How to Cut an Onion with Fewer Tears: A Photo Tutorial

Onion and Knife

Notice I said ‘fewer tears’ rather than ‘no tears.’ The truth is that there is no practical way to completely eliminate eye irritation when you chop onions. But there are things you can do to drastically reduce it. I chop onions several times a week in my kitchen and I can only think of one time in the last couple of months that my eyes were affected enough to cause tears. It’s not that I am one of those people who seem to be immune to the onion’s noxious fumes. I used to cry just about every time I cut an onion. What changed? I started using a sharp knife and I learned the quickest most efficient way to chop an onion.

First Things First: What Causes the Tears?

Well, there’s nothing like a good dose of sulphuric acid in the eye to cause a few tears! That’s right, I said sulphuric acid. Now before you start breaking out the chemical gloves and goggles, let me explain. The onions themselves don’t contain sulphuric acid. But they do release a gas that, upon coming into contact with the natural tears in your eyes, forms sulphuric acid. Let me paraphrase Alton Brown here because science is definitely not my best subject!

When an onion is cut, the ruptured onion cells release enzymes which break down nearby sulfur compounds into oxides and acids. These re-form to make a gas. This gas moves into your eyes and then mixes with your tears to form sulphuric acid.–from Alton Brown in a Good Eats Moment

You’ll hear and read lots of different information about these onion fumes and a lot of it just isn’t true. For one thing, the gas doesn’t just hide out in the root end of the onion. Cutting out the root isn’t going to magically remove all the bad onion juice. It is true that the concentration is higher towards the root end, but the rest of the onion can release quite enough noxious fumes on it’s own to cause problems. Your best best is to begin cutting the onion at the stem end and work your way back towards to the root end (more on this later).

So What Can We Do About It?

So now that we know what causes the problem, what can we do to alleviate it? There are a million old wive’s tales out there that may or may not help to keep the tears at bay. But after doing some research, I’ve found that there are only a few things you can do that will actually help to combat the nasty onion fumes.

1) Use a sharp knife and work quickly: A sharp knife ruptures fewer onion cells. By using a sharp knife and mastering a method of onion-cutting that is quick and efficient, you lessen the amount of gas in the air and shorten your exposure time.

2) Cut near an open flame: The flame sucks in air and therefore pulls the gas away from your eyes. Although a kitchen candle does have some effect, it works best to be near a gas range with one or two burners turned on. Since I started using method number one, I find that I don’t have to resort to this one very often. But when I do end up with an unusually strong onion and my eyes start burning, I immediately light a match and then light my kitchen candle which is always near my chopping area. The candle has always worked for me but if your kitchen allows you to chop near a gas range, give that a try instead!

3) Chill the onion for 15 -30 minutes before cutting: The reasoning here is that chilling the onion will cause less evaporation, less gas, etc. I haven’t actually tried it because I’m not good at planning ahead! But enough people use this method that I thought I would include it.

4) Spritz the cutting board with vinegar before cutting: According to Alton Brown, this interrupts the chemical reaction and I read in several places that this does actually work. The drawback here is that your cutting board and onion will smell like vinegar. I don’t personally use this method but since it is proven to work, I decided to include it.

5) Cut the onions underwater: Well, this will of course eliminate any gas from escaping into the air and will therefore eliminate the eye irritation problem. But it’s so impractical that I put it on the list just for fun!

As you can see, I only use the first two methods when chopping onions. I won’t tell you that my way is the only way to combat tears, but I will say that it works great for me. The real key to combating onion fumes is to use a sharp knife. You want to make clean cuts that don’t smash and tear the onion. Don’t use a serrated knife or any knife that requires a sawing motion. Even though you can’t see them, try to remember to treat those little onion cells nicely and they will be much nicer to you!

What’s the Best Way to Cut an Onion?

Now we get to the good part! Learning how to chop an onion has been one of the greatest triumphs of my home-cooking career. If you read my last post, you know that onions were my least favorite food when I was younger. Ok, that’s an understatement. I HATED onions. Hated hated hated them! So, it goes without saying that I never learned a good way to chop them. And when I started forcing myself to cook with them, it was always a challenge to get the pieces small enough that the end product would have no discernible onion chunks. I would always end up hacking away at a pile of onion pieces, trying to mince them into oblivion. Meanwhile, tears would be pouring down my face because (as we now know) I was destroying all those onion cells and overwhelming my eyes with sulphuric acid.

Finally I decided that there had to be a better way. The problem was that it seemed like every home cook and Food Network star had a different method of chopping onions! Everywhere I turned, I was given different information. It took a lot of trial and error to become the onion-chopping aficionado that I am now. But it was worth it! I can now say that I love to chop onions! Seriously, I love it. It’s one thing I do in the kitchen that makes me feel like I really know what I’m doing. And that is a very rewarding feeling!

I wish I had my own video to show you because I can’t find a video anywhere that shows you my exact method. But I found a video by Chef Jean-Pierre that comes pretty darn close. The best I can do for now is give you a photo tutorial of my method and then you can watch Chef Jean-Pierre’s video. Between the two, you should be able to get the hang of it!

First, let’s familiarize ourselves with the onion. When you hear someone refer to the root end and stem end of an onion, sometimes it’s difficult to know which is which since the roots and stems are usually no longer attached! It’s important to know which one is the root end because like I mentioned earlier, this end of the onion might release more of that evil gas and we want to keep it intact for as long as possible. This is the root end:

Root End

And here is the stem end:

Stem end

Now the very first thing to do when you’re ready to cut up your onion is to cut it in half. Be careful when you do this as the skin can be slippery! You want to cut right through the stem and the root, like this:

Cutting in Half

Onion Halves

Now that you have your two onion halves, it’s time peel them. First, cut off the stem end:

Cutting the Stem End

Ready to Peel

Now it is very easy to peel off the outer layers of skin:

Peeling the Onion

Peeled Onion Halves

Now it’s time to start cutting!

Chopping an onion

You want to start making cuts in the onion without cutting all the way through the root end.

Chopping an Onion 2

The spacing between the cuts depends on how big or small you want the onion pieces to be. And always make sure to keep the fingers of your ‘helping hand’ tucked out of the way!

Onion Ready to be Diced

As you can see, the onion is still held together at the root end. Now you are ready to make some crosswise cuts!

Dicing an Onion

As you cut across the onion, you’ll see it turn into a perfect dice!

Diced Onion

You can change the size of dice by making fewer cuts across the onion.

Chopped and Diced Onions

On the left, I made fewer cuts and ended up with a chopped onion. On the right, I made more cuts, closer together and ended up with diced onion. The sharper and thinner your knife, the easier it is to make more cuts close together.

Now watch Chef Jean-Pierre’s version:

Now I’m sure that many of you have very different methods of chopping onions and keeping tears at bay. Please feel free to leave a comment and let us know what works best for you!

Good luck and happy chopping!

Around the Web:

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...
Print This Post Print This Post  • Subscribe • E-mail this E-mail this
78 Comments
  1. Shilpa

    Hey! Thanks! I am a novice cook…I did not even know there is a way to cut onions!

    10:30 am  Oct 30th, 2008
  2. Love/Hate Relationship « Vanity of Vanities!

    […] strategically.  I have never really known how to efficiently chop an onion.  Here’s a great post I found and I will use her method next time, in conjunction with the […]

    12:57 pm  Dec 29th, 2008
  3. Doug

    Hi Nicole,

    I have occasion, a couple times a year, to cut lots of onions. I mean LOTS of onions.

    Have you ever had to dice a 50 pound bag? I have.

    All those suggestions, chilling the onion, bread in mouth, close mouth, match, goggles, contacts, candle/flame, etc. all kind of work. Remember it’s that gas that mixes with your tears that causes the irritation.

    I’ve found that when it’s time to chop large quantities of onions, there’s only one way that has worked for me to keep me from having my eyes irritated and burn.

    Use a fan!

    That’s right. Set up a fan and blow the air AWAY from you. I’ve tried all the other stuff and this works every time for me.

    4:52 pm  Feb 6th, 2009
  4. What’s for dinner? How to caramelize onions… | Problem Solved | Work It, Mom!

    […] My Salt: How to cut onions with fewer tears (and with proper […]

    3:11 am  Mar 2nd, 2009
  5. Debby

    Wow!!!! I’m impressed. I never knew just cutting an onion w/a sharper knife reduces the amount of acid that is released into the air. Cool!! I usually don’t cry when cutting an onion, actually. Maybe it’s because onions are my favorite food(sorry!). But, my sis Kerry cries when anybody is cutting an onion!! It’s so strange!!!! Well it was nice “talking” to you. Thanks for all your great, helpful, and supportive advice!!!

    –Debby

    1:53 pm  Apr 26th, 2009
  6. Debby

    p.s.
    u don’t always have 2 write me back!!!!

    –debb!e

    1:54 pm  Apr 26th, 2009
  7. anastasia

    AWESOME!!!!!!!!!!!! i wish i could meet u in real life. u got some hot-ass advice!! LOL
    kk, well g2g, ttfn l8r!!!

    @n@$t@$!@(anastasia) :]

    2:01 pm  Apr 26th, 2009
  8. Avril

    Cool! You have great advice! I’m a cook myself, and I seriously had no friken idea that cutting an onion with a sharper knife helps prevent myself from crying! Thanks a lot for helping ne out!
    p.s.
    keep rocking!!!!!! **avril lavigne

    2:13 pm  Apr 26th, 2009
  9. Tanya

    Thnx for your helpful advice!! 🙂

    2:20 pm  Apr 26th, 2009
  10. Mommy Kennedy

    Wow! That is really cool! Thanks for teaching me all of that!

    Coming by through http://theblessingsofmoderndomestication.blogspot.com/

    9:37 am  Jan 26th, 2010
  11. wood cutting board

    Every kitchen should have at least two or more cutting boards, and it is not unusual to have 4 or 5 of them. We recommend that every kitchen has a minimum of two boards, one for fruits, fresh vegetables, bread and food that can be eaten raw. The other one is for cutting raw meat, poultry and fish. This way, your risk of bacterial cross contamination is reduced.

    1:31 pm  Feb 22nd, 2010
  12. Food Chemistry FSEM Spring 2010 » Cutting Onions

    […] In class today we discussed ways to avoid tearing when cutting an onion. After reading through several “old wives’ tales,” I found a few in addition to the ones we came up with in class. One that I found interesting was simply using a sharp knife because the sharper the blade, the cleaner the cut, and the less of the cell wall that is ruptured, which reduces the amount of sulfur gas that is released. Another trick that Alton Brown recommends is spraying the cutting board with vinegar before cutting because the vinegar interupts the chemical reaction. http://pinchmysalt.com/2007/10/24/how-to-cut-an-onion-with-fewer-tears-a-photo-tutorial/  […]

    2:46 pm  Apr 17th, 2010
  13. Cutting Onions « Gina

    […] In class today we discussed ways to avoid tearing when cutting an onion. After reading through several “old wives’ tales,” I found a few in addition to the ones we came up with in class. One that I found interesting was simply using a sharp knife because the sharper the blade, the cleaner the cut, and the less of the cell wall that is ruptured, which reduces the amount of sulfur gas that is released. Another trick that Alton Brown recommends is spraying the cutting board with vinegar before cutting because the vinegar interupts the chemical reaction. http://pinchmysalt.com/2007/10/24/how-to-cut-an-onion-with-fewer-tears-a-photo-tutorial/ […]

    2:56 pm  Apr 17th, 2010
  14. Cal Phillips

    Great Tips to limit the tears!

    7:54 pm  Jun 6th, 2010
  15. Lorna

    Wow, thank you, thank you, thank you! I’ve just started my maternity leave so naturally wanted to spend some time making home cooked meals. Today I wanted to make a chilli con carne which calls for a lot of diced onion, so I was dreading the painful eyes and tears. I followed your tips about using a super shape knife and chopping the onion next to an open flame (gas hob in my case) and it worked a treat :O) next to no tears at all!!

    1:14 am  Aug 10th, 2010
  16. Quora

    What is the fastest, most efficient way to peel and chop an onion?…

    Here’s how I do it: * Slice it pole-to-pole. That way it lies flat. * Slice off one end. That makes it easy to grab the peel. Leave the other end on; it keeps the thing together so it’s easier to handle. * Remove the peel. * Make radial cuts that don…

    2:20 pm  May 9th, 2011
  17. Onion Goggles, Onion Glasses, Cutting Onions, Stinging Eyes

    […] getting your own onion goggles, you can get them from Amazon.  They will provide protection from onion fumes, and make cutting onions a task you can enjoy instead of dread.Related Articles:Caramelize […]

    6:06 am  May 31st, 2011
  18. Must love/hate Onions aka Kelly

    Thanks for the post, I think I must be super sensitive to onions as even reading this article is making me misty eyed lol, and even my nose runs when I have to actually cut an onion. Fortunately I don’t cut onions that often as I don’t really like them and my boyfriend doesn’t mind when I just substitute onion powder or frozen chopped onions, but there are times when nothing else but fresh onions will work so I’ll try some of these tricks and hope for the best. Thanks so much :).

    5:45 am  Sep 24th, 2011
  19. Adventures in Prep of Pungent Foods. | Somewhere Ever After

    […] involve chopping an onion. Thankfully, my Pinterest obsession research led me to this: a guide on how to chop onions without wishing for an early death. They didn’t word it quite like […]

    10:53 pm  Oct 6th, 2011
  20. Anna

    HI! thanks for the help!
    Im doing a science fair project on why onions make you cry and which tempuature they are stored in makes you cry the most. This was really helpful!
    Thanks again!

    1:22 pm  Oct 23rd, 2011
  21. Liyah

    there is a way to cut without any tears i just saw a video online
    by typing cutting onions into google search check it out

    6:31 pm  Nov 6th, 2011
  22. applepie

    hi nicole thanks for the help i relly think this will be a really good science report for my science fair project.

    10:29 pm  Jan 3rd, 2012
  23. Life Hack: Cutting Onions With Fewer Tears | Beautifully Random Life

    […] (Yes, apparently there’s a correct way of cutting). I found a great post, which showed how to cut an onion correctly. I’ve been trying to follow those instructions but haven’t mastered the method yet. I […]

    2:00 pm  Jun 7th, 2012
  24. Life Hack: Cutting Onions With Fewer Tears | Beautifully Random Life

    […] (Yes, apparently there’s a correct way of cutting). I found a great post, which showed how to cut an onion correctly. I’ve tried to follow those instructions but haven’t mastered the method yet. I have […]

    2:02 pm  Jun 7th, 2012
  25. Aladin

    Thanks Nicole, you saved my life!

    1:55 pm  Jun 4th, 2013
  26. Anne Po.

    Yes, there is a way to eliminate tears. Onion goggles! Just Google them. They’re one of the greatest kitchen inventions ever (IMHO)!

    2:39 pm  Apr 6th, 2014
  27. Cut Onions with Fewer Tears | Woodland CSA

    […] found a great website and on that website called, Pinch My Salt. They detail how to cut onions so that you don’t tear up as much. Here’s a summary of […]

    10:05 pm  Aug 7th, 2014
  28. how to cut an onion | android firmware download

    […] Download :How to cut an onion with fewer tears: a photo tutorial […]

    3:58 pm  May 14th, 2015
Leave a Comment