Cooking with Onions without Crying

Alice Henneman, MS, RD, UNL Extension in Lancaster County

"Garlic, onions, and leeks may be lacking in color, but they're bursting with powerful phytochemicals, substances found only in plants that help your body fight disease and promote good health," according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Vegetables from the onion family, which includes garlic, chives, scallions, leeks share a group of phytochemicals that are very important to good health, with allicin the most common phytochemical. Allicin may play a role in helping lower cholesterol and blood pressure and increasing the body's ability to fight infections.

The National 5 A Day for Better Health Partnership recommends including garlic, onions, and/or leeks as part of the recommended 5 to 9 servings of vegetables and fruit a day.garlic bulb

 

If cooking with onions brings tears to your eyes, here's why: "The tearjerker in onions is a compound called propanethial-s-oxide, which is released in a vapor when onions are cut" according to Cheryl Forberg, professional chef, registered dietitian and author of Stop the Clock! Cooking .

"When the vapor comes in contact with the eye, it is converted to a form of sulfuric acid, which produces the stinging sensation and subsequent tears. Cutting onions under water or chilling them before cutting, will retard the enzymes that generate the noxious chemicals," recommends Forberg.

Some other suggestions people have mentioned for preventing tears when working with onions include:

  • Keep the root on while peeling and chopping. A variation of this is to cut from the top leaving the root end intact until the last cut!

  • Be in a well-ventilated place and cut fast!

  • Use a good, sharp chef's knife. It glides through the onion with ease, allowing less of the compounds that cause tears to come out.

  • Wear a pair of safety goggles or a cheap, disposable painter's mask.

  • Put a slice of bread in your mouth, with half of it sticking out to "catch" the fumes.

  • Put some white vinegar on the chopping board before cutting.

  • Burn a candle immediately adjacent to where you're cutting. The tear-causing gas is drawn toward the heat source.

  • Purchase pre-chopped onions.

After cutting the onions (and garlic), a suggestion that may help remove the smell from your hands is to run cool tap water over your hands while rubbing them across a stainless steel utensil, such as the bowl of a stainless steel spoon. If you have been cutting a lot of onions, this may not be as effective.