Slice the onions and cut the crying

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By FRANK CHLUMSKY

In my last column I talked about the fabulous onion soup I was preparing for New Year's Eve. I told you how I make it, and even mentioned that it was the very first soup I learned to make when I was a culinary student. I didn't mention the tears that ran down my wife's face as I began slicing. But I'll mention them now, because onions are certainly nothing to cry about.

Onions are a staple in almost every kitchen throughout the world, immensely versatile and utterly indispensable. They're also one of the first, and most important, vegetables that all cooks must learn to deal with, as did my own new batch of students at our new Riverworks campus at Kendall College. Understandably, the most frequent questions I get as they start slicing and dicing is, "Why do onions make you cry?" and "How can I prevent the tears?"

When you cut into an onion, you free volatile sulfuric compounds into the air, which flow to your eyes and react with the water in them. This causes a chemical reaction, producing a mild form of sulfuric acid that irritates your eyes and causes them to tear.

I've heard all kinds of remedies to prevent tearing. No guarantees, but here are some of the best (and silliest) suggestions:

The best remedy is to keep your head as far away from the onion as possible. Most of the gas should disperse before it reaches your eyes.

As a general rule, cut the top from the onion and peel down without trimming off the root. Most of the sulfuric compounds are concentrated at the base of the onion, so cutting the root end last helps to prevent tearing.

Be sure to use a sharp knife. A dull knife will only smash the onion and release more of the irritants into the air.

Try frequent exposure. I can't remember the last time I cried over onions. It just doesn't happen?#34;to me, or to any other cook who regularly works with them.

Place the onions in the refrigerator or freezer for a few minutes to help slow down the chemical reaction that takes place when you begin cutting. Some hobby cooks suggest running the onions under cold water.

Try pouring a few drops of distilled vinegar on the cutting board or setting a lighted candle nearby to draw some of the gas away from your eyes. Use caution.

Hold a piece of bread or a chunk of potato in your mouth. The food is supposed to absorb the gas before it gets to your eyes.

Wear goggles.

Hold a spoon or pencil sideways under your tongue.

Place a bag over your head.

My favorite was watching one of my cooks at Philanders place a slice of onion on top of his head while peeling a sack of onions. Don't ask me why.

Onion trivia: If you're an average American you'll eat 18.7 pounds of onions this year.

And here's something to predict the winter:

"Onion skins very thin,/ Mild winter coming in./ Onion skins very tough,/ Coming winter very rough."

Whatever, it's nothing to cry about.

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