Few things can make or break a delicious meal more than cutting onions between slicing peppers, mincing garlic, and dicing tomatoes.
Those who would rather avoid the hassle of crying over their food turn to one common household remedy after another in hopes of finding some solution for this frustrating problem.
Unfortunately, most methods are either ineffective or require time spent away from cooking altogether. Fortunately, however, an effective technique involves nothing more than a little bit of patience and practice.
Why do onions make you cry?
It turns out a specific component of freshly cut or crushed onion, known as syn-propanethial-S-oxide, irritates our eyes. The irritant vapors pass easily through our mucus membranes and react with the water in our tears to form sulfuric acid! This stings and makes our eyes run.
You can feel it too. When you breathe simultaneously as cutting an onion, you taste onion in your throat and get a stingy feeling in your nose from the vapors. This tells you how much of the gas is being released by what you're doing to it.
You might be tempted to say that the same thing happens with garlic, but it doesn't. There's no sulfuric acid sting from cutting garlic because there is little syn-propanethial-S-oxide in it. An onion is much more likely to make you cry than a clove of garlic.
How to cut onions without crying?
Did that onion make you cry? You're not alone.
There are countless tricks on how to cut an onion for keeping your eyes from burning, but there's no one method that works for everyone. The best way to cut onion is the way that works best for you.
Here are some tips to reduce discomfort and tears:
Cut it cold
More cells will rupture and release their contents if the onions are cut under cold water. Some chefs chill the onion in ice before cutting it, but it's probably safer to keep your hands away from your eyes - and stick with room-temperature tap water.
This is good for reducing and avoiding irritants (fumes) and should be done near an open window or fan. Fans, open windows, and doors also help pull vapors away from your eyes if you're chopping near them. If you chop right by a fan, make sure it's not too close. If the fan blows into your face, it can cause more tears than usual because of the increased airflow into sensitive eyes.
Use a sharp knife
The more you chop an onion, the more cells break open and can irritate your eyes. A sharper knife makes fewer cuts per minute than a dull one would so be sure to sharpen those blades!
Cut off both ends first
The root end has enzymes that can make an onion taste harsh, so cut that off and save it for your stockpot.
Peel the skin before cooking
The more you cut and peel an onion, the greater the surface area and thus the potential for irritation.
A cold onion will cause less irritation than a room-temperature or warm one because it produces fewer vapors. Refrigerate or cool the onion before cutting if possible - or use a very sharp knife.
Put on goggles
Your eyes may not thank you for this one, but they'll reduce discomfort if you wear a pair of goggles while cutting. Once onions start burning from an open flame or high heat, they become even more irritating to your eyes due to a low water content after being cooked at such a high temperature.
So, just how much onion should you use?
While no scientific research exists on exactly how many onions are necessary to bring the average person to tears, we recommend adding just half an onion and using other ingredients to reduce the amount of onion flavor in a dish.
Onion cutting myths
If you’ve ever spent time chopping up an onion, you know it can be a messy affair. Tears start streaming down your face the moment you cut into the first layer of skin, and by the time you’re done dealing with that second or third layer, your eyes are probably feeling like they want to jump out of their sockets.
Here are onion-cutting tips that are proven to be myths.
Breathing through your mouth
Breathing through your mouth will not make you cry less while cutting onions. Rather than getting rid of tears, breathing through your mouth will add to them. So do what comes naturally and try not to hold your breath while chopping onions.
Holding a spoon in your mouth while you chop
This also isn't supported by any scientific evidence, but it might not be the best idea to hold metal objects in your mouth if this did work. If this works for some people, you can try placing a wooden spoon over an empty bowl and keep that positioned at the corner of your mouth. Remember you won't have a hand free so keep a spare one close by.
When microwaving onions, always cut them up before putting them in the microwave because they will explode. Microwaved whole onions are not exploded when covered with water and do soften quicker than when boiled.
A better way to avoid tears when chopping onions is to keep your face and nose away from the onion and remove any objects that could get in the way of cutting the onion, such as pieces of clothing.
Holding bread in your mouth while you chop
Any scientific evidence doesn't support this. However, if this did work, it would simply irritate your throat and could cause burns to the soft tissue inside your mouth or esophagus. This is still not good for you, so I wouldn't recommend trying this technique out.
Chew a piece of gum while you chop
This is another myth that isn't supported by any scientific evidence. I would recommend leaving this one out if you're planning on hanging around people while chopping onions, though, because it's generally considered rude.
Many people have tried some of these things, and those who haven't aren't interested. But I think there are more effective ways to reduce the number of tears you shed while chopping onions rather than not working techniques such as holding a spoon in your mouth or chewing a piece of gum. Manipulating what's going on with your eyes is the only thing that will help, not working with your hands.