May 09, 2012

Kitchen Trick: Cutting Onions

My very first food-service job was at Oakville Grocery, a gourmet shop smack in the middle of the Napa Valley. (It is still the standard by which I judge all gourmet shops; it was doing local, fresh, in-season and sustainable foods long before those trends were covered in food blogs and magazines.)  I was a deli clerk - taking orders, arranging our prepared salads, reheating arancini and mac-n-cheese pie, and slicing some of the most exquisite charcuterie (before that was cool, too), and helping people pick from our copious and delicious cheese selection. 

I loved the job.  Oakville Grocery is right along the highway, clearly visible thanks to its giant Coca Cola sign, near some of the highest-tourist-drawing wineries in Napa, and every day, starting at about 10:30, tourists from all over the world would stop by to pick up munchies and picnics. I could brag about our little valley, give recommendations for their visit, help make them the perfect picnic.

I even got to do some prep work and cooking (assembling is more like it). We made cheese tortes with entire rounds of brie, marscapone, soft, crumbly, pungent blue cheese, decorated with cranberries and almonds (goodness, I need to make that again!). I learned how to chop herbs for tabbouleh salad, and got quite good.  There are few things as satisfying and taking a pound of parsley and chopping it to a fine pulp.

But there was one aspect of the job that I hated: cutting onions. I never really minded crying like a baby over the counter in Mom's kitchen, but in public! It was quite embarrassing. Usually we only prepped onions in the off-hours, using the big meat slicer, and hoping the smell would dissipate overnight. But every now and then we needed more onions during the day shift - while making a Greek salad or the aforementioned tabbouleh. And I so enjoyed the other prep work, that I would get stuck doing the onions too, weeping over them in a corner of the prep area.

One day I had the brilliant idea to use the slicer in the middle of the afternoon. I'm not sure if memory is amplifying this particular moment, but those were the most pungent onions I'd ever sliced, and the entire store smelt of them, and people were walking out with red eyes. I got a firm reprimand, and, ala Julia Child, decided to finally learn how to slice an onion.

There are lots of tricks, but I basically always use this technique, varying based on how big I want my pieces. Of course, if I need slices, I simply chop the root off after the first step. Remember: keep the cut side down, slice quickly, use a sharp knife so it makes a clean cut. This will help you cut your onions well, and with the minimum amount of crying.

But the crying! I still cry, a lot. I blame it on the fact that I buy my onions at the farmer's market. They are fresher than ones you buy in the store, and more watery and pungent. (This is probably not true, but the great thing about onions is the lore, and I am happy to contribute to it.)

There are other tricks. Some say hold a slice of white bread in your mouth. Does non-white break work? I am not buying a bag of white bread just to stop crying because of an onion. Though, about the only thing Wonderbread is good for is sopping up tears. My dad swears by whistling, a noble art which I have never been able to master. Presumably, blowing out of your mouth will work (and not breathing through your nose), too. In Like Water for Chocolate, we are recommended to put a raw onion on our head, but that seems a waste of an onion. These are all charming, but if charming isn't your speed, you can purchase onion goggles.

Mostly, I muddle through. But when I need to hand-cut a large batch of onions, there is only one thing to do. Bring out the candles, and get to work.  Besides, doesn't it look romantic?

On account of this photo, the whistling, the crying (which is rather sweet), and my grandmother's old trick for making your husband happy by slowly caramelizing onions so they fill the house with delicious fragrance and he immediately sigh with joy upon entering the house, saying "I can't wait for dinner!", I'd like to nominate the onion as the most unexpectedly romantic vegetable.

Photos: mine, iPhone using VSCO Cam app.


  1. Anonymous4:13 PM

    Lol! That is my Nonna's trick too! (Frying up onions to make the house smell good.)

  2. That job sounds wonderful!

    I've always heard that you cry with old onions. It's hit and miss for me. Sometimes I have tears streaming down my face and other times it doesn't affect me.

  3. Anonymous3:16 PM

    The frying up onions trick is genius.
    As for crying prevention, a friend told me to fill my mouth with water and hold it, don't swallow. Makes no sense at all, but seems to work for the first little bit at least - so maybe if you chop the onions quickly enough...?