When I was a young lass just learning how to cook, I was fearless. New recipes were adventures and exotic ingredients were a challenge to my culinary prowess. I loved to come up with new ideas to nourish my family’s and friends’ bellies and soul
Not a whole lot has changed since then, actually, but for one thing: I always cry when I chop onions. My youth granted me a magical immunity to the tear-jerking properties of onions. No type of onion could make my eyes well up even just a single tear. I was invincible.
Until one day, around the age of 18, I met the shallot.
Oh, she was lovely. Fragrant, small, and a lovely shade of violet, sparkling like a gem on my cutting board. She was the key to making my cream sauce for that night’s dinner, and I was going to make her flavors sing. I had no idea what I was getting in to.
I started chopping the shallot like any other onion. Chop, chop, chop. Suddenly, there was an unfamiliar sting in my eye. Chop, chop, chop. The sting started to burn, and I began to squint. Chop, chop, chop. And that’s when the tears started. I was so shocked, I didn’t know what to do, so I walked away from my shallot to take a break. When I finally returned to finish chopping them up, I powered through as quickly as I could and dumped them into the pot before running away to have a quick, onion-induced, cry.
I’ve never been the same since that day. Now every type of onion makes me cry, from sweet vidalias, to reds, whites, and, yes, the shallot. The only ones that are still “safe” are scallions and leeks. I’ve got some tricks up my sleeve to help me make it through prepping dinner with fewer tears, though.
Why do onions make me cry?
First, though, let’s talk science. Things are made up of cells, onions included. When you chop into an onion, you’re breaking some of the cells that make up the onion. Upon being brutally sliced open and crushed, these cells release their contents, including water (onion juice!), enzymes, acids, and all of the other stuff that makes up an onion. When the enzymes meet up with the sulfenic acids that would normally be kept separate, they produce an acidic gas that, when it hits your sensitive eyeballs, causes you to cry.
So, damaged cells = chemical release and reaction = gas that makes you cry.
How to chop onions without tears
You won’t necessarily be able to chop onions completely tear-free, but I have a few tricks up my sleeve and have tried a few methods to keep the water works at bay. Here are some methods I’ve used, starting with ones that don’t really work:
- Make someone else chop your onions.
This is a fool-proof way to avoid tears when chopping onions. I’m assuming most of you, like me, have something preventing you from employing slave labor here. Soon-to-be-husband says the only thing worse than me chopping onions in the kitchen, is him having to do it. While this method works, it is among the most difficult to implement.
- Have cold water/cold wet rag on your arms while chopping onions.
Yeah…this doesn’t work. It just makes cutting onions awkward.
- Cut the onion under water.
While an interesting idea, this is another really awkward way to chop onions.
- Light a match, blow it out, and hold the blown out match in your teeth while you chop the onions.
This makes you look silly and just doesn’t work very well for very long. This is not a method to employ with anyone in the house at all, for fear of mockery.
- Hold a piece of bread between your teeth.
A cute old wive’s tale that suggests the bread will absorb the gasses before your poor eyeballs do that makes you look about as silly as the blown out match.
And now for what does work!
- Chop them in a food processor.
This is great, especially if you have a lot of onions to chop and need them somewhat finely chopped or diced. The only downside is the blast of scary eye-searing gas you get when you open up the food processor. Open it at arm’s length, people.
- Use a sharp knife.
The sharper the better. A sharper knife will make a cleaner cut, resulting in fewer cells being ruptured, and thus less gas being emitted from your onion. I’m a lucky girl with a Shun chef’s knife, but if you don’t have it in your budget for a $120 knife, just make sure you keep your kitchen knives in top-top shape!
- Freeze the onion for a few minutes before chopping it.
This is a great little trick if you have about 5 minutes before you need to chop your onion. I don’t exactly know why it works (I’m no Alton Brown, folks), but it does. Just don’t forget about your onion lest it turns into an impossibly hard ice-onion hurling object, and mushy upon eventual thaw. Pull it out after about 5-10 minutes for mostly tear-free onion chopping bliss.
- Store your onions in the refrigerator.
Colder onions release fewer gasses, so if you don’t have time to freeze your onion every time, just keep them in the refrigerator. This doesn’t work nearly as well, though.
- Use sweeter onions.
I say this, of course, but I prefer a very pungent onion. If you don’t love the flavor of onions as much as I do, or are willing to sacrifice some to save a few tears, choose a sweeter Vidalia or Texas Sweet onion instead of shallots or red onions.
- Wear eye protection.
Get thee a snazzy pair of onion goggles and go nuts. Unfortunately, this falls into the same ridicule category that the bread and match do from above. Save your onion goggles for private onion chopping times.
There you have it: all of my onion chopping secrets. Do you have any tips or tricks that have worked for you? Or any good onion chopping stories? Spill in the comments!