Stop, Drop, and Roll?

Dear C. Orange,

Sometimes when I cut onions my eyes hurt so bad that I consider chopping with my eyes closed. Do you have suggestions for preventing this? I’ve heard a few but I forgot what they were!

Thanks,
M. Y. Eyesonfire

I’ve heard of a few suggestions, too—though I don’t know how well any of them work. Peel the onion underwater; chew gum while you’re working with it; freeze the knife before you cut the onion…. Personally, I don’t pay much mind to any of the suggestions and my eyes aren’t usually bothered unless my knife is dull, though if I’m planning on drilling a hole through an onion, I will wear eye protection.
Wear eye protection when drilling holes through onions.

Really, the best way to cut an onion without crying is to improve your technique when slicing onions. The fewer cell walls you break while you’re preparing your onion, the less juice is released; the less juice released, the easier on your eyes. Make sure your knife is sharp. That way, you’ll make a clean incision and have fewer burst cells.

Follow these easy steps to cut your onions while shedding nary a tear:

Begin by slicing off the stem end and the root end of the onion. You’ll recognize the root by the thin, hairy root ends that descend from it; the stem end is opposite and often has the fibrous remains of the stem still attached.

When you peel an onion, don’t use a knife! Instead, cut the onion in half through the root end.

cut onion in half through root

Once it’s pared, simply remove the top couple of layers (which should only be skin) with your hands.

Remove the peel with your hands with celerity

It should just come right off, thereby greatly reducing the amount of damage you do to cell walls. Simply by using this technique to peel your onions, you should greatly reduce your problems with crying.

Next, cut your onion as efficiently as possible, using the fewest number of knife strokes. The less your knife is moving around, splashing droplets of onion juice through the air, the less vapor wafts into your eyes.

If you’re dicing an onion, begin by making a rainbow cut all the way around the onion. This means you make incisions in an arc around the onion so you’re always cutting toward the center, no matter where on the onion’s surface you are.

dicing an onion, step 1

Dicing an onion, step 2

To dice it, don’t cut all the way to the back of the onion: instead, keep the severed arms connected at their mutual shoulder so they’ll stay in place for you to cut accross all of them at once.

dicing an onion, step 3

If you’d rather cut your onion julienne, your first step should be to cut out the root of the onion, removing as little apart from the root as possible.

Cutting julienne, step 1

Then, make another rainbow cut, but this time cut all the way through to the back of the onion, because you want the pieces to come apart.

cutting julienne, step 2

Making the rainbow cut helps you to ensure that your pieces of onion have a uniform shape and size when you’re done. Some authorities will tell you to make your first incisions parallel to the cutting surface, and then to make your second set of incisions perpendicular to the cutting surface; your tertiary step in that case would be to cut crosswise and separate the onion into a dice. I say, why bother with three steps when you can get equal—or better—results with only two, just so long as you have control over the angle of your knife to always cut toward the center.

Best of luck cutting onions tear-free! If these tips don’t help, you can always spring for a pair of swim goggles!

photo credits: Aurora Sharrard, except drilling holes through onions, Jim Sharrard

9 Responses to “Stop, Drop, and Roll?”

  1. Umit Says:

    Jesse,
    Thanks for the great advices about cutting onions. I have no skills for knives at all but cutting the onion when the water is running definitely works!

  2. Corduroy Orange » Blog Archive » Making Perfect Knife Cuts Says:

    [...] For most vegetables (carrots and onions being two of the few exceptions), the most efficient way to dice them also yields perfect results. If you are able to keep the pieces of your veggies organized into neat stacks, you will be able to slice through them several layers at a time, swiftly producing beautiful cuts. [...]

  3. Corduroy Orange » Blog Archive » Sweet Caramelized Red Onion Marmalade! Says:

    [...] 2 large red onions, cut thinly (julienne) [...]

  4. Corduroy Orange » Blog Archive » Knife Skills Table of Contents Says:

    [...] Basic Technique 2: One of the few exceptions to the basic technique involves cutting onions. They’re round, concentrical, and require a couple of special tricks to be cut into even pieces.  Better yet, using proper technique will help you get the job done without setting your eyes on fire. [...]

  5. Corduroy Orange » Blog Archive » Kitchen Technique: Caramelizing Onions Says:

    [...] Also, if you want to give your results another big boost, try to cut your pieces to a uniform size.  It’s easier than you might think to do so—check out my tips on cutting an onion.  My method will help you peel it more quickly, make fewer knife cuts, and reduce your exposure to airborne onion juices (thereby reducing the numer of tears you shed). [...]

  6. Kitchen Technique: Caramelizing Onions - Recipes World Says:

    [...] Also, if you want to give your results another big boost, try to cut your pieces to a uniform size. It’s easier than you might think to do so”check out my tips on cutting an onion. My method will help you peel it more quickly, make fewer knife cuts, and reduce your exposure to airborne onion juices (thereby reducing the numer of tears you shed). [...]

  7. Samantha Says:

    Jess, I would just like to know what in the world you were doing drilling holes in onions? It seems like there’s got to be an interesting story in there somewhere.

  8. Corduroy Orange » Blog Archive » Cooking Off The Cuff Says:

    [...] There were still a few zucchinis left from last week, but sauteed zucchini by itself is a bit boring.  We got some amazing tomatoes in our box today, though… and a white onion.  I cut the onion into julienne strips, and sauteed it in a cast iron pan with some salt and pepper.  Meanwhile, I sliced my zucchini thinly and cored and sliced a couple of tomatoes.  When the onion was translucent, I removed it to a bowl and arranged the sliced zucchini neatly around the bottom of the hot pan.  I hit it with a touch of salt and some pepper, layered the onions over it, and then arranged the tomatoes neatly atop that.  It looked good, but something was missing.  I threw open the fridge and grabbed the remnants of a block of asiago cheese and grated that over the tomatoes, then threw it in the oven I’d heated to 400 F.  For good measure, I took the hot pan of green beans off the burner and threw it in the oven, too, on the top rack, directly above the ratatouilleesque dish to help the cheese brown a bit. [...]

  9. 5 Cooking Sites to Educate, Entertain, and Tempt Your Tastebuds — SandwichINK.com Says:

    [...] looking for help in how to Julienne onions, and he had that info for me, complete with pictures. http://corduroyorange.com/?p=31 I enjoyed spending time reading his site. There is a lot of humor mixed in with some great [...]

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