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How to Chop an Onion

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Inspired by conversations on the FOOD52 Hotline, we're sharing tips and tricks that make navigating all of our kitchens easier and more fun. Today, how to chop an onion.

Chopping an onion isn't rocket science -- in fact, it's one of the first things you learn in the kitchen. Whether you're a first-timer or an old hand, today we have a primer on the various ways to chop an onion: dicing, slicing (two ways!), and a coarse chop. Merrill said something funny when we were discussing this Kitchen Confidence how-to: "It doesn't really matter how you cut an onion, but if you don't do that right, why do anything right at all?" We agree.

One thing we don't have an answer to is how to avoid teary eyes while chopping. Advice runs from the sensible-sounding (keep the root end, which contains most of the compound that makes your eyes water, as intact as possible) to the silly (chop with a piece of bread in your mouth, or wear special goggles). What's your best anti-onion-crying technique?

When you're stumped for what to make for dinner, dicing an onion is never a bad place to start: by the time you're done, you're likely to have an idea about whether it'll be soup, a frittata, or anything else. Sharpen your best knife -- a sharp knife is actually less dangerous than a dull one, which you can easily lose control of -- and let's get started.

1. Peel and Prep - First things first: halve the onion through the root and tail ends. Chop off that tail end and discard, then remove all traces of papery skin.

2. Cut Horizontally - Being careful not to cut your hands, make 2-3 horizontal cuts through the onion, stopping before you reach the root -- again, a very sharp knife helps with this! What's the point of this step? You're cutting through the curvature of the onion's surface, making for evenly square pieces of onion when you finish.

3(a). Cut Vertically - Cutting from the just before the root to the tail end, make 5-6 straight cuts perpendicular to the horizontal ones. (Don't worry too much if slices on the side start to fall off because your cuts are too deep -- hold them together with your fingers and keep going.)

3(b). Cut Radially - Our Senior Editor Kristen's brother, Billy, prefers radial cuts when dicing his onions -- ie, angling along with the curve of the onion, which he claims makes for a finer dice afterward. We tried it and found the results to be more or less the same, but it certainly doesn't hurt to get geometry involved!

4. Ready to Go - After being cut every which way, this onion is ready for its final destiny.

5. Cutting Away - Starting at the tail and moving toward the root, cut across the onion to make tiny, evenly-sized pieces of onion: a true dice. (I look like I'm about to cut my fingers off in that first photo. Rest assured that I still have all 10 of them.)

6. Roll the Dice - Discard the root, and that's it -- saute-ready diced onions.

Slicing, Version 1
There are two ways to slice an onion. The first is easiest, and it's what you look to when pickling onions, topping a pizza, or slicing up chili garnishes. The first steps are the same: halve the onion, cut off the tail end, and peel it.

This is what happens when you skip everything about dicing an onion except that last step: even half-moons of onion that you can easily break up into semicircles from big to small.

Slicing, Version 2
When you're looking to caramelize a batch of onions -- to top mashed potatoes, garnish polenta, or make classic French onion soup -- you should slice a little differently. The method above produces unevenly-sized slices, which means that after 30+ minutes of slow caramelization, some of those slices will have entirely dissolved while others will still have their shape. For even cooking, it's best to slice a little differently: just turn your onion 90 degrees before going at it.

For this preparation, you'll want to cut off the root end of your onion as well when prepping it. Then with the root and tail parallel to your knife, start at one side and start slicing away.

See? Same-sized slices ready for a long, slow session in the skillet.

Coarsely Chopping
Sometimes it can be helpful to have large, evenly-sized pieces of onion: when making kebabs to thread onto bamboo skewers, for instance, or when making chicken stock to extract as much from the vegetable as possible. We saved the easiest preparation for last!

Take everything we said about slicing vertically and horizontally and toss it out the window: after halving and trimming the onion, make 3-4 cuts from root to tail, then 3-4 cuts from side to side. You're done!

Tags: kitchen confidence, onions, chopping, how to, how-to & diy

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