Cure for Tears

28 Sep 2013 04.48 am by K. Daniel

"Onions can make even heirs and widows weep." 

-Benjamin Franklin


Most of us have heard of the emotion trigerring properties of the humble onion. For some odd reason cutting up these bulbs seem to procure immense sadness and grief, to the point that people are reduced to tears.


Even the strongest willed can crack under the emotional pressure from cutting down multiple bulbs. Allegedly famous celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay crumbled, on air, to the power of the mighty onion.


Kidding aside, the main reason why most people display watery eyes when chopping onions is not really because of an odd attachment to the bulb or empathy to a vegetable being butchered. Rather it is simply defence.


Onions, like several other plants, would rather be left alone to do their thing such as basking in sunlight, drinking plenty of fluids, and just relaxing. Foragers such as us humans and other animals would often uncover these little packets burried in the ground driven by hunger and desire to have a decent meal.


In the interest of survival, it is therefore imperative that such vegetables, with minimal/no mobility to speak of to run away from the danger have some sort of trick up its green sleeves. With stationary and rather vulnerable plants, this comes in the form of chemical warfare.


Onions contain sulfur compounds. While chopping them, these compounds are released from the cells and waft upwards. It then can react with water, including tears, to produce sulfuric acid. The mild acid irritates the eyes and so the body produces more tears to wash off the compound.


Now what does that mean for the home grower / home cook? Their deffence may as well be their downfall, as some individuals relish the pungency of raw onions. As a matter of fact, that pungency is required in certain dishes to give a little "kick". For those that are not accustomed to that "kick", there are several ways to minimize the tear jerking effects of cutting onions


1. Cure them

No i don't mean like a disease, more like dry them. If you plant and harvest your own, or are attempting to, it would be best to rest them in a warm dry place for a few days.


What this does is as the outter layers dry out, it "shrinks" and closes off the neck on the top of the bulb. This aids better storage at room temperature while cutting down the amount of volatile compounds which can potentially give your eyes that stinging feeling.


2. Cold storage

Yes, onions are not really meant to be kept in the fridge (unless they are those baby ones with thin skins), but cooling them down for a few hours means that chemical reactions within the bulb slows down. In effect, when you cut them, the sulfur compounds are released at a slower rate which gives you a window of opportunity to chop chop chop.


3. Drown them

Really i mean cut them underwater if you really are that bothered. Because the compounds travel by air, cutting them underwater means that  the compounds are released to the watery environment rather than straight into your eyes.


4. Goggles

In the same effect as chopping your veggies underwater, goggles simply protect your eyes from the vapours.


5. Misc.

Apparently it is important that most people don't get emotional while they are cutting up onions. There are a wide range of methods, tricks, and life hacks that seem to appear everywhere which aims to do one thing and one thing alone, to appear cool, collected, and NOT teary as you cut up some produce for your daily meal. 


Everything from biting a wooden spoon whilst chopping (probably to intimidate the onions from releasing their gases), using a fan on your face (fan away the tears and look fabulous while preparing dinner), and putting on candle light / a flame source (romance the onions to do your bidding). 


Having said that, because it IS a natural property of the plant, pungency can be a measure of an onions quality, which we will discuss in a separate article.



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