The next time you see someone in a kitchen wearing swimming goggles or a scuba mask, don't be shocked. Even if you don't live at the beach. Chances are that person will be chopping onions.
No other kitchen chore has spawned as many documented techniques as chopping an onion. After all, no other food can torture a cook like an onion can. Cut into one and a sulfurous mist immediately bursts in the face and a stinging chemical, thiopropanal s-oxide, attacks the cornea.
While the eyes do their best to defend themselves with tears, anyone who's cut up an onion knows that really doesn't help at all. In fact, tears work against getting the job done quickly because they blur vision.
So, what to do? Has anyone ever developed a tried-and-true method of chopping onions without pain? Susan Milius, senior editor at Organic Gardening magazine, asked her magazine's 3.2 million readers last January for their solutions to the problem.
At best, she said, Organic Gardening was hoping to find a single universal cure; at the least, the editors were looking for a handful of suggestions to offer readers. After a year of accumulating letters and testing recommendations, they settled for the latter.
"A good chopping method seems to be in the eye of the beholder," they write in the January 1985 issue of Organic Gardening. Of the 449 solutions received, only four repeatedly solved the problem for a majority of Rodale Press' 75 employes who volunteered to try them out. But no single solution solved everyone's problem all of the time.
The four best bets are: (1) wearing either swimming goggles or a scuba mask, (2) chilling the onions before cutting into them, (3) rubbing the knife or your hands with lemon juice and (4) peeling them under cold running water. Scientific backing exists only for the first two solutions, Milius said, the other two fall into a sort of "magical" category.
"The diversity of suggestions was mind boggling," Milius said. Some readers sent in pictures of themselves, friends or relatives hard at work wearing goggles and big toothy smiles. Others sent in detailed diagrams of more complicated solutions. Though one out of every four suggestions was a variation on a theme (for example, dangle an unburned match from your lips, dangle a burned match from your lips, dangle a whole book of matches, either burned or unburned, from your lips), Organic Gardening did receive 100 verifiably unique, though not all usable, solutions in the mail, Milius said.
Some were too cumbersome, she said, such as that from a man in Montreal who suggested putting a vacumn cleaner outside the kitchen window and placing the suction hose next to the onion while chopping it.
Others were too complicated, as from a reader in Tamworth, Va., who wrote: "Peel onion, cut in half lengthwise (from stem end to root end). Place one half, cut side down, on cutting board. Hold it firmly on each side using fingers and thumb. Carefully slice as many slices as you wish (as to size you want to chop it) from end to end. Still holding it firmly (if you let go all is lost) slice it from side to side, sliding fingers back to the end as you go. When almost to the end it will be easier to turn the wider cutting face down on the board to finish slicing it . . ."
Still others were not realistic for everyday kitchens. A reader from Quaker Hill, Conn., sent in a picture he found in the U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings demonstrating the navy's solution to the problem of onion chopping on board submarines: wear an Emergency Air Breathing Apparatus connected to an independent air supply.
Once the editors sorted through all 449 suggestions, they thought 20 techniques were worth trying. Milius and a staff nutritionist tried each technique over a period of about 10 days in the Rodale test kitchens in Emmaus, Pa. They also enlisted the help of the Rodale staffers, each of whom tried one technique against the methods they had been using for years in their own kitchens. They were given three onions, a reader's suggestion to test at home and, for the super sensitive, a small packet of tissues.
Seventy-five pounds of onions later they tabulated their results and came up with the recommended four solutions. They called on onion expert Hank Grill, director of sensory analysis and research at Basic Vegetable Products in Vacaville, Calif., for his considered opinion.
Only two solutions have any scientific backing at all, he told them. Swimming goggles, scuba masks and naval air breathing apparatuses work to block the volatile compounds from hitting the eye. In fact, "all of the funny ways they received to prevent tearing that have something to do with preventing the compounds from hitting your eyes should work to some degree," he said. He included glasses and contact lenses in that category. Chilling, the second recommendation, slows the movement of the molecules so that not as much of the stinging mist raises to the face.
Lemon juice, on the other hand, has never been tried by the scientific community, he said. The acid in lemon juice may work to stop the onions' enzymatic reaction, he guessed, "but it would also flavor the onion."
As for peeling onions under running water, peeling has nothing to do with the enzymatic reaction, he said. You have to cut into the onion to get the reaction. On the other hand, if you chop an onion under water it may wash away or dissolve the fumes; if you chop near running water, the running water may work to change the air currents and divert the stinging mist, he said.
"The only way to prevent the reaction is to cook the onion before you cut it," he said, "but then you don't get the strong flavor." Peelers at his company, the largest dehydrator of onions and garlic in the world, simply get used to the sting, he said. At the height of the growing season, which lasts 150 days a year, Grill says his company peels more than 1 million pounds of onions a day, seven days a week. "After a while, their choppers' senses accommodate the attack, and the sting goes away," he said.
What does Grill do at home to solve the onion chopping problem? "Simple. I don't chop them, my wife does it." He has perfect vision, but she wears contact lenses.