Over time I have heard of a good deal of remedies for preventing tears when cutting onions. Many of these are quite amusing; chew on a matchstick while cutting (must be timber ), others sound as though they may work; run the onion under water for a few minutes before chopping and others seem just to weird to try at all;’with your swimming goggles firmly in place light the incense, place it alongside your chopping board and chop away’.
For me the solution was discovered not by taking old wives stories as fact but only by trial and error. You see when I was much younger and starting out working in kitchens and I would be given kilos and kilos of onions to slice, dice, julienne and chop by the head chef. With my young ambition I would dive in and do exactly as he’d asked, standing at one chopping board for hours on end cutting nothing but onions. I quite enjoyed these kinds of menial tasks that many of my colleagues despised. They saw them as boring and un-educational. I on the other hand saw them as a challenge and a chance to increase my knife skills. I would weigh the onions into equal weighted groups on each occasion and time myself to see if I was getting quicker.
Occasionally I would get too focused on my time and Chef would walk past and compare the inconsistencies in my pieces of julienne, he would say,”Hegeman, slow it down! This slice is 3 times the size of the one. I want them all to look like this one”, as he pointed to one of my few perfect slices.
I would agree,”Yes Chef” and begrudgingly pick up my knife and cut the rest of the onions a lot slower.
I digress, but what I am getting at here is that I’d spend all this time working aggressively slicing, cutting and chopping onions and never give another thought to tears.
However on my days off I would often knock up a meal at home and after cutting half an onion I was balling like a 1960’s teenaged girl at a Beatles concert. I wondered what I was doing different and I could see nothing I was doing different at home than at work. I had peeled the onions the same, I had exactly the identical plastic chopping board I was even using the same knife as at work, (I always took my tools home with me on my days off). I could not think why I would cry at home but not at work. Are there a sub-conscious part of me keeping my tears at bay for fear of ripping up in front of Chef and the other guys at work? I could not figure it out, but I was glad I never had much more than 1-2 onions to cut at home.
I later discovered it had nothing to do with what I was doing but what the kitchen itself was performing. You see at work there were 6 huge extractor fans across from me, there was also a huge corridor running down to a huge receiving door behind me that has been open to the fresh air. At home I had the windows in my apartment closed and the very small overhead fan turned off. So the answer I found is essentially ventilation. The next time you’re cutting onions, simply be sure that you have good circulation; air being drawn in and out of the kitchen. Try to face or be as near as possible to your exhaust fan and open some windows and doors to allow the air to flow.
If you do not have any windows near your kitchen or your stove doesn’t have an overhead fan, consider taking the chopping board out side, the fresh air should have the exact same effect of flow and dilute the fumes before they get to you. I have been working in commercial kitchens for many years and this simple method has kept me from shedding one onion tear. So next time you will need to chop some onions, leave the swimming goggles in the pool, the matchsticks in the drawer and simply turn the fan on and open a window. Happy chopping.