Don't Cry: A Guide to Selecting, Storing, and Chopping Onions

   By ChefErin  Mar 30, 2011


Since onions are used in almost every cuisine on the planet, I thought that it would be fun to learn a bit more about them. We typically categorize onions in two ways: fresh or green onions which include scallions, chives and leeks, and cured or dry onions which include yellow, white and red onions, shallots and garlic. I’m going to give you some basic information about common dry onions including choosing, storing, peeling, chopping and reducing / eliminating harsh flavors and odors.


Globe onions, so called for their spherical shape, are the most universal onions on the market. They come in yellow, white and red. Yellow onions are the most common. They are used about 75 percent of the time. If your recipe calls for onions, yellow onions are a good bet. White onions are typically milder than yellow onions, and are often associated with Mexican food. They are wonderful in salsas. Red onions are usually sweeter than yellow and white onions. They are sometimes called Italian onions and therefore you may see them specified in Italian recipes.


Sweet onions come in many varieties including Vidalia, Maui, Walla Walla, and OSO Sweet. They tend to be juicier and sweeter than standard onions. They are the perfect choice for raw eating - salads, sandwiches, hamburgers, etc. I particularly enjoy them grilled because the sugar caramelizes when you cook them, intensifying the sweetness.


When selecting onions, check to be sure that they are firm and have no blemishes or soft spots. Onions should be dry with papery skin. they should also feel heavy for their size. Don’t buy them if they have begun to sprout. Incidentally, the larger the onion the milder the flavor.


Once you get them home, it’s important to store them in a cool, dry place that has good air circulation. Don’t refrigerate them until they have been cut because refrigerators are humid and your onion will begin to degrade quickly. Try storing them in the legs of old panty hose (see video). If you hang them in your pantry or cupboard, they can last up to 2 months.


A cut onion can be refrigerated for up to 4 days. You should wrap it securely in plastic, store in an airtight container, or double bag it in sandwich bags to ensure the smell doesn’t permeate other foods in your refrigerator.


If you plan to use whole onion rings, an easy way to remove the skin is to cut off the top and bottom of the onion (stem and root ends). Then, hold the onion under warm running water and gently peel away the papery skin. If you just need to chop or slice, cut the onion vertically in half from stem to root, then cut off the root and stem ends, and peel away the skin.


There are plenty of ideas out there when it comes to keeping the tears at bay while chopping onions. I’ve read suggestions like biting down on a wooden spoon while chopping. Freezing onions for 20 minutes prior to cutting. Wearing safety goggles. Wiping your cutting board with vinegar before your slice. My personal defense is a good, sharp knife. The sharper my knife, the faster I am finished chopping. However, if you’re still crying even after the onions are chopped, a friend of mine suggests holding your wrist under cold running water. Apparently the tears will stop in a matter of seconds!


You might find that your onions are too pungent to use, especially if you plan to put them in salads or on sandwiches. I have two tips to reduce the harsh flavor. One: squeeze a little fresh lime juice over your sliced onions and toss. I find that the lime juice takes the bite away without stripping away the onion flavor. Two: you can soak cut onions in ice water for 30 to 60 minutes. Change the water two or three times while you are soaking. Drain, pat dry, and you’ll be ready to go.


Once you’ve wiped away your tears, you may be wondering how to get the onion smell off your hands and cutting board. The sulfuric compounds that give onions their pungency can be neutralized by acids. Try rubbing your hands with lemon juice, vinegar, or salt before washing them in warm soapy water. The same goes for your cutting board. Wipe it down with distilled vinegar before washing or use a half of a lemon and some kosher salt as a pumice before washing the board in soapy water.


Do you have any tricks for chopping onions without crying? How about suggestions to get the smell off your hands or cutting boards?


Make a Comment

mlanzillo by mlanzillo | RENSSELAER, NY
Apr 21, 2011

Thanks for the Tips I cry each and every time and I knew there had to be some good advice out there somewhere.

ChefErin by ChefErin | SEATTLE, WA
Apr 13, 2011

Great suggestions everyone! By the way, remember that cooking shows might as well be movie sets. They can cut away and reshoot if anything goes wrong. We all know how glamorous making dinner really is! ~ Chef Erin

gone_country30 by gone_country30 | Newcastle, OK
Apr 11, 2011

When I am chopping onions, I keep a glass of water near by. I hold a mouthful of water in my mouth and it keeps me from tearing up. If you are doing a lot of chopping you may need to swallow and get another mouthful. Its one of the many awesome things I have learned from my Mother-In-Law. =)

stargal by stargal | Blasdell, NY
Apr 07, 2011

I'll be trying all those tips to reduce the tears. I always envy chefs on cooking shows. I would be a teary mess if I had their careers.

basilandcatnip by basilandcatnip | GARLAND, TX
Apr 04, 2011

I wear plastic gloves when chopping onions and hot peppers. Also wearing glasses or contacts helps block one from tearing up.

ilovemyminidachshund by ilovemyminidachshund | Lexington, SC
Apr 03, 2011

Great ideas! :) Thanks for the info! I've always wondered how the chefs on the cooking channels don't even shed a tear!

ChefErin by ChefErin | SEATTLE, WA
Apr 01, 2011

mncruise - Thanks for the feedback. I really do think mildness, in general, depends on the varietal. I wonder what they were growing near Pecos? In any case, the size is a pretty good indicator of mildness. ~ Chef Erin

mnleona by mnleona | Harris, MN
Apr 01, 2011

My mother always used yellow onions because they are more mild than the white ones and I also use the yellow onions. I lived near Pecos, Texas as a child and these onions are the best.

ChefErin by ChefErin | SEATTLE, WA
Mar 31, 2011

A friend told me yesterday that she owns and loves onion goggles! I laughed, but whatever works. ~ Chef Erin

butterbugs by butterbugs | Rochester, WA
Mar 30, 2011

I stick my chopped onion in a pyrex glass with a lid. Stays fresh and no smell. Also the ice water works for me!

hareck by hareck | Oronogo, MO
Mar 30, 2011

I have tried soaking my onions in ice water with great success.

Peemahill by Peemahill | Jefferson, PA
Mar 30, 2011

Thanks for the great tips!!! I always enjoy your recipes and helpful tips.