The famed chef Julia Childs had her team and TV audience laughing when she had a piece of white bread hanging from her mouth. In her unique accent, she said that we are about to slice an onion. There was never any proof that bread absorbed the acidic gas that makes tears flow.
Nevertheless, cooks everywhere tried it. Apparently, Ms. Child was not alone in using this technique, other European cultures used onions in their recipes with bread in between their teeth. The science behind this technique was to prove that bread immediately absorbs the onion’s compounds before its acidity reaches the eyes.
There was once a question of whether onions were grouped as a vegetable or a fruit. But since onions have roots that grow underground they are classified as a vegetable. Onions contain a protective acidic enzyme that will make you cry when you slice it, plus its pungency literally makes your eyes sting. When an onion is sliced or cut, it automatically releases enzymes that are used to keep underground critters from eating it. For humans, the compounds literally irritate our eyes.
The onion compounds consist of the amino acid alliin, synthase, and an element called syn-propanethial S-oxide. These strong enzymes are released into the air in the form of an invisible gas that irritates the eye’s lacrimal (tear) glands causing tears to flow quickly. This chemical process is complicated, yet intriguing.
Onion The Crop
The National Onion Association states that the longer you keep onion, their potency increases as does their ability to make tears fall quickly. The fresher an onion is, the less likely it will hurt your eyes causing tears to fall.
The Onion Association further reports that onions grow and are harvested in over 170 countries. Their history dates back to thousands of years throughout Asia and Europe. Onions are the third-largest fresh vegetable grown in the United States. Onions are versatile vegetables that allow cooks to chop, sautéed, fry, smother, carmelize, or grill their way into many delectable recipes.
Health Benefits of Onions
Onions are low in calories while also being filled with minerals, vitamins, and lots of antioxidants. They also contain many other naturally beneficial chemicals that have been attributed to providing protection against cancer.
Onions are enriched with antioxidants. Antioxidants help to fight inflammation within the body. Onions help to fight chronic diseases like heart disease and onions are a natural antihistamine. Onions retain their beneficial properties no matter whether you eat some onions raw or prepared in cooking recipes.
Other natural chemicals in onions include anti-bacterial properties and onions help to lower cholesterol levels. Sulfur is a major chemical in onions. Sulfur is responsible for the onion’s flavorful taste. Sulfur also prevents clotting which prevents heart attacks or strokes.
Vitamin C is also in onions which is great for our immune system that helps to make the protein collagen. Other natural chemicals include biotin that helps to fight type 2 diabetes and helps to lessen the risk of bone loss.
Red, White, Yellow Onions
They may irritate your eyes, give you a runny nose, and cause tears to flow, but onions are safe on your eyes. Their irritation will only last for a short period of time. Around the world, there are many varied onions, but the more common types of onions worldwide and in the U.S. include red, yellow, and white.
White Onions: White onions are sharper in taste. They have a more pungent flavoring than yellow onions. White onions are thinner and are more tender. White onions are great dishes that call for minced and you can eat them raw in salads, salsas, and on sandwiches.
Red Onions: This purple outer skin onion is similar in taste to yellow onions. Like white onions, red onions are minced and cut up in salads, salsas, and sandwiches. Red onions are very mild in taste and retain their delicious flavoring no matter how you use them in recipes. Yes, red onions have eye-watering properties.
Yellow Onions: Yellow onions are the standard vegetable we grab when we are grocery shopping. Nearly 87% of onions produced in the U.S. are yellow onions. Yellow onions are found in varying tastes including mild, moderate, and sweet. The longer that you cook them, the sweeter they get. Their outer skin is a little tougher than the other varieties.
Yellow onions are also known as Spanish onions. When a recipe calls for an onion, more than likely the recipe is calling for a yellow onion. They have a powerful natural flavor and yes, they will bring tears to your eyes because of their rich sulfur composition.
Compared to the white and yellow onion species, the red onions are less irritating thus producing fewer tears, but your eyes will still sting a little bit. There are green onions that professional chefs and cooks call “scallions.” Scallions have very few acidic enzymes thus they are less pungent and barely produce tears.
Another category popularly known in the U.S. is “sweet onions.” They are closely related in color to the yellow onion species. Sweet onions are commonly known as Vidalia Sweets, Maui Sweets, Walla Walla Sweets, and Texas Sweet. Sweet onions hold up to their name, they do not contain the pungent sulfuric chemical as other onions are known to contain. These onions will not make you cry and you can possibly eat them raw.
Sweet onions are large with paper-thin skin. Cooking with sweet onions means that they caramelize beautifully. Sweet onions are not that flavorful. Restaurants use sweet onions when you order roasted onion rings. They are enjoyed in salads and as garnishes.
As much as you love onions, if you experience indigestion you may have a sensitivity to this delectable vegetable. Onion sensitivity may be a mild case which means use onions sparingly in your recipes and certainly do not eat them raw. Onions are a very healthy food, but it is not friendly to everyone. Onions are best absorbed by the intestines when cooked rather than eating them raw.
Let’s look at the 5 tips in how to cut onions without crying:
1. Use a Sharp Knife
Many chefs believe that how you cut onions goes a long way in lessening the amount of tears you will shed. Professional cooks ask that you use a very sharp and long (6”) knife but avoid slicing or cutting them near the root. An onion’s root contains very high concentrations of sulfuric enzymes or compounds that are guaranteed to produce tears.
The sharper and longer your knife, the less time you spend on cutting into it. It is suggested that you should slice or cut an onion away from your body so that its gas enzymes do not rise up in your face and irritate your eyes. A simple tip for chopping an onion is to slice it in half then quickly peel away its thin layers.
Using vertical cuts in the rounds until you come near the root. Quickly throw away the root and then finish chopping the onion. The sharper the knife, the fewer cells you will open up and damage. The less you damage onion cells, the less gas is released, and the result is less tears.
2. Use a Wet Paper Towel
A year ago, a Tik Toker showed her followers how she chops onions without crying. A wet or very damp paper towel is placed next to the onions. Fold the paper towel up on top of your cutting surface next to the onion. When you cut open the onion, its gassy enzymes will be drawn to the wet towel and away from your eyes and nose. Hundreds of TikTok followers tried this tip and darn if it didn’t work. TikTokers who said that they were very sensitive to onions tried this tip and said they shed very little tears.
3. Keep a Fan Close By
Having a fan blowing near your face as you chop onions seems to make sense. A fan will blow and circulate the enzyme gases away from your face. Home cooks also cut onions on top of their stoves while turning on the hood fan which will draw the onion gases up and away from your eyes. Professional chefs use fans as their own little slicing onion tip.
4. Slice Onions Underwater
This method is a popular onion cutting technique around the world. Just please be careful not to cut it in your hands. Let some cold water run slowly near a board you have placed in the sink with the onion on top. Some cooks go so far as to submerge their onions into cold water.
Using water as an environment in slicing onions has proven to lessen their eyes becoming irritated. Another water tip for cutting onions is to dab some water under your eyes with a paper towel. The idea is that the fumes will be attracted to the water before it reaches your eyes. You may need to reapply the water beneath your eyes before you are finished chopping onions.
5. Lemons and Lemon Juice
The enzymes released from onions can be neutralized with other chemicals in products like lemons. For example, to remove the smell of onions from your hands, use lemon or vinegar, and water. Therefore, it makes sense to use lemons when cutting an onion.
If you squirt lemon juice on the cutting board before you slice an onion and dip the freshly cut part in the juice, your eyes will not burn or water. Also, rub a slice of lemon on your cutting knife. However, you may need to reapply before you finish chopping the onion.
There are other interesting tips for not crying when you are cutting onions for your pickled onions. The tips may bring a smile to your face but doubt if they work. For example, if you chew gum, it is suggested that you chew pungent gum like peppermint. Open your mouth to breathe and chew rather than just breathing through your nose – hmmm!
Another tip is based somewhat on the chewing gum tip and that is to hold your tongue to the top of your mouth and breath through your mouth – interesting! The above five tips are more popular to lessen eye irritation when cutting into flavorful onions.