You may just dread needing to cut onions for dinner; after all, the process often brings on stinging eyes and a lot of tears. Fortunately, though, there may be a solution to this common problem. Indeed, famous YouTube chef Jack Scalfani has seemingly revealed a secret method for chopping the vegetables without ending up in floods.
And the reason human beings cry when cutting onions is a fascinating one, linked to how our eyes protect themselves from irritants. In essence, it’s a reaction called reflex tears, which takes place when there’s something nearby that has the potential to damage our eyes – such as smoke, for example.
But why do onions in particular have this effect on us? Well, it’s partly down to how the vegetables grow in the first place. Onions take up sulfur from the soil; then, as the plants develop, the sulfur is broken down into a collection of molecules known as amino acid sulfoxides.
And when someone cuts into an onion, they release a sulfoxide as a result. Specifically, that sulfoxide is one named syn-propanethial-S-oxide, which rises from the onion as an invisible gas and causes our eyes to react. And the more we cut, the more gas is released and the more we cry.
Josie Silvaroli, who has authored a paper on this very subject, explained the reaction. “[Syn-propanethial-S-oxide] turns into a gas. It hits your eyes, and then it hits your sensory nerves in your eyes and causes them to tear up. It’s similar to tear gas,” she told The New York Times in 2017.
And although onions are part of the same genus as garlic and leeks, they are one of the few vegetables in this class to have a tearful effect on people. The other examples are seldom used in the kitchen: guinea hen weed and Sicilian honey garlic. But weeping while chopping onions is still a common enough issue for there to be plenty of advice online about how to avoid these tears.
Moreover, tips on stopping this problem range from the scientific to the absurd, with each method varying in its effectiveness. One of the best ideas is to freeze or chill the onion before you begin cutting it. Consequently, the chemical that produces the gas can’t react as quickly, making it less of a tearjerker.
Likewise, you can try cutting your onion while it’s under water. By submerging the vegetable as you prepare it, the gas it gives off is diluted and therefore won’t make you cry as much. However, this process can also change the taste of the onion, which may defeat the purpose for some people.
And sometimes a method to avoid crying can sound scientific but yield very little in terms of tangible results. As an example, one purported technique for cutting onions without tears involves putting the vegetables in the microwave first. Unfortunately, though, this appears to have little if any positive effect.
In addition to these approaches, another method for cutting onions has been presented by YouTube chef Jack Scalfani. From his platform, the Cooking with Jack Show, Scalfani tries to offer viewers an easier way of creating tasty food. Furthermore, his channel is so popular that some episodes of Scalfani’s show have received more than six million views.
And of his endeavors, Scalfani told The Orange County Register in 2012, “I’m a food guy, I’m not a chef. I want people to know I’m human. I screw up all the time. Food Network – it doesn’t appeal to your Walmart customer. But I do. And someday they’re going to realize that… a larger percentage of my audience attempts to make what I make.”
“No one wants to see me,” Scalfani continued. “They want to see what a simmer looks like. I love Rachael Ray, but… it drives me nuts. Just stop talking. Just cook. I want to see the goo when you open it, the steam when you cut into it.”
And it’s with this ethos in mind that Scalfani uploaded a video to show people how he cuts onions and avoids crying. In the clip, Scalfani claims that it’s a certain part of the onion that produces the gas. In other words, people need to cut this section out first.
Scalfani begins by taking a paring knife and cutting around the root at the bottom of the onion. He then shows viewers this section, saying that there’s a small bulb inside. And the bulb needs to be cut out as a single piece, all in one go.
Scalfani then explains that viewers should begin cutting about one-third of the way into the onion, making a cone shape as they work the knife around the base. By inserting the knife at an angle, it creates a removable cone of onion.
And Scalfani is so sure that this bulb is the cause of tear-producing gases that he insists it must be thrown straight in the trash. To demonstrate the method’s success, he proceeds to peel the onion’s brown skin and cut it up with no apparent ill-effects.
Despite Scalfani’s assurances that this method works, though, there doesn’t seem to be any solid scientific evidence that it actually releases less gas. Furthermore, while there are some anecdotal accounts online that support Scalfani’s claims, the consensus is that it’s more time-consuming to chop an onion this way.
Regardless of whether Scalfani’s method works, though, he has occasionally gotten things wrong in the past. For instance, the YouTuber had previously tried to make English Yorkshire puddings during one of his shows. And he drew mockery for not realizing that his attempts had failed badly and instead claiming that the results were delicious.
The relaxed attitude to cooking that has made Scalfani famous has also seen him draw criticism over his somewhat carefree approach to health and safety. In fact, one reported incident saw him post a video about canning that could allegedly have left people with food poisoning. Scalfani would ultimately take the clip down.
Still, perhaps viewers will try Scalfani’s onion method just for the fun of it, despite the fact that he certainly doesn’t pretend to know everything about cooking. “Tarragon? What is tarragon? I’m not using that. Salt. Pepper. Oregano. Garlic salt. I’m stickin’ to the standards,” he told The Orange County Register. “I’m a guy, and guys are lazy.”