Weep Not: How to Cut Onions without Crying

Weep Not: How to Cut Onions without Crying

Caramelising onions in anything gives wonderful sweetness, but before that - you've got to first get through the tears... or do you? Sarah Huang Benjamin has the answers.

My name is Sarah and I like to cry. I cry at movies, I cry when I hear a sad song, and I even cry when I see a cute puppy. But when I’m chopping onions? That’s when the tears need to stop. And I’m not the only one who wants to avoid crying when cutting onions. Look this up, and you’ll find tip upon tip on how to keep those eyes dry.

I chose my favourite ones and put them to the test in this episode, where I chop up heaps of onions in a Japanese steak rice recipe - the Chaliapin Steak Don. It's part of my series Sarah’s Asian Myths, where I also experiment with other widely debated cooking myths.

But first, back to those onions – why do they even cause these waterworks?

Well, onions produce a chemical irritant called ‘syn-propanethial-S-oxide’. Quite the mouthful, but it’s the eyes that have to watch out! Whenever we cut into an onion, and damage the cells inside it, this chemical gets released into the air and irritates our eyes. So, some things I tried out to stem the tears - 

Tactic No. 1: Wearing Goggles


So, you would think, it is only logical to protect the eyes while cutting an onion. Some people have tried wearing goggles while performing this kitchen task, which while making you look like a serious scientist, unfortunately don’t always work. That's because the pesky syn-propanethial-S-oxide can get in through the nose when you’re breathing anyway. Next tactic!

Tactic No. 2: Holding Something in Your Mouth

There are a range of variations on this tactic, but holding something in the mouth while chopping onions seems to be a popular old wives’ tale. In the episode, I tested holding a wooden spoon in the mouth. I can confirm that it not only makes you look silly, it does nothing to prevent the onion-induced irritation. My jaw certainly got a workout, however.

Another one which some people have had varying degrees of success with is holding a slice of bread in your mouth loosely while chopping onions. The idea is that the bread absorbs the irritants in the air before they can reach your eyes. But I think this would depend greatly on the type and size of the bread slice. Not to mention, it might turn to mush in your mouth. All in all, an unpleasant experience. Next!

Tactic No. 3: Cut Onions under Running Water


Here’s another popular tactic that you’ll find online. The idea is that you cut your onion in the sink, while the tap provides a constant stream of running water over the onion. The water washes away all those irritants, and creates a protective barrier between the onion and you. Although this has worked for some, I absolutely CANNOT recommend this.

First of all, this sounds horribly unsafe, with a sharp knife AND running water. With the slipping and sliding, you could easily cut yourself – a much bigger problem than a few tears, I think. And from a culinary perspective, you’ll end up with waterlogged, soggy chopped onions. They’ll be a nightmare to fry and caramelise. So please, don’t try this at home!

[WINNER] Tactic No. 4: Freeze the Onions before Cutting

Make Sarah's No Tears Onion Chaliapin Steak Don recipe pictured, right here

This tactic is one I tested in the episode of my series - Sarah's Asian Myths, and [SPOILER ALERT]... this came out tops! You don’t want to freeze the onion all the way through, so just chuck them into the freezer for about 20 minutes before chopping.

The cold temperature inhibits the sulfoxides in the onions – those sulfoxides are what turn into the irritants, so this is solving the problem at its root. If like me, you are a regular victim of onion-induced tears, then this is a simple method to help turn down those waterworks.

Sarah Huang Benjamin is a chef and food writer based in Singapore. Check out her personal blog at www.kitchenhoarder.com . Follow her culinary adventures on all socials at @sarahhuangbenjamin .

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