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No need for crying! Readers give us suggestions for chopping onions

January 21, 2009 | 12:33 pm

Readers

This week's story on caramelized onions led to a flood of mail from readers willing to share their secrets about how to chop onions without all those tears.

Several recommended refrigerating the onions for this reason: The sulfur compounds that create onion tearing are heat-volatile. Even at room temperature, the compounds turn to gas and fly up in your face. Chilling the onions before slicing reduces their volatility -- as long as you slice them straight out of the fridge while they are still cold. On the other hand, you don’t want to store onions in the refrigerator for too long because they do have a powerful smell that will permeate everything you have stored there.

Thanks to all the readers who took the time to pass along tips. Here are some highlights, and if you've got some more to add to the mix, please leave a comment here:

Carol Martin of Westminster: 

You're right about the sharp knife -- for one or two it works. For a
larger amount, doing the slicing right next to a gas burner on at a
high level works really well, though it's not energy efficient. (Another
remedy to add to the wooden spoon collection, though perhaps not quite so
funny, is to hold a slice of bread in the mouth while slicing. Not very effective.)

If you need to speed up your [cooking] process, you could nuke the onions in the
microwave on the vegetable setting and finish the process on the stovetop. (Yes, it does make more dishwashing that way.)

James resorts to wearing contacts...

What I do to prevent tears while cutting onions is to put on my contact lenses. I think the soft lenses are permeable to oxygen but not so much to the volatile onion fragrance that causes tearing.

Judy suggests goggles:

Loved the article about caramelized onions. I've been doing this for years and love them in just about anything! Sur la Table has wonderful (but geeky) onion goggles that completely block out all those nasty crying chemicals! You look a little goofy wearing them, but no more so than with a wooden spoon in your mouth and tears streaming down your face! Give 'em a try! Have a great tear-free day!

Marilyn Lewis of Crawfordville, Fla., also advocates refrigeration, but also wonders whether it works en masse:

One thing that has worked for me is to refrigerate the onions....it successfully cuts down the tears...although I haven't tried this with five pounds of yellow onions at one time!

Rich lights a candle and cuts out the middle section of each onion half:

Great article on onions today –- I actually have a bunch of caramelized onions in the fridge, though not the four-hour variety, which I am now interested to try. I usually throw a little bit of Worcestershire and/or balsamic vinegar in with them, a bit of brown sugar, salt and pepper, and throw them on top of burgers. You'll probably get a bunch of recommendations on the chopping, but here's one that I started doing recently that actually works for me. If, after you cut the onions in half, you pop out the very middle section, whatever's connected to the root area, (sometimes it's easiest to use a paring knife, sometimes it just pops out), you'll reduce the amount of tears significantly. I can't remember where I got this, it might have been in Cook's Illustrated, but it's the best solution I've found so far. (Second best is lighting a candle or two near your work area. Kind of awkward, though.) Apparently, most of the tear-inducing chemicals are in those inside layers. True, you lose a little bit of the onion, but I've often been able to go through three or four onions this way with barely any tears. Worth a shot. I agree that the sharp knife makes a big difference too.

From Mary:

Cutting the onions on the stovetop near a down-draft vent helped me a lot. Now I rely on using the exhaust fan and placing my cutting board on the cold stovetop. Most of the onion fumes exit without tears.

John Moore of Carmichael offered up some first-hand experience with dicing onions:

I really enjoyed your article on caramelized onions. I used to be saucier at Michell’s at the Colony Surf Hotel at Diamond Head (oh…40 years ago) and had to cut lots of onions for French onion soup. I agree with you that a really sharp knife is essential. Here’s a couple of tricks to add to the ones you mentioned. Replace the wooden spoon with a slice of bread. The bread not only blocks the sulfurous compounds from getting into your eyes and sinuses but also absorbs them far better than the wood. I was a real sight with a large piece of bread in my mouth and swimming goggles on my eyes, but it definitely helped. The latest and best thing I’ve found is to cut the onions under water. I use a large, clear plastic container filled with water which gives me enough room to slice one onion at a time. You just dump the water and onions into a colander when you’ve finished slicing and repeat as necessary.

From Nancy:

When my husband chops the onions grown in our vegetable garden to freeze for later use, he sets a huge fan on the counter to blow the fumes away.

Photo: Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times

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