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Don't Cry Over Onions

The history of the onion is varied and ancient. Scholars can't seem to agree on whether this member of the lily family is native to central Asia, the Mediterranean, or Palestine. However, they do know that it has been cultivated for over 5000 years. In fact, the tasty bulb is so ancient that it's even mentioned in the Old Testament (Numbers 11:5). From antiquity throughout the Middle Ages to today, the onion remains a popular, indispensable flavoring agent and condiment. And one thing, for sure, hasn't changed over the millennia...yes, the tears.

Cut or slice an onion and the inevitable will happen: you'll start to cry. Why does this happen? Well, when you cut into an onion, you rupture some of its cell walls. As a result, a sulfurous gas called propanethiol-S-oxide is emitted from the damaged cells. This gas reacts with the water already present in your eyes and produces sulfuric acid, which is extremely irritating. Your body reacts defensively by producing tears to expel the invasive irritant.

There are numerous remedies for curing the "weeping eyes" when slicing onions. As with all cooking techniques, you'll need to experiment to determine which of the methods, if any, work for you. Remember, to keep an open mind when perusing the following options. Realize that what may be silly to you, can turn out to be a lifesaver for another. Here are some tips for preventing the tears:

  • Hold a piece of toast between your lips while cutting onions. The bread serves as a barrier which will help prevent the gas from contacting the eyes.
  • Heat onions before cutting or slicing. The heat converts some of the sulfurous compounds into non-eye-stinging-sugars.
  • Hold onion under a stream of cold water while cutting (this can prove to be difficult and somewhat dangerous).
  • The National Onion Association recommends refrigerating onions for 30 minutes before cutting. Then cut off the top and peel the outer layers, leaving the root end intact (it has the largest concentration of tear-causing compounds).
  • Wear goggles. Simple enough.
  • Avoid pungent varieties. Opt for specialty sweet onions like Vidalia (from Georgia), Walla Walla Sweets (from Washington), or Maui Sweets (from Hawaii). Check your supermarket for locally grown or other sweet varieties.
  • Build tear-resistance by chopping up a lot of onions.
  • Cut onions in a well-ventilated area.

For those who can deal with the tears but would rather avoid having onion breath, try the following: chew on fresh parsley sprigs, fresh cilantro leaves, fresh mint leaves, or citrus peel. Also try rinsing the mouth with equal parts of lemon juice and water.

Strive to integrate the fundamental techniques of cooking and baking with the science of foods. As a result, you'll build the necessary confidence needed to purposefully stray from recipes and to learn to depend upon your own creativity and know-how. Whether you realize it or not, your kitchen is a chemistry lab. But that doesn't mean you should be intimidated. Always accept, appreciate and try to understand the science behind the food--because that's when you truly begin to learn how to cook. And then my friend, that's when you really start having fun in the kitchen!