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Stop Crying Over Chopped Onions

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As soon as my knife slices through the skin of an onion, I start to look like an extra in a Greek tragedy: a mascara-streaked mess with stinging-red eyes. It's around this point during dinner prep that I flee the scene in search of a gas mask and my boyfriend—who is somehow immune to onion's tear-jerking qualities—takes over.

Photo by James Ransom

I've tried every trick in the book: a bandana tied over my entire face, breathing through my mouth with my tongue out. (The internet told me this would work; it did not.) I've even employed a pair of old swim googles, which only made me look like a less-charming, very upset version of Hugh Grant in Notting Hill. So while watching our Test Kitchen Manager, Josh Cohen, chop a mountain of onions, I asked him for his secret. The answer? An extremely sharp knife.

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He explained:

"If you imagine the onion cells on a microscopic level, then a dull knife is like smashing through them with a hammer, crushing the cell walls and releasing vapor. If a knife is sharp, it slices through these cells cleanly."

Some quick research confirmed his explanation: The duller the knife, the more enzymes are crushed and the more irritants are released. My thoughts drifted to my knife of choice: a two-year old IKEA chef's knife that's never met a sharpener in its life. At the expense of becoming a wobbly tear-streaked mess, I put the theory to the test.

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Roasted Onion Salad with Arugula and Walnut Salsa
Roasted Onion Salad with Arugula and Walnut Salsa

Test 1: The Dullest Knife I've Ever Known

The knife: My aforementioned IKEA knife, which at this point (several years and even more roommates down) is about as efficient at chopping herbs as a mortar and pestle.

How it performed: Last night, slicing red onion rounds for Ottolenghi's red onion salad, I got about three crosswise slices in before my slightly stinging eyes escalated to fresh-off-the-heels-of-a-break-up tears. Game over.

My stopping point with our test kitchen's dullest knife.
My stopping point with our test kitchen's dullest knife.

Test 2: Our Test Kitchen's Dullest Knife

The knife: Food52's test kitchen's dullest knife—meaning Josh won't use it, but that it's still probably ten-thousand times better than own.

How it performed: About one minute into chopping a yellow onion, I was feeling fairly confident, but as soon as I'd gotten my onion pieces into a rough dice 20 seconds later, a wave of fumes hit me and I had to step away to give my stinging eyes a break. A red onion was slightly more difficult, but I successfully made it to a rough chop without crying!

My stopping point with our test kitchen's sharpest knife.
My stopping point with our test kitchen's sharpest knife.

Test 3: Our Test Kitchen's Sharpest Knife

The knife: This is the sharpest knife we have in the kitchen—a brand-new Miyabi that can practically cut an onion just by looking at it.

How it performed: This was possibly the happiest onion chopping experience I've ever enjoyed—around two minutes in, once I'd chopped a yellow onion finely, I finally felt a faint sting. The same proved true of a red onion. But beyond that, I happily chopped without any pain or tears—an allium miracle!

The takeaway: Never will I ever chop an onion with a dull knife again.

Our sharpest sharps:

Hone Sweet Hone: How to Sharpen Your Knives, Any Which Way

Hone Sweet Hone: How to Sharpen Your Knives, Any Which Way by Mark Schwartz

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Miyabi Birchwood Japanese Knife Collection

Miyabi Birchwood Japanese Knife Collection

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Zwilling J.A. Henckels Pro Knives

Zwilling J.A. Henckels Pro Knives

From $49
6 Ways to Tell if a Kitchen Knife is Worth the Splurge

6 Ways to Tell if a Kitchen Knife is Worth the Splurge by Leslie Stephens

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Do you have any tips for chopping onions? Have you found the sharp knife trick to be true yourself? Tell us in the comments below!

Tags: onion, sharp knife, onion tip, knife skills