimi in the centre stage; it’s a sushi-trivia worth knowing.
Just like the other ingredients, the texture and the taste changes depending on whether you cut the pepper vertically or horizontally. When fibre is cut against (horizontal cut), the bitterness and aroma comes through stronger. So when a person say that they don’t like eating peppers, the solution might be to cut the pepper vertically for them. Actually, a nicer introduction to peppers would be to roast whole uncut pepper, as the bitterness would virtually disappear and leave just the sweetness.
Meat has long stretches of muscle fibres that make up muscle tissue. This muscle fibre is long, hard and strong. Since the fibre remains intact even when it is heated, if these fibres are left uncut, the meat may be hard to chew. Leaving the fibres long will shrink your meat when it cooks, as the fibres seize up. This yanks the meat and warp the shape too. Cutting the fibre short makes it heat through better and makes it easier to eat with a softer texture.
When cutting meat, take a good look at what direction the fibre is running and put the knife at a correct angle to shorten the strong fibres, because the shorter the fibre, the easier it is to eat. To determine the fibre direction, look at the meat from the top. You’ll see quite visible lines (I like to call them ‘wrinkles’ because it looks a little like an old persons face wrinkles). How the white fat pattern flows is also a good indicator of direction. And oh, don’t forget to also look at the meat from the side. The fibre might not be running straight down at 90 degrees. Quite often it can run diagonally down, which, if so, you’d also run the knife diagonally down.
Similarly, just like how the long fibres would shrink and warp the meat, for chicken breast, it’s recommended to remove the white tendon that runs through the meat. Whilst chicken breast is a soft meat, it is notorious for ending up dry once cooked, so any and every effort to cook it softly is a worthwhile action.
The grain direction on chicken breast is a little bewildering. The chicken muscle fibre radiate like a leaf from the middle, because there is both the muscle that moves the wings and the muscle near the tail. The thicker and rounder end of the breast meat is the wing end, and the fibres here run to the left and right from the middle. Then there is the fibres that run vertically toward the tail.
Good thing is, the fibre direction is very visible. You’ll see that the chicken muscle fibre radiate like a leaf from the middle. If this is left uncut, the meat will be hard. So, to cut the fibre strands short, first put the raw meat sideways on the cutting board, rounder wing end on the left. Then cut it into two at the centre, then proceed to cut the left half (the end with the roundness) sideways. Then cut the right half (the pointed end) vertically.
The grain on leafy vegetables such as spinach, pak choi and cabbage is from the stem to the tip, following the visible veins of the leaves. Whilst probably not such a problem for soft leafy veg like spinach and pak choi, the stem end on leaf vegetables like cabbage tend to be too hard to chew. So here, cutting it against the grain might be better. Although, sometimes, you might consider separately cutting the soft leafy part ‘to’ the grain (vertically) so it is less bitter and crispier. It also depends on wether it is going to be eaten raw or cooked, as, whilst the crunchy fibres are too much work to chew when raw (this is especially the case with white cabbage which is hard all over), in a stew like pot-au-feu, where you want to have vegetable shapes intact, cutting ‘to’ the grain might be a better option.
The fibre direction on a potato is a little difficult to see perhaps. Most potatoes are oblong, and when you stand it tall, that is the ‘pole-to-pole’. When you cut it in half, you can just about see a darker tint streaking down the middle. Cutting to the grain would suit french fries (or should I call it ‘chips’ if you’re reading this in UK!) as it would keep shape. For potato salads, cutting it against the grain could be nice, as it would break easier as you bite, and melt in the mouth.
HOW TO TELL THE DIRECTION OF FIBRE:
Most ingredients have very visible signs of fibre (i.e. the vertical lines on the onion). But, if you’re unsure, I suggest two solutions:
1. Pull on the ingredient. If it stretches, the fibres are running vertically (think paper fan).
2. Try tearing it. It would tear more readily if to the fibre.
THE TAKEAWAY POINTS:
1. In general, fibre is often in the same direction as the growing direction. It is the stem to tip of vegetable. And for meat, it is generally running in the same direction as the bone.
2. Cutting it vertically to the grain would retain the grain, where as horizontally against it would sever the grain.
3. Horizontally against would make the food easier to chew as there’s less grain to chew.
4. Nutrients are lost quicker when cut against the grain as the cells are severed open.
5. There is no right or wrong way, as both have its pro’s and con’s. It is up to you to decide what is right for the dish.