There aren’t many things that can bring me to tears quite like that scene in Homeward Bound where the golden retriever climbs out of the ditch and limps toward his owner. Except… onions.
Chopping one up is guaranteed to turn on the waterworks—and man does it burn. Tired of turning into a blubbery mess while making stir-fry or soup, I decided to find a way to end the recurring sob fest once and for all. I did some research to learn why onions make everyone so misty-eyed and tried seven relatively simple strategies to stop the weeping. (I skipped ones that seemed completely ridiculous or dangerous, like trying to chop an onion in a bowl of water or holding a match in my mouth.)
Why Onions Make You Cry
In a nutshell, it’s all about the chemicals. Science lesson: Onions contain naturally occurring amino acids called sulfoxides, and when you cut into them, their cell walls become damaged, says the Institute of Food Science and Technology. This causes the sulfoxides to be converted into a super-annoying and irritating gas. The gas wafts from the onion into your eyes, which start to sting and produce tears in an attempt to wash the gas away. If it wasn’t so painful, it would probably be pretty cool.
What Worked, What Didn’t
According to experts at the University of Bristol, the best bet for cutting the tears is to keep the gas away from eyes in the first place. If only it were that easy. Plenty of the tactics I found, recommended on website after website, seemed to involve taking steps to keep the gas at bay. But not all of them worked. And some of them were downright bizarre. Here are the ones that got the job done—and those that were a total waste of time.
Tip 1: Freeze the onion.
Apparently, cold slows the conversion of sulfoxides into those awful eye-stinging gases. So I stuck a peeled onion in the freezer, figuring that peeling it would help the cold better penetrate the deeper layers. Half an hour later, I started slicing. My hands felt like they were on the verge of getting frostbite—but I didn’t cry!
The verdict: It works.
Tip 2: Soak the onion in cold water.
A cold water bath chills the onion, which slows down the production of the gases. But it wasn’t as quite as effective as the freezer method. Plus, I was worried that my knife might slip on the damp onion. So I had to slice slower, which gave the onion some time to warm up.
The verdict: Not the best, but better than nothing.
Tip 3: Use a super sharp knife.
A sharper knife cuts cleaner, theoretically causing less gas-releasing damage to the onion’s cell walls. Since I wasn’t in the market for buying an entirely new slicing device, I figured the next best thing would be to sharpen the knife I already have. It made chopping a little less uncomfortable, but it still wasn’t as helpful as freezing the onion.
The verdict: My half-hearted attempt yielded half-hearted results.
Tip 4: Microwave the onion.
I couldn’t find an official explanation for why nuking a whole onion would make me less weepy. Probably because one doesn’t exist. Microwaving the onion only made it slightly soft and, consequently, harder to slice. (Plus the smell was kind of gross.) Tougher slicing meant more damage to the onion cell walls, which meant the release of more gas. And more tears for me.
The verdict: Total failure.
Tip 5: Keep a piece of bread in your mouth.
This sounds totally ridiculous. And yet, it worked. Likely because the spongy texture of the bread (I held it between my front teeth with my lips slightly open) absorbed some of those noxious gases before they had the chance to float up to my nose and eyes. Plus who doesn’t love a little snack while they cook?
The verdict: It works.
Tip 6: Wear goggles.
If they can keep water from getting into your eyes, surely they can block a little bit of onion gas. Except, I didn’t have any goggles. So I put on a pair of sunglasses instead. Which, aside from making me look ridiculous in the kitchen, didn’t really have much of an effect. Probably because the sunglasses didn’t create a seal around my eyes the way the goggles would. Also, I was still breathing, so the gases could still sneak in through my nose.
The verdict: Didn’t really work, but maybe full-on onion-cutting goggles would have made a difference (but seriously who has those?).
Tip 7: Keep the sliced side on your cutting board.
If the cut-side of the onion is face down, less gas will float up toward your face. But it’s impossible to keep all sides of a cut onion facing your cutting board at the same time. (Doesn’t one side always have to be on the cutting board, unless you’re slicing the onion while holding it in your hand?) This didn’t seem much different from how I normally cut an onion, so it didn’t help me cry any less.
The verdict: Didn’t work and doesn’t even make sense.
There are lots of tricks that supposedly help you cry less while chopping an onion. But the most effective ones are those that slow the creation of the stinging gases, like freezing. Or ones that block some of the gases from reaching your eyes, like keeping a piece of bread in your mouth. As for the rest? They just don’t cut it.