Of all the kitchen inconveniences the cook has to live with, the one that generates the highest number of defensive strategies is no doubt the chopping of onions, and the associated teargas effect.
The reason why it makes you cry is explained in detail here, and if you like to read about enzymes and syn-propanethial-S-oxide, as do I, it is worth a read.
But to put it more simply, chopping onions causes the release of an irritant gas in the air, which, upon reaching your eyes, triggers a blinking and tearing reflex designed to wash it away. Yet another illustration, albeit an annoying one, of what a nifty machine the ol’ human body is.
Not all onions are created equal (the fresher the onion, the less you cry) and not all cooks are as sensitive, but this phenomenon explains the volume of tips and tricks floating about — some of them amusingly contradictory — designed to either hinder the release of said gas, or prevent it from reaching the eyes.
Some people rinse the onions in cold water after peeling, or chop them underwater. Some recommend keeping onions in the fridge, or plopping them in the freezer for a few minutes before chopping. Some chop from the stem end down, others from the root end up. Some recommend breathing through the nose, others only through the mouth, while others still hold a sip of water in their mouth, and try not to laugh and spit it out.
Some report lachrymal immunity when they wear contacts or chew gum, others suggest putting on lab goggles or a snorkeling mask. Some boast they keep their knives so sharp it’s never a problem, others strive to keep their face well away from the chopping board. Romantics like to keep a lit candle by their chopping board, others still opt to cry it out.
I’ve only tried a few of these tips myself — I mostly count on my contacts to act as a protective shield, or just surrender to the crying — but I knew about them, having soaked up very many cooking magazine tips pages over the years.
I was somewhat skeptical, and I even double-checked the date: was it April 1, and was Jules chuckling quietly in her kitchen, imagining her readers with a saliva-soaked piece of bread lopping from their mouth?
But no: it was only March 28, and she was absolutely serious.
Such an unusual tip could not go untested, so I soon tried it, using the butt end of a loaf of pain au levain and feeling both experimental and silly, but I am happy and amazed to report it worked perfectly.
The rationale, I gathered from a little research, may be that the piece of bread absorbs some of the irritant gas before it can reach the eyes; I read that a lump of sugar works just as well. And the fact that you have to concentrate on not drooling on your cutting board may also make this a good hiccup cure; it’s worth a try.
I don’t think we’re going to see this tip demonstrated on cooking shows anytime soon, but in our own kitchens, we set the rules of what’s classy and what’s not, no?