Why Cry Over Cut Onions?

by Jeff Berkowitz on June 15, 2010 · 1 comment

in Tips & Tricks

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Professional Chefs and home cooks, alike, have been searching for centuries for a sure fire way to relieve the pain of chopping oni0ns. You know the feeling you get when you cut into a particularly righteous onion that can only be likened to the feeling you get when you were at a 1960’s style political riot (that is tear gas for those of you too young or too old to remember the 60’s).

The reason for the teary reaction is a nasty sulfur compound that is stored in highest concentration in the roots of the onion and when it is released reacts with some enzymes in the onion and with your eyes to produce the burning and tearing. Naturally, since your eyes are burning you close them…nope, that doesn’t work. The other way it enters your lachrymal glands is through your nose. That yields another obvious solution…constant positive pressure in the sinus cavity with your mouth closed should keep the nasty compounds from irritating that sensitive flesh; exhaling for 5 or 10 minutes continuously turns out not to be a good solution either unless you don’t mind being picked up of the floor periodically.

When I was a kid, just starting to understand the delights of cutting onions, my mother got a tip from a culinary vocational-tech student she was tutoring. He suggested that a piece of bread held in the mouth while you cut the onions would keep the noxious vapors from reaching your nose or eyes. I always wound up eating the bread before I was done cutting the onions…so much for that method. Then I got my first breakthrough, I happen to be a knife sharpening fanatic, that is to say my knives are usually sharp enough to shave the hair on my arms. That is the first secret: maintain a perfectly honed edge on your knife.  This will definitely  be a video post in the future , but for now if you need your knife sharpened you may need to bring it to a professional, but I guarantee that it will help. A sharp knife cuts cleanly without breaking a lot of onion cells keeping the sulfur compounds in the onion, which is good because onions have micro-nutrients which are better left in for you to consume.

There are two other tips I can give that help quite a bit: 1. chill your onions (no I don’t mean you’re too excited, I mean you should put your onions in the refrigerator for about a ½ hour before you cut them); 2. soak the peeled onions in cold water for a few minutes, the water gets pulled into the onion cells and dilutes the sulfur compounds and produces less pain. These two remedies do work to a certain extent and there are more…my wife came up with lighting a candle or the stove burner from another article on the subject some time ago. This also works for reasons I have yet to identify, but I suspect it has to do with air currents because these compounds are very light and get can get caught in the up draft…we use this method to keep wild yeast from an open vessel when making wine or beer. Finally, it has been suggested that since these sulfur compounds are concentrated in the roots one should not disturb them.

I have found merit in all of these, the bread was good to eat after all even if it didn’t control the tears. My first choice is a sharp knife, after that give the rest of these a try and STOP CRYING OVER CUT ONIONS!

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

1 steff (steffsays) June 15, 2010 at 3:33 pm

i am ridiculously sensitive to raw onions, but i have my own extremely dorky but effective solution to the problem. i wear goggles when i cut them! it’s bizarre i know, but a girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do!


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