We tried it: 7 hacks, tricks and gimmicks to prevent onion tears
American poet and writer Carl Sandburg is commonly attributed with the following quote: “Life is like an onion. You peel it one layer at a time, and sometimes you weep.” Sandburg might have been onto something as far as life advice goes, but when it comes to slicing onions for a meal, must tears be required?
Plenty of people have hacks they swear by for tear-free onion cutting, and we decided to give a few of the more promising methods a try . But first, why do onions make us cry? Much like a skunk releases its potent odor when spooked or to defend itself, an onion emits chemicals (mostly sulfenic acid) that warn us (or critters in your garden) to stay away so that it might grow to maturity and reproduce. The more cells of the onion that are damaged, the more chemicals are emitted. When they hit our eyes, we cry to flush the burning sensation away.
We grabbed a bag of yellow onions and put some of the most common hacks to the test. Here are our results.
Result: Do you look ridiculous wearing goggles while cutting onions? Of course. But does it prevent crying? Yes! Any barrier between onion gasses and your eyes will curb your likelihood of crying. You can buy specialty onion goggles, but any goggles that fit tight against your skin, like swimming goggles, will work. (In a pinch, even sunglasses will help at least reduce the number of tears shed.)
Burning a candle
Result: Unless you plan to set the entire onion on fire, don’t plan on this working.
Set onion on a wet towel
Result: Common lore says that onion gasses are attracted to moisture, so would a wet paper towel under the onion work? Turns out… not really. Were there fewer tears? Maybe. But not enough to make it a regular practice when we cut onions.
Result: It is claimed that the acidity of vinegar counteracts the sulfenic acid of the onion. We spritzed vinegar on the onion after cutting it in half and let it sit for five minutes before cutting — and it did seem to reduce tears slightly.
Result: It’s said that starting with a cold onion helps prevent the likelihood of tears, as it slows the release of gasses when the onion is cut. It worked! Perhaps not as well as other methods, but putting the onion in the refrigerator for 30 minutes before cutting made a noticeable difference.
Using the kitchen vent
Result: Turning on the kitchen vent or fan draws the sulfenic acid away from the onion and your eyes, provided you are standing directly under the vent.
Result: Of all the methods we tried, a good sharp knife was the best at preventing tears; a sharp knife cuts cleanly and therefore more gently, damaging and bruising fewer onion cells.