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How to Chop an Onion

It seems like almost every cooking course I take or hands-on class I do has a need for chopping onions.  Even a volunteer project I participated on for years had us processing large, industrial bags of them for soup or other meal prep.  To say I’ve become a semi-pro at it might be bragging a bit, but a few months ago, I realized that I was demo-ing this technique to others frequently.  I thought that a set of instructions would make a good addition to the list of Kitchen Witch Tips on the site.

To begin, you will need:

Onions (medium is fine)

Chopping board

Large sharp knife (chef’s knife size, not paring knife)

Damp paper towel or kitchen towel to put underneath chopping board to hold it in place

The #1 rule is to make sure that you can see your fingers and finger tips at all times when cutting with a knife.

(Sounds pretty ridiculously basic?  I once had to take someone on my volunteer project to the emergency room who didn’t pay attention to this.  She almost lost the top of her finger.  Did I mention, btw, that I’m not all that good with blood?  At least, that Girl Scout First Aid training came in handy.  Oh, and I actually do have a tiny scar on one finger from ages ago when I didn’t follow my own advice.)

After you have put the towel on your workspace and the chopping board on the towel (this step is optional, but many people find that it works for them), take the onion with your non-knife hand and place it on the board.  Then, pick up the knife and make the first and second cuts as below.

The first cut is to make the stem end flat so that it won’t roll around on the board.

The second cut is to slice the onion in half going through the root (hairy) end.

Then, place half of the onion, long flat side down on the chopping board.  Pull back the skin of the onion, but don’t remove it completely, as this and the root end will help hold the onion together as you chop it.

Make cut #3, lengthwise from the cut end towards the root end.

Note where my fingers are in relation to the knife.  For this sized onion, for a “chop” you would make 2 slices, for a “dice” would make 3 slices and for a “mince” you would make one more slice.  These are all general guides.

This is the same cut #3, with a different position for my hand and fingers to keep well out of the knife’s way.  Use whichever version is most comfortable for you.

Cut #4 is the downward cut across.  Hold the onion together, fingers on the side. (There is another technique that you often see on cooking shows of making a claw with one’s hand to hold the onion in place, but I’ve never found it to be effective for me.)

For #5, you will bring the knife down across both of the previous cuts to make your pile of chopped onions.

As you work from cut end to root end, you will hold the onion together on the sides, moving your fingers towards the root end and that onion skin you didn’t take off (or use the claw method, if you prefer).  Hold on to that skin and the root as you make your final cut of the onion.

There it is, as you can see in that last photo.  You have a pile of neatly chopped onions that are more or less the same size.  This detail  is important as then they will all cook evenly.  You noticed, however, aside from mentioning the importance of not cutting oneself in the process, I did leave out another key factor:

Silently We Weep….

Crying while chopping onions is just one of those things.  I like to think that I have somewhat of an immunity to it, as I’ve been cutting them for years, even while growing up and cooking for my family, but every so often, there’s a really potent onion* that gets me, and I start to blubber like a baby, mascara running down my face in dark rivulets.

There’s several old wives’ remedies, but I don’t really find any one of them solves the problem completely.  I was told that wiping the chopping board with distilled white vinegar helps.  We used this one when I volunteered, but the smell of the vinegar for me was actually worse than the crying over the onions.  I wear contact lenses most of the time, so I was told that that helps, but I’ve had a few crying-contact lens experiences, too.

The one trick that I learned from my mother (who once offered me her old chemistry class goggles to use while chopping onions), that seems to at least relieve the effects once the tears start to flow, is to take a paper towel and wet it with cold water.  Then, dab your eyes and tear ducts with it.  This will provide a temporary relief so that you can get back to the business of prepping those onions!

Buon appetito!

*It sometimes happens with shallots, too, which are part of the same family.

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