Q & A – onions

By / Food / June 21st, 2010 / 1

Cooking is a science. Toss out the recipe and cook with passion. I’m sure you’ve heard it all before. The problem is that we’re not all scientists or masters of improvisation, resulting in some recipes going horribly wrong. What if, every time you ran into a glitch, you had at your fingertips all the information you needed to turn your cooking disaster into a smashing success? Well, here it is. Tidings offers you a forum to share any cooking and wine related questions you have. Tell us about strange observations or contradictory information you’ve come across about recipes and food, too. We’ll put our collective experience together to shed some light and provide you with a way to fix your cooking dilemmas.

Why do onions make us cry?

Onions are defensive types. Slice, dice or bite them and they’ll release their venom — strong smells, hot flavours and irritating vapours. Is it possible to make this caustic creature sweet and friendly? Yes! There are certain tricks of the trade that will reduce (and sometimes even eliminate) the nastiness that onions throw our way whenever we approach. Some people partially freeze the onion into submission; others claim that using a very sharp knife will allow one to slice through the onion before it knows what hit it.

An onion is made up of mostly water (about 90%), sugars, minerals, proteins and sulphur compounds. It’s the last bit that causes us the most problems. Slicing an onion forces the ruptured cells to release the sulphur elements which are so biting in their astringency that they make us cry. There’s no way around it. The strong smell is a defensive mechanism that, from an evolutionary perspective, keeps hungry animals away allowing the plant to live another day and produce lots of baby onions to populate the next generation. Hence why there aren’t too many animals that enjoy munching on onions. (Actually, none come to mind. Although one of my pet rabbits, Jo Louis, decided that she likes to snack on the dried leaves of bulb onions.)

People, however, are another story. We’re a pretty determined bunch because we know that chopping onions into pretty much anything we cook is going to make that dish scrumptious. So we gladly put up with the abuse. The question, then, is how do we use this wonderful vegetable without having to endure the pain? Well, none of these tips work 100% of the time, but those mentioned above do help some of the time. It’s also useful to know that chopping onion in a food processor actually intensifies the caustic smell and taste because more cells are bruised than when a sharp knife is used. If you enjoy the bite, make sure you cook the onion for only a short time. Longer cooking diminishes the strong taste and smell leaving behind the onion’s natural sweetness.


Rosemary Mantini has always loved words. When she isn't working as the Associate Editor at Tidings Magazine, she's helping others achieve their writing dreams, and sometimes she even relaxes with a good book and a glass of wine.

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