The Fine Art of Peeling

The peel, since it rarely has anything desirable to contribute to the taste of food, interests us in only one way: how to get it off. In many circumstances, it can be pulled away easily enough when the ingredient has been cooked or blanched. Examples are potatoes that are skinned after boiling, peppers after roasting, tomatoes and almonds after blanching. There are occasions, however, when it is to our advantage to skin a vegetable or fruit while it is raw. If you are sautéing peppers for a sauce or a meat dish, you want the peppers to be firm and dry. If you roast them first to peel them, they will become moist and soft, and impossible to brown. If you leave the skin on, it will slip off during the cooking and mingle with the other ingredients—and there is nothing interesting about chewing on bits of vegetable peel.

The same applies to tomatoes. When cooking fresh tomatoes fast for a light sauce, one can’t blanch them to peel them because they become watery and will therefore take longer to cook. Moreover, when preparing tomatoes for salads, removing the peel also removes some of the sourness, making them taste sweeter and riper. Peeling is also useful when marinating fruit such as peaches, or making macedonia, the Italian fruit salad.

Skinning one’s way around the folds of a pepper or over a soft tomato or a ripe peach is troublesome unless one knows how to use a peeler. To my surprise, considering it is a tool produced by the millions, most people do not know how to use it properly and efficiently—at least, most of the people who have come to my classes did not. A cooking teacher once wrote to say that of all the techniques she had acquired in my class, none had proved more useful than having learned to use the peeler.

The tool I have in mind is the one whose blade looks a little like a long buttonhole, with parallel cutting edges facing each other on the inside rims. The blade is not set in the handle in a fixed position, it swivels. The error I have seen students make is to use it like a paring knife, pressing the blade against the vegetable or fruit, sometimes even blocking its action with a fingertip. That is not peeling, it is whittling. It removes pulp along with the peel and, eventually, will blunt the blade.

The peeler must be used with a sawing movement, left to right, side to side, and it must be left free to swivel. No pressure at all needs to be applied. When used correctly, the cutting edge slips under the skin and separates it neatly from the ingredient, without biting into the flesh. When practiced correctly, peeling is effortless and fast and, in many cases, indispensable.