Cooking with onions is a bittersweet experience. They taste and smell like heaven, but they make you weep like some fool who’s watched the Notebook one too many times (I may be that fool).
It’s not fun, and many of us would like to avoid it. So, this week in Ask Lifehacker, we explore: can you cut up onions without crying your bloody head off?
One of our writers tested out a handful of methods to find out. And as it turns out, there are ways around weeping over your dinner.
Read on below.
To do this torture experiment, I carefully diced all-purpose yellow onions according to each supposed solution. After each method, I washed my hands, turned on the kitchen vent, left the room and waited several minutes until my eyes were back to normal. I did the trials over two days so my eyes wouldn’t be overwhelmed with onion-pain build-up.
Some of the “cures” below sound downright silly, and many indeed failed for me, but I had luck with more than a few tricks.
Cut the onion under a vent
Putting your cutting board on the stove and turning on the overhead vent or microwave ventilation fan is supposed to redirect the treacherous eye-irritating gases onions produce away from your eyes. When our own Kevin Purdy and his wife tried this out, it worked for them, with the caveat that Kevin isn’t prone to onion-induced crying and his wife used sweeter onion types that are supposedly less irritating. Still, I was very hopeful.
- Tear and irritation level: Mostly painless. At one minute and 30 seconds, with nearly all of the onion chopped, I felt only a mild sting in my eyes. The sting became stronger a few minutes after I finished cutting the onion, but I didn’t shed even one tear.
- Ease and convenience: Excellent, as long as you have a good overhead vent. (I used my microwave vent and a vent built into my kitchen’s wall.)
- Verdict: It works! A whole onion diced with no tears at all, although stinging could be an issue if you have super-sensitive eyes or the vent doesn’t get all of the vapours.
Light a candle before chopping
I’m not sure how lighting a candle is supposed to stop the waterworks (burn the gases in the air? voodoo?), but it’s a recommendation often suggested, so I tried it.
- Tear and irritation level: Extreme (normal). Not even a quarter of my onion was chopped before my eyes started burning badly. About 10 seconds later, stinging tears joined my burning eyes.
- Ease and convenience: Great. It’s not hard to find and light a candle.
- Verdict: Useless, unless your goal is just to mask the onion smell in your kitchen rather than stave off the tears in your eyes.
Cut while holding your tongue at the roof of your mouth
This one’s a strange body hack that involves keeping your tongue on the roof of your mouth while chopping and breathing through your mouth. Perhaps the airflow from your mouth should keep the gases away from your eyes.
- Tear and irritation level: Extreme. My eyes stung like bees at about the same time they did for the candle trick, and I had to put down the knife and grab the box of tissues before I had half an onion chopped.
- Ease and convenience: Tricky. While this trick doesn’t require any special tools, it’s harder than you might think to chop an onion, hold your tongue and remember not to breathe through your nose.
- Verdict: Fail. Might as well keep your mouth closed and breathe as normal.
Cut while chewing gum
Another mouth trick circling around the watery eyes crowd. Maybe these cures are supposed to work by occupying your mouth while you dice?
- Tear and irritation level: High. I was halfway through dicing the onion when my eyes started burning, but it wasn’t until I was done chopping (about two minutes) that the pain was truly obnoxious. I didn’t cry, but felt I was on the verge of doing so.
- Ease and convenience: Tricky. I found chopping onions makes it hard to remember to keep chewing.
- Verdict: Slightly beneficial, since you can dice an onion completely with no tears. I’d rather avoid burning eyes altogether though.
Specially designed onion goggles are supposed to protect your eyes from irritating onion vapours. I bought this one, but that was $20 down the drain. The one-size-fits-all size did not fit my face (nor my husband’s) well enough to create the necessary seal. As an alternative, I tried swimming goggles.
- Tear and irritation level: Painless (except for tightness from the goggles). Woohoo! No stinging, no tears.
- Ease and convenience: Fair, but tricky for glasses wearers. Goggles are an added cost and make you look a bit silly in the kitchen; also, you might not enjoy having tight goggles around your head for long. Worse, though, is if you wear glasses. I was able to fit my glasses over the swimming goggles, but it was an uncomfortable situation (and also made an already bad look worse).
- Verdict: Excellent, if you don’t mind the strange look and don’t wear glasses. Even the (also odd-looking) onion goggles might work for you — if it fits your face.
(Note: some people say that wearing contacts keeps them from crying over onions. Apparently, the contacts act as shields against the onion vapours. I can’t wear contacts, so this wasn’t an option for testing for me, but if you switch between glasses and contacts, try the contacts next time you’re on onion-chopping duty.)
Freeze the onion
Put the onion in the freezer for about 15 minutes before cutting it. This has been my go-to method for the last few months, but I wanted to compare it to the other methods. The theory with this one is the cold inhibits the onions’ release of its eye-irritating chemicals.
- Tear and irritation level: Painless and tear-free, like Johnson & Johnson’s baby shampoo
- Ease and convenience: Fair. You have to remember to take the onion out of the freezer before it gets too hard and also plan ahead for that extra freezing time. Also, the frozen onion can be a bit harder to cut through, the peel more difficult to pull off, and the cold slices could affect your cooking because of how they might interact with the other ingredients. Otherwise, I haven’t noticed any change in flavour compared to non-chilled onions.
- Verdict: This really works, but has a few caveats. Unlike hacks like wearing goggles or chewing gum, however, this trick might help others in the room too.
Refrigerate the onion
This one works on the same principle as freezing. You could either keep onions in your fridge or put them in about 30 minutes before you need to cut them. (Note that storing your onions in the fridge for long periods could cause other foods in there to spoil faster and also affect the onions’ texture.)
- Tear and irritation level: Mild to medium. This worked nearly as well as freezing, but my eyes did sting and start to water by the end of one onion. No actual tears though.
- Ease and convenience: Depends. If you don’t mind less crisp onions or their effect on other foods in the fridge, storing onions there is convenient. Otherwise, you’ll have to remember to allot half an hour before you cut them.
- Verdict: Not the best method, because of the stinging, but if your eyes typically react only with tears rather than burning, this might work better for you.
Soak the onion in water
This is a trick I’ve tried before: Cut off the ends of an onion and peel it, then give it a short soak in a bowl of water (I used 15 minutes). The theory is this draws out the sulphuric compounds from the onion surfaces into the water. However, this also results in a milder-tasting onion.
- Tear and irritation level: Mostly painless. While cutting I experienced only the barest hint of stinging eyes. It’s almost not even worth mentioning.
- Ease and convenience: So-so. This one takes a few minutes of extra time to do, makes the onion more slippery (so you have to take more care when dicing), and makes the onion taste milder (which can be good for certain foods, though).
- Verdict: Not a bad way to go if you need milder onions.
Cut under running water
Instead of waiting for onions to soak in water, you can cut them in the sink under running water. This, I believe, works much like many of the other tricks, with the moving water redirecting much of the onion vapours away from your eyes.
- Tear and irritation level: Painless. I was surprised by how little my eyes reacted.
- Ease and convenience: Difficult. I thought cutting a soaked onion was a bit tricky, but this is even harder. In addition to making the onion more slippery, the water splashing everywhere is distracting and pushed many of my diced onion pieces off the cutting board and into the sink. Also, the sink isn’t an ergonomic kitchen surface, so doing this for too long or too often could be a pain in your back.
- Verdict: It works, but isn’t as simple as other solutions.
Cut out the onion’s bottom core
The bottom of the onion, where the roots are, is said to be the part of the plant that causes crying fits because it contains all (or perhaps just most of) the sulphur, which when released in the air gets in your eyes and mixes to become sulphuric acid. So the trick is to cut a cone out of the bottom of the onion (about a third of the width of the onion and a third deep), as demonstrated in this video, and then you’ll be able to chop the rest away with confidence.
- Tear and irritation level: A few tears. I was able to cut the cone out with no problems, but when chopping the rest of the onion, my eyes started stinging and, oddly, just my left eye started weeping.
- Ease and convenience: Tricky. It’s hard to tell if you’re cutting the cone out precisely and it takes more effort than other methods.
- Verdict: Meh.
Julienne the onion
Finally, this last technique involves learning to properly julienne an onion like a pro. I wasn’t too optimistic about this one, since the “trick” seems to be all about slicing very quickly — something that requires practice.
- Tear and irritation level: Full on cry-fest. I was going to dice the julienned slices, but didn’t get that far.
- Ease and convenience: Fair. This doesn’t involve and special gadgets or trickery, but it takes time and effort to slice that quickly and skillfully.
- Verdict: Perhaps worth it for people who want to improve their knife skills.
The winners: goggles, freezing and vent
Some people are more sensitive to onions than others, and what works for one person won’t necessarily work for everyone. From my experience though, freezing and cutting under a vent are the most hassle-free, effective ways of cutting an onion without crying like a baby.
Tight-fitting goggles is the best solution if you have zero tolerance for onion gases — as long as you don’t wear eyeglasses.
More onion cutting tips and tricks
Beyond these cutting strategies there are other tips you should implement to make cutting onions less of a bother:
- Make sure your knife is sharp. (Hey, you can even test knife sharpness with an onion.) You’ll be able to cut your onion more quickly — before you’re exposed to too many fumes — and you’ll be less likely to crush the onion slices, which would make it release more irritants.
- If you start to tear up while or after cutting, don’t rub your eyes. The onion juices are on your fingers.
- Sweet onions are less cry-inducing than white, red and yellow onions, so consider trying one of those instead.
- Save the onion for the last step in your prep, so you won’t have to spend as much time in an onion-infused space.
If none of these tips work, at least take comfort in the thought that the more you handle onions, the less likely they may make you cry over time. (Or you could just go with the chopped onions in the supermarket’s frozen aisle.)
This story has been updated since its original publication.