Onions: tips for preventing the tears

Probably the most frequent question I get asked is how do I prevent crying when cutting onions?
No one enjoys this eye-burning sensation, followed by what seems to be an emotional breakdown.
The watery eyes are caused by a chemical gas that’s released from the onion as it is damaged by cutting. This chemical gas then reacts with the natural tears in our eyes and turns into a mild form of sulfuric acid, which our eyes then water more to flush away the irritant.
In my many years of cooking, I’ve heard numerous ways to help prevent this reaction–some more effective than others–and it is my pleasure to share these findings with you.
I have heard that burning a candle near the cutting board will help because the flame will burn off these releasing gases. However, through my trial and errors, all I’ve found is the tender glow from the candle just makes you look more romantic while you are crying.
I’ve also heard stories that holding a spoon between your teeth, or a slice of bread hanging out of your mouth, will eliminate any tears from shedding.
This theory was presented to me that the metal of the spoon offers a chemical reaction with the gas to disperse it while the bread simply would soak up the gases before reaching one’s eyes.
We brought up these theories during a cooking class one evening and there was a man claiming to be a scientist in the crowd. He explained that it isn’t what you are holding between your teeth that matters, just the fact that you are biting onto something–or anything!
When holding something between your teeth, your breathing pattern changes and you tend to inhale/exhale through your mouth more and thus the gases have a harder time reaching your eyes.
I have tried this on many occasions with a wide variety of objects hanging out of my mouth (yes, my wife still thinks I’m handsome) and it does work for the most part, but not 100 percent.
There is a rumour floating around the chefs’ society that if one cuts their onion in a certain fashion, the number of fumes being released will be limited. However, I’ve yet to find what technique this is and I highly doubt this theory anyway.
Knowing that you will be working with an onion for dinner, one of the best bets is to toss it in the refrigerator that morning (or at least an hour or two beforehand).
Hot and warm air/gas rises whereas cold air/gas doesn’t. This will keep fumes much lower to the cutting surface and less out of your eyes.
Cutting onions near your overhead fan of your stovetop also is an option if it is powerful enough to suck the fumes in that direction and away from your eyes. Using a summer fan on a stand, positioned to blow in the opposite direction of where you are standing at the cutting board, also is ideal.
Even better would be to have a mini-sized fan that sits on the counter, or clamps onto a cupboard, for these tearful chopping moments.
Lastly, I want to tell you about the method I use more often than the others: onion goggles. Yes, goggles specifically-made to keep these harmful onion vapours away from your eyes that can be purchased from any specialty food or kitchenware stores, or online.
They have a foam backing and they sit on your face just like glasses, without pressure on your eye sockets or face from other so-called solutions such as swimming goggles or ski masks.
I have cut many an onion with this great invention. And since they come in an array of colours, too, not only will your eyes and cheeks stay dry, but you also will look stylish.
Dear Chef Dez:
I have heard putting your onions in the fridge before cutting them helps to keep me from crying.
So is it okay if I always keep my onions in the fridge?
Nicholas K.
Surrey, B.C.
Dear Nicholas:
It is important to know that it is not good to use the refrigerator as a permanent storage solution for your onions.
It will cause premature rotting and/or sprouting of your onions because it is too humid and dark.
Send your food/cooking questions to at dez@chefdez.com or P.O. Box 2674, Abbotsford, B.C., V2T 6R4.
Chef Dez is a chef, writer, and host. Visit him at www.chefdez.com