an unusual trick to stop crying when chopping onions

warming onion & white bean bake-2

There aren’t many smells in the world more comforting and delicious than the fragrance of frying onions.

I’m sure when I’m cooking and someone says ‘wow, that smells good’, it’s onions that are responsible for the compliment more than half the time.

I owe onions a lot.

But as much as I love these humble, aromatic bulbs, I didn’t used to cook with them as much as I’d like. You see I’m one of those people who tear up almost at the thought of chopping onions. Yes onions used to make me cry. Big time.

In the past, I’d almost dread the onion chopping and inevitable crying eyes. But I knew the flavour would be worth it, so I soldiered on.

Then at Christmas, when I was beginning to get psyched to make stuffing for the turkey, I mentioned to my Irishman’s mother how I hated onion related crying. And rather than just imparting a little kitchen sympathy, she shared with me the secret…

All you need to do it hold a slice of bread from your mouth while you chop. That’s it.

And the thing is, it works!

Sure you feel a little silly, with bread dangling down as you chop. And you do end up with a slightly-soggy-in-one-corner sacrificial slice of bread. But there are dry eyes and delicious onions. It’s a small price to pay.

What about you?

Know any unusual but effective kitchen tricks? I’d love to hear in the comments.

onion & white bean bake7
onion & white bean bake recipe

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video version of the recipe

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Warming Onion & White Bean Bake

serves 4
takes: 60 minutes

5 onions, sliced into half moons
4 sprigs thyme, leaves picked
3 cans white beans (400g / 14oz, each), drained
1/2 cup chicken or vegetable stock
150g (5oz) grated cheddar cheese

1. Preheat oven to 200C (400F).

2. Heat a generous glug of olive oil and a large frying pan or skillet and cook onion, stirring occasionally over a medium heat until onion is melting and deep golden. Add more oil as you need it. Will take about 25 minutes.

3. Add thyme to onion and season.

4. In a medium heatproof dish layer about a third of the onions. Add half the beans and a little cheese. Repeat until all the ingredients have been used, finishing with the cheese. Pour the stock over and season.

5. Bake uncovered for 25-30 minutes or until golden and bubbling.

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With love,
Jules x

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86 Comments

  • I am the biggest onion wuss – Would you believe even CHIVES make me cry!?

    I remember seeing some TV show which tested all these theories on how to stop yourself with crying from onions. The answer to why they make you cry is because of the gases that are released from the chopping, which react with your mucus-y areas (sinus etc) of your face, making you get all teary.

    I’ve found washing the onion after its peeled helps a little bit and I can see how the bread would probably soak up some of these gases. I’ll definitely give the bread a go since washing only stops the tears for a short time and if I’m chopping two onions or more I’m doing the last of them blind. Oh dear!

    Funny story relating to onions. My kitty Puss is a very curious kitty and she used to love to jump up on the back of the couch to watch me make food in the hope she’ll get a treat. I was cutting onions one day with tears rolling down my face and I look over and there I see little Puss going *blink-blink* *blink-blink* twitching her eye because SHE was getting all teary too. So so cute! That sure taught her not to stick her nose so far into my kitchen business! :-D

  • i use a couple of tricks when cutting onions – as soon as i peel off the skin, i dunk it under the tap, under cold water for about 5 minutes. i don’t what happens exactly but whatever juice makes you cry gets washed off. a lot better than the earlier i-can’t-see-but-i’m-soldiering-on state of eyes. also, a sharp knife makes all the difference! haven’t cried since.

  • I’ve yet to try this tip, but I saw it on TV last week from a well know cook here in the UK… don’t chop the top off the onion, start from the root end instead. apparently the gland that contains the stuff that makes us cry is in the top of the onion, so if you avoid chopping it the chemical remains inside the onion.

  • I’ve heard that the majority of the onion vapour gets into the air from contact with the warmth of hands, I find when my eyes sting if I rince my hands under a cold tap it stops – also if I chop a lot then I would do it close to the extracter fan over the stove – then the vapour gets sucked away.

    The stew looks really good – what kind of white beans are they? butter beans?

  • My usual method is to hold a spoon in my mouth. But I think a slice of bread would taste better and be more comfortable to hold between your lips!

  • I’ve never heard of any of these tips especially the bread one so will definitely give them all a go. I’m extremely sensitive to onions even while frying so I always chop onions with a fan behind me to blow the fumes away from me. Needless to say, it gets very unpleasant in winter!

  • What a weird but interesting way to cut onions! Another method to prevent tearing is to sharpen your knife. A really sharp knife makes a clean contact with the onion whereas a blunt knife “squashes’ it, releasing all the juices that make you tear.

  • This is my trick too! But I find a large bite of bread held inside the closed mouth and sucked works too. I’ve even peeled a whole large sack of pickling onions with my trusty piece of bread in place and I was at the very bottom of the sack before I was in trouble.
    I am sooooo grateful to the person that taught me this trick too.

  • The sulfer compounds that make you cry are particularly concentrated around the root end. If I only need half an onion for the recipe, I’ll cut it around the middle, instead of pole – to – pole, and put the root half in the fridge for another use. Much of the tear-inducing stuff dissapates before I need the other half…

    Of course, you need a zipper bag that’s nice and tight, or the whole fridge smells like onion for a day or two…

  • I’ve tried putting onions in the fridge, rinsing the onions in cold water, and (this is kinda silly) standing up very straight with my head back from the cutting board (i.e. so my head is not directly above the cutting board). Mostly I just let myself cry out the onion tears. If they get really bad, I’ll wash my face in cold water.

    I’ve also got a silly pet ‘n onions story to share: I’ve got a house rabbit who LOVES onions! I was putting groceries in the fridge and she was getting into the bag with the onions. She stole one and dragged it across the floor (she only weighs 3 pounds–it was bigger than her head!), munching all the while. Now she tries to steal onions from the cabinet and will eat fallen chopped onion and onion skins!

  • I have tried this bread-in-the-mouth trick and it does work. The onion and bean bake sounds delicious. Thanks for the tip and the very affordable and delicious-sounding recipe!

  • I really don’t have a trick to share but I have noticed ever since I started wearing contact lenses that onions don’t make me cry any more!

  • My mother always told me to keep my mouth shut when chopping onions. It mostly works, too. If I’m talking to someone while chopping, my eyes sting so bad I can hardly stand it. I wonder if the spoon and bread in the mouth do basically the same thing as just keeping your mouth shut?

    Erica

  • Strangely I always cry when I chop onions with my glasses on. But when I’m wearing contacts I am completely unfazed. It’s strange but true.
    Has anyone else experienced this?

  • I was told by a chef I used to work for, to breathe in through your mouth as opposed to breathing through the nose. I started to breathe that way every time I cut onions, and it works. I haven’t cried in years while cutting onions, and when we cut onions, we cut a lot (25 lbs at a time). I now teach my staff that trick.

  • How interesting! I find only a few onions make me cry, not every single one. I’ve been told to put the onion in the freezer for 10 minutes before chopping it. I don’t know if it works though. We usually buy a 50 lb bag in the fall and it lasts us all year. We have about a 1/4 left that I want to use up before it starts getting to warm in my cold room so I will be making this. It looks so good!

  • Love the bread in the mouth idea and the fact that’s it’s an IRISH gem – here’s another one, sip a pint of water while you’re cutting and you’ll hardly shed a tear! Enjoy :-)

  • Onions have sulfenic acid in them which irritates our tear glands. I haven’t teared up in years but I keep my onions refrigerated and chop them while that cold.

  • Holding a slice of bread in your mouth is a new one to me!

    I read that if you wear contact lens you don’t cry when you cut onions. I don’t wear them, but my daughters do, so if they’re around I’ll ask them to do the onion chopping! ;)

  • This looks delicious! I’ve been looking for an oey-gooey cheesy recipe to make with the Dayia cheese I just bought (finally available in my area!) and I think this will be just the thing.

    When I’m caramelizing onions, I always add a tablespoon or so of water instead of additional oil to keep the fat content down. And, I cover it loosely with a sheet of aluminum foil to speed the process along (it works better than a lid, because it lets the steam escape).

    As for my kitchen trick, whenever I’m chopping hot peppers, I always wash my hands with a mixture of dish soap and coarse salt afterwards. The salt helps to lift the oils off of your hands, especially under the fingernails, so you don’t end up burning your hands, mouth or eyes later on. I also use salt and lemon juice to clean my wooden cutting boards – it’s the only thing that gets the garlic and onion smell/flavor out.

  • That looks absolutely delicious as always Jules! The thing that amazes me everytime i read your blog is how great food doesn’t need to be complicated, and that is a fact we often tend to forget nowadays.

    One of our chefs at the restaurant told me once that the secret to tear-free onion chopping is a very sharp knife so that you cut right through the onion without much pressure on it so as not to release too many of those teary gasses. It works for me! xx

  • Well, I hope I didn’t miss anyone with the same tip, but what I do is actually store onions in the vegetable drawer in the fridge. This way when I take them out to chop or slice in a salad, they won’t sting at all.

  • I don’t know if there is any scientific evidence to back this up, but I read that having a flame next to your cutting board will burn the volatile gases before they have a chance to drift up and sting your eyes. I’ve been chopping onions next to a lit gas stove or candle for a few years now, and it seems to do the trick!

  • Delish! The root of the onion is what makes you cry so you’re supposed to chop around it. I do this when I just need a little onion but when I’m slicing up a bunch like this recipe calls for I tend to get sloppy and cry all over the place =P

  • I never understood why onions affected people so badly; I could chop away to my hearts content and never shed a tear. Then one day I ran out of contacts and had to wear my hideous back up glasses while I waited for new ones to arrive. I’ve never cried so much. I then realised my 10+ years of wearing contacts sheilded my eyes from naughty onion vapours. Massive learning curve.

  • This was great! Dinner for 8 cost under $5,including the bread and vegies. I cooked beans from scratch and used herb de Provence rather than fresh thyme, and the kids at the whole double batch. Thanks!

  • I used to wear gas-permeable contact lenses (slightly firmer than the soft jelly-like ones) and had no problems with onions because the onion gas molecules couldn’t get through. Now I wear either glasses or soft contacts. For a while I wore a snorkeling mask or swim goggles (gave my family a good laugh!). Then I watched Leanne Ely’s video on How To Chop An Onion and it works for me. Keep the root end intact (well, just cut in half as per video) and chop the rest. No more tears. Here’s the link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mDofWqFW8gk
    I just made your Broccoli and Parmesan Soup and this Onion and White Bean Bake for my friends and family. Talk about easy and fabulous!! Thank you, thank you, thank you! We are not worthy (said while bowing down, see movie ‘Wayne’s World’).
    Tip for parmesan rinds: Our local cheese store wl give them to you for free if you let them know a day in advance that you’d like some. Otherwise they just throw them out after grating parmesan for customers. Then put them in a tight bag or container in the freezer for your soups and stews.

  • I tried this and it was really wonderful. Thanks for the great recipe – it is a new stand-by here. We are going into summer not fall in Minnesota and I am expecting the CSA produce baskets to start next month with lots of kale, Swiss chard and spinach at the beginning – I think that will be a great addition to this recipe!

  • A friend once gave me the tip of holding water in my mouth. It works, but bread might be easier. Thanks for the tip and the recipe – sounds delish!

  • I tried this last night, and while it tasted good I had some issues. I only used 4 onions as they were quite large and I didn’t think my pan would hold 5, but they gave off a TON of moisture. After baking, there was too much moisture in the dish so the cheese melted in clumps instead of attaching to the beans and onions. Did you drain the onions before adding to the dish? Or maybe I didn’t cook them long enough…

    But the bread trick worked! You should’ve seen my wife’s expression when I started chopping onions with a piece of bread hanging out of my mouth. “Just eat it!” she said. haha!

    I’m going to give it another try, though I plan on saving all the cheese for the top and adding some bread crumbs to get a nice crust. Maybe throw in some chopped bacon, mmm…

  • matt
    thanks for sharing your experience with the dish!
    Onions do vary with their moisture content – sounds like yours were particularly watery – next time try cooking the onions for longer – If you have a look at the quick video above you’ll be able to see what the onions looked like for me when they were done.

    The other trick is to use your widest frying pan or skillet because that has the largest surface area to allow moisture to evaporate from the onions.

    and glad to hear the bread trick worked AND it made your wife laugh

  • What my mom would always tell me when slicing onions is to always be ready with a bowl of water. Before slicing the onions, you have to run the onion under water before cutting it. So peel the onion and run it under water before you chop it.

    The thing about holding a slice of bread when chopping onions is new to me. I will try this by the time I get home and see if it works. Thanks for sharing!

  • I just made this tonight with sausages, it tasted really nice! Thanks for the recipe, I would never have thought of cooking beans this way.
    I kept my mouth shut while cutting the onions, but they still made me cry…
    Best wishes from Switzerland!

  • 2 things that work for me, other than wearing goggles…

    1. Keep onions in the fridge;
    2. Light a candle near where you’re working.

    It totally helps! Alton Brown from the Food Network recommended the candle!

  • Wearing goggles would help, but it would make you look stupid. Anyways, when you cut onions up you damage the cells.. sulfenic acid is formed which burns when it gets into your eyes. Having a very sharp knife and properly slicing the onion (instead of cutting them with a straight down motion) helps in preventing excessive cellular damage and spraying of this sulfenic acid mist.

    Or a fan to blow the stuff away probably

  • You could try it with just water Jennifer (I’d probably reduce the amount to 1/4cup to start with)
    Or make your own vegetable or chicken stock so you can control the sodium levels

  • I love your website by the way!
    My grandma gave me a great trick for chopping onions that i always use: Hold a mouthful of water in your mouth while you chop the onions. You don’t need much water, but I find it works best if the water is “pressed” against the roof of my mouth at the back (near my tonsils). Although a lot of the time I forget why I’m holding it in my mouth and swallow it.

  • Hi! Love the site – am cooking WAY more now that I’ve found this and actually linked your site & books multiple times! Can’t get enough!

    Did have a question – what is the purpose of the stock and/or water? I have no problem adding it, just genuinely curious.

    Thank you!

  • A tablespoon of vinegar on the cutting board stops me from crying. It’s supposed to react with the acid from the onions somehow…

  • This looks wonderful. Any legume dishes are always a welcome addition to the cooking range and the combination of browned onions, cheese and cannellini beans sounds wonderful. So too, your trick of bread-in-mouth is certainly worth a try. I love your web site and healthy tips with great recipes.

  • Onion tricks: My favorite, used for years, is to simply light a candle on the table near where you are chopping the onion. It gives the kitchen a nice atmosphere and burns off the onion tear-gas. Also, putting the peeled onion in the freezer for a five minutes or so usually takes the edge off prior to chopping, or running it under cold water in the sink for a few minutes seems to work well. I live in a desert — let me tell you, desert onions are very sharp-tasting and will make you cry at first peel! Good luck – CP

  • My late sister-in-law (who was Welsh rather than Irish) used the bread trick for peeling and chopping onions. She passed away years ago and I haven’t seen anyone else use this method – so it was fun to read of it on your site! As for me, I just put up with the tears for the most part. :) Great site, I will come back to visit it often now that I’ve found it.

  • there is no need to bite the bread . you can just freeze the onion for couple of hours or store it in freezer will work well . and you will never waste your tear

  • I just refrigerate my onions and I never tear up. I wonder if Roy Orbison was chopping onions when he wrote “Crying Over You”? Or heck if you don’t have time to cool off this member of the “Lily Family” wear a gas mask or stand outside in a strong wind, maybe it will make those nasty Starlings tear up. Jus tryin’ tah halp! Hasta La Bye Bye!!!

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