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How to chop an onion?

April 20, 2009
What I want: beautiful,tiny, uniform dice...
What I want: beautiful,tiny, uniform dice…

Okay, here’s an embrrassing public confession. I don’t know how to chop an onion.

I mean, I know how to bludgeon an onion into enough smithereens to get away with it once it’s in the food.

But what I want is to be able to chop an onion into small, fine, perfectly uniform dice, in the way that Philippe Mouchel (I think?) demonstrated on last week’s SBS Food Safari. Such calm, rhythmic slicing and dicing, resulting in a pristine little pile of pinky white crystalline onion bits. Sigh.

Watching a trained chef chop an onion is a joy – but how do they do it?  TV chefs either do it at the speed of light while chatting about their organic garden, or it’s so boring to them that they completely skip over the actual mechanics of it.

Reading about it is worse. The usual instructions always read like Sanskrit to me. “Cut the onion in half across the base (leaving a portion of root on each half – this will help keep the onion together while slicing), peel the onion and place cut side down. Make multiple cuts long ways from top to bottom but not through the root at the end.” – Huh? I can get this far, sort of, but what happens after this?

What happens to me after this is usually a desperate groping round for a tea towel to jam into my streaming eyes, while trying to hold the cut slices together and then chop them crosswise, but the onion half instantly collapses and falls all over the board, and by now I’m sneezing and crying, and then I try to scrape the bits back together before running to open a door to try to get onion fumes out of the kitchen.

Then it’s pretty much a matter of standing back, sniffing and clamping the tea towel across eyes with one hand, while simultaneously stabbing and smacking at the remaining onion on the board with the knife in the other hand, eyes tightly shut all the while in the manner of a crazed but sobbingly penitent serial killer. (I wish I didn’t have to do this. Bang. But you shouldnuh made me so angry, Momma. Slam.)

Bludgeoned onion: I did chop it more finely after this, I hasten to add, but you get the picture...
What I get – bludgeoned onion. I did chop it more finely after this, I hasten to add, but you get the picture…

Result: a pile of raggedy smatterings of blugdeoned onion; streaming, stinging eyes and once again, an ever-deepening sense of failure.

If any of you have non-Sanskrit instructions on either the chopping or tears prevention, but preferably both, give. Please give. I can’t take it for much longer.

14 comments

  1. I guess you’ve heard the theory about chilling the onions in the fridge to suppress the oniony vapours. It works if you can remember to do it in advance (which is where it fails, as a technique, for me – I forget to do it most of the time).
    And I always try to give my knife a final, careful sharpening just prior to slicing onions. And I use a fairly fine-bladed knife, too, so cutting doesn’t overly upset the onion’s slowly collapsing structure.
    As for the cutting technique, not sure. I just cut the onion in half vertically, lay the cut surface on the board and hold the onion together with my fingers as I slice, trying to keep it intact as long as possible. I only try to dice onions as finely as the thickness (thinness) of the rings. If I cut up one onion this way, there’s usually no tears. But if I’m cutting two or three onions, I’m done for! You’d probably need to buy some scuba gear to avoid the tears if you have a lot of onions to dice.


    • Thanks Jamie, I have never heard of the chill factor as tears prevention – am definitely going to give that a shot. It’s fine to just keep onions in the fridge all the time, isn’t it? And yes, the sharp knife I think is also an important factor – the sharper the less squishing of those danged juices I guess. Perhaps I am just terribly susceptible to tears (sensitive wraiter that I am, of course …)


  2. Practice makes perfect when it comes to chopping onions!

    Make onion jam so you have an excuse to dice a bag of say 20kg. Cook them down in a big pot until they are nice and caramelised, add some port and red wine and reduce, maybe a bouquet garni, and a good amount of demi or jus is always nice at the end. Put it in some jars and stick in the fridge. It’s a very handy condiment to have kicking around, and you improve your skills at the same time!

    My tip on no tears when chopping onions is to breathe through your mouth!


    • “so you have an excuse to dice a bag of say 20kg” – you have GOT to be fricking joking. And breathing through the mouth? It’s the EYEs, Ham, the EYES.

      I will try your nonsensical tip (apart from the 20kg) but really, I expected more from you, a pro, than taunts and dares. When I’m a blind old homeless woman (where is my husband? where is my house?)I’ll come feeling my way along your flocked-restaurant-wallpaper to wave my white stick at you.

      Now hie thee to the soup bling page please, because I need more tips. And no nonsense this time.


      • I can also vouch for the onions in the fridge theory…if you are fortunate enough to have a few kitchenhands to peel and place them in the fridge for you, it definitely works.

        I still maintain breathing through the mouth works as well as practice makes perfect…so get chopping!!


        • Ah yes, kitchen hands. must get a couple. Now are you saying that the onion should be peeled before chilled? I think I’m on to something…


          • Peeled then chilled tends to dilute the pungency of the onion…an I don’t think it really affects the flavour. Though unless you have a big fridge, it may affect the flavor of other things in there with them!


  3. Just discovered one extra tactic you could try (I’m making lentil soup this morning). My recipe requires 2 chopped onions.
    After chopping the first, I noticed the chopping board was shiny with onion juice. So I quickly rinsed it under the tap, then chopped onion number 2. No tears at all, which is unusual for me by the end of the second onion. Could rinsing the board between onions do the trick?


  4. Well, I tried everything. Chilling, peeling, board-rinsing, practising, begging passers-by to become kitchenhands … and still ended up a crying fool. However, the quality of my dice was MARGINALLY better which must mean the weeping was a tad less. yes yes, practice makes yada yada. Have to go put eyedrops in again.


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