Don’t cry over cut onions! My brother told me about this simple trick you can use to process large batches of eye-burning onions without shedding a tear. In case you don’t have the “trick” item on hand, I’ve got other options that work pretty well, too.
Why do onions make you cry?
Short answer: Onions make you cry because they release a sulfenic acid in gaseous form. Yup – acidic gas. Tears are our bodies natural protection.
Science Focus give more details:
Onions take up sulphur from the soil while growing. This is combined with amino acids within the onion’s cells to form amino acid sulfoxides. In 2002, Japanese researchers identified an enzyme, also present in onions that unlocks the sulfoxides when the onion is cut. The resulting reaction produces sulfenic acid that rapidly reforms into a gas called syn-Propanethial-S-oxide. When this stuff hits the sensitive surface of our eyes, it causes the stinging that leads to tears.
BytesizeScience has a pretty cool video on all the gory details.
What are the Health Benefits of Onions?
The World’s Healthiest Foods details the health benefits of onions, including protecting the heart, supporting bone and connective tissue, acting as an anti-inflammatory and protecting from cancer. You get the most benefits when the onions are raw, but gentle cooking preserves some of them, too. Just don’t turn your onions into charcoal. (See, it’s worth the pain of cutting them up, not just for the taste!)
Don’t Cry Over Cut Onions – My Favorite Tips to Avoid Onion Tears
My all time favorite technique (which was suggested by my brother) that I now use regularly for processing large batches of onions (for instance, when I’m canning salsa), is to put a small fan on the counter next to where I’m chopping. Use the fan to blow away the sulfenic acid gas and keep it out of your eyes – no tears.
I’ve got a little Massey personal fan that we received as a hand me down from my in-laws. A larger fan would work, too – the small ones are just more convenient (and pretty inexpensive).
Now, if you don’t have a fan handy, there are some other options you can use to reduce eye irritation while chopping onions:
Chill your onions in the fridge or freezer or by running them under cold water – Chilling reduces the oxidation rate, meaning they produce less of those irritating compounds. Also, hot air and hot gas (including sulfenic acid laden gas) rises faster than cold gas, and cold tends to be less irritating than hot. The water will dilute the juices so less of them get airborne.
Wear goggles – This will keep fumes out of your eyes, but unless you’ve got sealed goggles, you’re still still going to get it. Plain safety glasses won’t cut it. I don’t like the really flimsy ones, either. A couple extra bucks will get you ones that are fog and impact resistant for other tasks.
Chew gum – If for some reason you are really desperate, don’t have a fan, or refrigeration, or water or goggles, yes, chewing gum does help – a little. It works because you tend to breathe through your mouth more, so you suck less gas into your nose/sinuses. Feeble relief at best, but it might distract you enough to make you less miserable.
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Featured on Simple Lives Thursday #114.