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an onion chopped in half

Have you ever wondered why cutting onions causes your eyes to burn and tear? You may have even tried several methods to avoid it. For example, pushing your tongue to the roof of your mouth or chewing gum, maybe even, turning on a vent or lighting a candle. All of these may help lessen the tears, but none are truly effective.

Our eyes burn from cutting into onions because of a chemical called “suberin.” This chemical is composed of fatty acids and aromatic compounds that are in cork tissue plants. Suberin works to repair breaks and tears in the plant, as well as, protect plant surfaces from water loss and microbial attacks. When you cut into the onion you are releasing this chemical and other enzymes. The reaction that occurs creates a sulfuric acid; when the fumes come into contact with the moisture in your eyes, you will feel a burning sensation.

It is important to keep the root as intact as possible when cutting onions, since this is where there is a high concentration of suberin. Be sure to peel and cut the onion from the bloom, or top. Make sure to use a sharp knife as the fumes are released by the stress of the onion being cut and torn. By using a sharp knife, you will reduce the amount of time spent cutting the onion.

Here are the four most effective ways to avoid burning and tearing while cutting onions.

  1. Freeze the onion. Make sure you don’t leave the onion in the freezer to long or it will be difficult to cut.
  2. Another trick for stopping the stinging is to peel the onion and soak it in a bowl for 10-15 minutes to, theoretically, pull the chemicals into the water. The draw back to this method is that the onion is milder tasting.
  3. If you don’t want to wait 15 minutes for the onion to soak, you can cut the onion under running water. However, this method may be a little more dangerous, and it is not easy by any means.
  4. The fourth method is using goggles while cutting the onion. This works the best while cutting onions because the fumes never reach your eyes. The only down side is that you may look a little goofy wearing goggles while cooking.

Whichever method you use, remember to use a sharp knife and peel and cut from the top of the onion to avoid burning and tearing. Happy cooking!

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