Thursday, May 8, 2008

Cry Me a River - The Perils of Chopping Onions

You know how it is, you start chopping onions and you realize you didn't apply the waterproof mascara. Your eyes start to sting and your nose starts to run. Before long, rivulets of tears are streaming down your face. Your nextdoor neighbor rings the doorbell wanting to borrow the lawnmower, takes one look and asks if your husband just ran off with the girl from the video store. As for me, I used to start weeping uncontrollably while chopping onions and listening to Placido Domingo singing "Una Furtiva Lacrima" from Donizetti's "L'elisir d'amore". Hey, I was cooking Italian food - what did you expect?

Yes, I've tried all the homespun remedies: burning a candle close to the chopping board (my sleeve nearly caught fire); holding a piece of bread between my teeth (I started to drool); freezing the onions first (I wanted to chop the onions, not hack away at them); cutting the onions under water (not practical); spritzing the cutting board with vinegar (too smelly); keeping my mouth shut and breathing through my nose (seriously, anyone who knows me is aware that I can't keep my mouth shut for any length of time); drinking sips of water from the opposite side of a glass (oh, wait - that's for hiccups); and praying (I couldn't find a patron saint of onions but I did find one for cooks. St. Lawrence was martyred by being grilled on a gridiron. Frankly, I think he should be the patron saint of the backyard barbecue, a topic for another post).

Sure, I could use the food processor but do I really need to for a couple of onions? The mini food processor is a bit too small so I'd have to quarter the onions anyway. Either way, the tears would prevail. I could buy frozen chopped onions but for most tasks, it just doesn't feel right - I want to cook, not assemble.

The key to solving this dilemma was to put on my food science hat and find out why onions make us cry. I turned to food science guru Alton Brown (sort of a contemporary "Mr. Wizard" of the kitchen). The short answer? Sulfuric acid. Nasty, eh? Onions don't contain sulfuric acid. They do, however, release a gas that forms sulfuric acid when their ruptured surfaces come in contact with tears. The best defense, according to Brown, is to use a very sharp knife. Brown, in a Food Network "Good Eats Moment" explained that when you cut an onion, cells rupture releasing enzymes which break down nearby sulfur compounds into oxides and acids. These combine to make a gas. This gas takes up residence in your eyes and then mixes with your tears to form sulphuric acid. Ouch! When you use a sharp knife to chop an onion as opposed to a dull or serrated knife (or grater, for that matter), you damage less cells, which translates to less tears. About two years ago, I started to replace all my knives. I've since acquired new and better cutlery, and it has made all the difference.

Onion Goggles can also be of help. These cool looking unisex goggles protect your eyes from noxious fumes while chopping onions. They're anti-fog, come in three colors, and fit like regular glasses (but don't fit over regular glasses). The comfortable foam padding keeps them snug and unlike swimming goggles, they won't mess up your hair. They're available at, The Bakers Catalogue and other outlets for about $20 (see links). The combination of a sharp knife and the goggles should make your onion chopping nearly tear free. The best part for me? I don't wind up looking like a raccoon and the neighbors will have to gossip about somebody else.

The photograph of the Onion Goggles is used with permission of the nice folks at The Baker's Catalogue (King Arthur Flour).