How To Peel Onions Without Crying

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 peeling and 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.

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.

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.

But what I hadn’t read about was this intriguing tip, shared by the lovely Jules last month, which has you hold a slice of bread in your mouth as you chop.

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?

  • I heard of breathing through the mouth long time ago, tried it and it worked. Found it little quick tricky to do even though it sounds so simple

  • Sherron

    The BEST way to avoid the crying is to wear swim goggles. I buy cheap ones and keep them in the kitchen. This works great for kids in the kitchen too. It is also entertaining for other to watch.

  • I have been using this method for about 4 years since a friend of mine who worked as a line cook suggested it. it works better than anything else I have tried, but you do look foolish. :)

  • Jasmine

    I was taught to stick my tongue out; it acts, like the piece of bread, as a barrier between your nose and the onion. However, the trick stops working when someone spots you and everyone starts laughing!

  • verity74

    I spread a little lemon juice on the chopping board to neutralise the gas (I assume vinagar wuld work just as well being another acid).

    Avoids the silly look, but might alter the taste of some recipes?

  • I seem to get more and more sensitive to onions as time passes. The other day, I had to mince an onion in my food processor for a recipe, and by the time it was over, my eyes were a complete mess. Not only was I full-on crying, but the skin under my eyes stung for the rest of the day. Of course, the onion was old and at room-temperature…

    I’ve tried the bread trick, and it definitely helps, but I think that I might need to invest in some of those goggles ’cause I seem particularly susceptible. :)

  • I never try any of these, and usually have tears running down my face. Maybe I should experiment with a few….

  • I’ve heard of the bread trick, but never tried it. I just succumb to the tears, have a good cry, and rinse my hands in cool water afterward, which seems to stop the tears. The thought of bread in my mouth, trying not to drool while chopping onions has me smiling. Might look better than a tear-streaked face though.


  • As soon as I started wearing contacts instead of glasses, I stopped crying when chopping onions. It was like a miracle! If I’m wearing glasses, though, I’m a total mess.

  • I love this. I am definitely going to try it.

  • Ditto, James. I usually just cowboy up and take it in the face. I’m especially sensitive. I even react to scallion and garlic if I’ve chopped enough of them.

  • Wow, I’ve never heard about this one- gotta try it now. I usually just chill my onions and rinse the knife under cold water often.

  • Elizabeth

    I seem to have gotten quite lucky – I wear contact lenses and they seem to save me from even the most powerful onions. Never has myopia made me so happy! I forgot this one morning while making breakfast still in my glasses and the onion I chopped left my eyes watering and stinging for nearly ten minutes – I’ll have to keep a slice of bread around next time I’m cooking before dressing.

    • I’m on the fence about getting laser surgery for my shortsightedness, but I guess I would morn this happy side effect of wearing contacts. :)

  • A friend of mine used to swear by putting an unlit match in her teeth, which presumably was for the same reason – to absorb the gases. I tried this, and it never seemed to work, but then again, maybe I needed a bigger match for my very large onions.

    • Maggie Crooks

      I’ve used the unlit match for years. My grandmother taught it to me. Of course, she was cooking on a wood stove so had plenty of kitchen matches around.

  • Someone told me years ago to keep my mouth closed when I chop onions. It works like a charm. If I have to open my mouth part way through I always start to tear up, but if I keep my mouth closed it never happens. Mostly my kids and husband take the onion chopping time as an opportunity to tease me when I can’t fight back! :)

    • That made me smile, thank you. :)

  • If you have a gas stove, you can place the cutting board next to the range and turn on a burner or two. The heat and flames draw in the onion teargas and doesn’t irritate the eyes. Just stay clear of the flame!

  • Actually I found that holding a wooden spoon in the mouth works well though to be honest I rarely bother. You’re right that the fresher the onion the less it makes you cry!
    I suppose that would be the same effect as the bread – soaking it up!

  • I have heard the bread trick before, too. A cookie works, too, and you can eat it after you’re done… or while your chopping. Just make sure to hold some in your mouth until you’re done!

  • Kateri Lanthier

    In Jean-Jacques Beineix’s film, Diva, the character named Gorodish chops onions while wearing a mask and a snorkel. Charmingly daft, but sensible, too.

    • That would make a great trivia question for film lovers! I watched Diva years and years ago (before I was interested in cooking) and didn’t remember that bit.

  • The basic question is how to avoid contact with propanethial sulfoxide when you cut onions. The industry usually shortens the whole irritation sequence and says that the tears are caused by pyruvic acid interacting with the cornea. This leaves the cook with two ways to mitigation the problem: buy onions with less pyruvic acid and prevent the acid from coming in contact with the cornea.

    So-called sweet onions are called that because they contain less pyruvic acid than storage onions, not because they contain more sugar. (Unfortunately, sweet onion has today become a marketing term and many sweet onions are also high in acid.) For most of us, the onions we buy are the limited variety available at the store when we shop so we have to live with what’s available.

    Preventing the acid from contacting the cornea is something we do have control over. The most effective mechanical means are soft contact lenses that cover the entire cornea and onion goggles ( Swim goggles are not a suitable substitute for onion googles for many people because that rest inside the orbital socket and are uncomfortable. Plus they distort the view. Neither solution works for those who wear regular glasses. And safety goggles that fit over the these glasses usually have ventilation holes that eventually allow acid in.

    My preference is a three-prong approach of using a very sharp knife, never chopping, and ventilation. Your knife should be sharp enough so it makes no sound cutting through the onion. Onions should be either sliced or diced, never chopped. The physical act of pushing a blade through the onion, as happens with chopping, “squishes” the onion causing the pyruvic acid to atomize into the air. This is greatly reduced when the onion is sliced with a sharp knife. If there is a lot of moisture on your cutting board after working with onions, then you are probably not doing it correctly ( If the acid does become atomized, it can float up to the eyes. Even a very slight breeze can carry the pyruvic acid droplets away from the work area, so I usually create a little ventilation by opening a window or two.

    I regularly teach four students at a time knife skills in a tight space and tears are quite rare. We just follow the three actions above. If there are tears it is always because someone is pushing the blade through the onion rather than slicing.

    • Thanks a lot for such an informative post, Peter!

      It’s true that I never actually chop onions, only slice them (and dicing annoys me). But I do often grate onions and shallots using a box grater, and while it’s quick and easy, it always turns into a bit of a pyruvic acid fest.

      I’ve never heard of a knife skills class held here, unfortunately, but I would love to take one with you someday when I’m in SF.

  • Steffie B

    I totally wear those goofy onion goggles and they work like a charm. I even tear up for chives, so these things are a life saver.

  • Terri Achmann

    I’ve used the bread-slice method, and it does work! But another trick is to light a candle and place it near your chopping board. It works just as well, and it’s prettier than having bread dangling from your mouth! ;-)

  • I got a good laugh at this post. I can remember a time back when I used to cry over cutting onions. That is, until I had to cut 2 50 lb bags one day. The more you cut onions, the more you get used to it. I second the sharp knife comment above, it really does make a difference.
    Today, the only time I am affected by an onion is when they are REALLY fresh.

  • Stephanie

    Peter, you are a gem!! Thank you for this. As I was reading Clotilde’s article I was wondering why I have not had any onion crying issues for the last several years and your comment clears it up :) I have taken hundreds of hours of cooking classes and can yield a knife like a pro so that must be it. Slicing as opposed to chopping and crushing is the key.

    I love this article and my French sister in law showed me the bread in her mouth trick once when I first married into the family. I was sure she was teasing me and trying to get me to do something stupid!!

    Two things cleared up for me in one night! I could not be happier.

  • I’ve tried the freezer trick–didn’t work. I’ve tried the bread trick–too hazardous. I recently invested in a pair of proper onion goggles–success! You kind of look like a dork in the kitchen, but it’s better then tearing up and cutting your finger.

  • Strangely enough, I learned this tip from an academic conference paper on sixteenth-century alchemical practices – it was useful against a variety of acrid fumes before better safety aparatus was in widespread use – and have been using it ever since!

    • That is awesome to know, thanks for sharing!

  • Peter’s comments ring true for me — I’ve found that I never cry when I use Vidalia or Walla Walla sweets, so that’s about all I use now.

    When I do use other onions, I just claim to be heart broken about not getting what I want; I always want something, and whoever is around is bound to give it to me when they see so many tears. (But usually what I want when I’m chopping onions is a bag of Walla Walla’s.)

  • Amy

    That’s weird — I find it’s the freshest onions that make me cry most! I’m almost happy in winter when I run out of onions from my garden, because then I get to buy old onions from the supermarket that make me cry less.

    • See what I meant? So much contradictory info around this phenomenon! :)

  • Never heard of the bread trick, but I’m glad to learn it! I use my contacts as a barrier, but the good old bread trick will come out if I’m ever just in my glasses. I have also run chopped onion under water to help take the sharp bite out of it for delicate salads.

  • ATL Cook

    Sharpen your knives==dull ones make this even worse.

  • Jess

    When i have my contacts in i am not bothered at all! It’s a different story when they aren’t in.

  • tom

    I saw this trick with the bread in a tips section on Saturday Kitchen a few years back. The easiest (and least silly looking) method is to take a small piece of bread and tuck it under your top lip. Works a treat.

    The reasoning I heard for its effectiveness is it is impossible to salivate and cry at the same time and the bread forces you to salivate.


    • I actually think I’d look sillier with a piece of bread lodged underneath my top lip, but that’s up for debate. :) Interesting point about the salivation/tearing exclusivity!

  • kim

    I’ve been wearing contacts forever, and always thought I was immune to the onion stings – until I switched to glasses and BOY that burns!
    I saw another tip on a cooking show the other week, that large blonde woman from the BBC (forgot her name) claimed that the two ends of the onion contained the glands that produced the acid. So peel the onion, chop, and cut of the ends last and you would be fine. My knife skills are terrible as it is so I haven’t tried this yet.

  • I often burn candles while chopping onions. I had read that the irritants will combust in the flame before accumulating enough to aggravate your eyes. It also a bit soothing to watch :)

  • I agree that crushing onions and using dull knives makes it worse. I am not very sensitive, but occasionally I do cry. Rigid contact lenses did not save me at all, and were actually a real pain. I find the freezer trick helps, as well as ventilation.
    I especially suffer when peeling pearl onion. I usually keep them underwater… But I’ll try the bread next time.

  • I’m definitely one of those who has no problems when I’m wearing my contact lenses. They work so well that on the few occasions where I am wearing my glasses I am absolutely shocked to find my eyes watering. I’ll have to remember the bread trick for that next time!

  • Very intriguing indeed! I usually just use a very sharp knife and get the work done as soon as possible. I do know that keeping the onion is the fridge works well. Thank you for the tip!

  • Donna

    In the summer, I have a fan in the doorway for circulation near where I chop onions and have it turned on when I start.

    In the winter, I just move across the kitchen and chop close the the ventihood.

  • Wow, I’ve heard a LOT of onion tips in my lifetime but this one … this one is new, and odd, and possibly the best thing ever :)

  • I wear contacts too – so perhaps that explains why I don’t really get affected so much. Thought it was just that I was hard as nails. Ha ha. Oh well.

  • Fascinating! My sister bought me a pair of onion goggles, and I tried them, skeptically. I was so surprised when they worked! I wear them all the time now. :)

    • You mean, even when you’re not chopping onions? :)

  • My grandmother once told me to cut the root side off and place it on top of my head like a little onion hat. Trust me when I tell you that this method does not work! Hilarious look, though.

    • Your grandmother sounds like someone I’d like to have as a friend. :)

  • Liz Thomas

    I even cry when other people chop onions and I am meters away from them. I’ve tried every trick in the book and nothing works except rubbing your hands and the onion with vinegar — a trick used by Chinese vegetable carvers to make those amazine onion chrysanthemums — but that only works if a touch of vinegars isn’t going to affect the taste of your recipe.

    I have just invested in a pair of proper onion goggles from Amazon. The many positive reviews really sold it to me.

    Problem is that they cannot deliver them to Macau so I’ve had to have them sent to my sister in the UK and I won’t be able to get them until August when we go over there. I’ve told her to try them out and let me know.

    So looking forward to tear-free onion chopping.

  • wearing a googles glass might work. but you will look waeird :D

  • tim

    After having to regularly cut 50kg of onions in one sitting i can recommend a matchstick, toothpick or bread held between your teeth. Having your mouth kept open keeps the saliva washing the pain away. And a toothpick is less conspicuous than bread…

  • est

    awesome tip! merci Clotilde!!

  • Thanks for expanding on the onion + tears topic Clotilde.

    And very glad to hear that the bread trick worked for you!

    • Thank *you* for the tip and the inspiration, Jules!

  • Richard

    No one ever mentions the simplest solution of all (though I have the advantage of living in a year-round moderate climate): Do it outdoors. The irritant dissipates and causes no tearing at all

    • That’s a great point. Now I just have to get a house with a garden. :)

  • Kat

    I always turn on the stove next to me while I chop-or use my food processor. I haaaate cutting onions!

  • Classic tips, my favourite is to tell people to run their elbow under cold water, does it work? no but usually gets a laugh and provides temp relief as you stop chopping. Also like the spoon in the mouth. Old snowboarding goggles if it get really bad. The old onion is the reason why sometimes it is bad, great reason to keep it fresh

    • Love the elbow under cold water tip! :)

  • Alix

    Why not use a small desk fan? I don’t have air-conditioning in my house so there’s a small fan in almost every room. If angled properly on the kitchen counter or wherever you’re working, it could just blow the vapors out of the way. In theory, anyway…

  • Thanks the info for the onions, now I could make this food better.

  • Here’s what we learned at culinary school: a nice, sharp knife and little speed = no tears. It works. Mostly.

  • Amanda

    My adopted 12 year old sister from Russia had been begging me to make piroshki’s. So I was in the middle of chopping and she told me to suck on a spoon while I chopped. I don’t know where she picked that up but it worked.

    • Great story and tip, Amanda, thank you!

  • Great idea! After crying from chopping onions, we usually like to act out some very dramatic scene. “I’M SO HAPPY TO BE CHOPPING ONIONS!! WAHHH….” or “WHY DO I HAVE TO BE THE ONE TO CHOP THE ONIONS! LOOK AT WHAT PAIN I’M IN!” It’s quite fun. :)

  • Gill

    In France I have a table fan that I place so the air blows across the chopping board and towards the door. I turn it on just before I start working with onions and never have a problem. It is so successful that here in Joburg, I carry through our large fan to the kitchen whenever I have more than one onion to deal with.

  • Like the “cures” for the hiccups, I’ve never had any of these work for me. Although, I have admittedly not tried the bread trick. It seems like it would make sense, but I’d feel awfully silly trying it. I’m fortunate (unfortunate?) enough to not wear contacts, so I don’t have that defense.

    I usually just tough it out, and try to keep the kitchen well ventilated. Plus singing “I’m Not Crying” by Flight of the Conchords makes it more fun. It’s a really funny song.

  • Jen

    This reminds me of the scene in “Julie & Julia” where Julia Child is chopping a mountain of onions in her kitchen, sobbing from both the onions and her humiliation at not being as skilled as the men in her cooking class. Her husband comes home from work and can’t even enter the kitchen because of the fumes! One of the funniest scenes in the film.

  • Chuck

    Fans work great. Toy stores and some hardware stores sell water bottles with a combination spritzer head/fan that kids (or adults) use to spray themselves in the summer. They are free-standing and operate on batteries, so no cord to get in the way. Perfect for the counter. Put it right next to the cutting board and, at about 7 inches high, just the right height to blow the onion fumes away.

  • Rodosee

    The traditional Indian trick a friend taught me is now the norm at our home. It’s so simple I wonder it’s not more common. You simply halve your onion (even before you peel it, actually) and drop the halves in a bowl of water — cold is best, but any temperatures will do (as long as it’s not hot enough to cook them!). Gather your other ingredients meanwhile, then come back and chop away. (I think about 8-10 minutes at least in the water does the trick)

    Unlike Peter and you, Clotilde, I do a lot of chopping by hand because I truly hate grating! This still works every time.

  • poornima

    While chopping onions I was told to chew gum and this works for me. Also washing your knife often while chopping in cold water helps.

  • RC

    Use a fan. blow the air from the onion away from you. lachrimating molecules fly off in another direction. always works. even if you chop onions for a million hours.

  • Kay@Chopstix2steaknives

    This is indeed intriguing. I have never tried this method before to chop onions.

  • I have never seen so many tips in one place about onion chopping – this is fantastic!

  • I’m not so sensitive to onions, but one of my blogger friends who lives in Park City is very sensitive and jokes about wearing her ski goggles while chopping onions…lol :)

  • I’m ridiculously affected by onion fumes. I’ve tried numerous techniques to combat them with varying success. The only thing that has ever worked for me is either opening the kitchen window or having a fan blow away the fumes. I’ve tried an onion under the tongue but had little success, I’ll give the slice of bread trick a whirl.

  • sportschik523

    This was very helpful and super funny. I saw the onion goggles on Modern Family, and now I want a pair.

  • I’ve actually done this for years, but admittedly not when anyone else is in the kitchen with me. ha ha. Chewing gum helps as well, but it isn’t quite as effective. The whole saliva soaked bread thing is pretty gross though. ICK.

  • SullyFinch

    I saw on a scientific cooking show on the food network (I forget the name of it), that the most effectiven way to avoid the gas that makes you cry is to burn it off before it reaches your eyes, by chopping the onions next to a gas stove with the flame turned up. It works perfectly!! You just Graf the chopping board next to the gas flame, chop, then turn off the flame. So simple.

  • SullyFinch

    I saw on a scientific cooking show on the food network (I forget the name of it), that the most effectiven way to avoid the gas that makes you cry is to burn it off before it reaches your eyes, by chopping the onions next to a gas stove with the flame turned up. It works perfectly!! You just Graf the chopping board next to the gas flame, chop, then turn off the flame. So simple.

  • Trish

    well, a raw chef told me to place a bowl of water close to the onion (it absorbs the gas) and so far the past 2x I have chopped, I havent had any tears! So I believe it works!

  • Adrienn

    I always hold some water in my mouth and I never cry.
    I think the mechanism is the same with bread, chewing gum, spoon. You start to salivate when holding something in your mouth, that’s why you do not cry. Water is my saliva in this case.

  • Kavita

    Well, this is similar to Gilda’s grandmother’s idea – but it DOES work! You tuck a couple of onion skins behind your ears – and there you are, no tears. Don’t ask me why.

  • Diane

    It also works to hold a piece of brown paper shopping bag in your teeth. I think it is because it blocks some of the vapors from reaching your nose and eyes. But it can be hard to see what you are doing so be careful with the knife!

  • Elli

    Hello Clotilde, just a couple of months back I placed a small table fan on the kitchen countertop, and switch it on facing me when I chop onions. Viola! no tears at all! :-)

  • George

    Frankly, my dears, I just enjoy a good cry now and again.

    And, by the by, if you really want a tear duct opener, join me in my kitchen when I am grating my freshly grown horse radish. Actually I second the chap that wrote: do it outside, dummy; ’tis what I do.

    Really the best solutions to onion angst are the lit candle or the gas burner on.

    Happy New Year to all.

  • Liz Thomas

    Well, I’ve just enjoyed reading this again. I did get my onion goggles and they didn’t work for me. Too big for my face so there were gaps for the fumes to get in. Also, found I couldn’t see very well, I have to wear glasses for things like food prep.

    I gave them to my sister but keep forgetting to ask her if they work for her!

  • rita rodrigues

    I enjoyed reading some of the posts here, and light a candle close to the onions i am about to chop or fry… it helps some.

  • Harold

    My wife wears snowboarding goggles that I bought for her (for snowboarding, not for chopping onions!). She swears by them. Haha, I always get a kick out of it.

    • I’m sure you do! This is the kind of small thing that makes daily life much funnier. :)

  • Dave N ellis

    To prevent crying, I recommend that you never get emotionally involved with your onions.

  • Mahalet Dagmi Gebrehiwot

    I put a slice of onion on both of my ears.. This never fails for me. My husbands family taught me this trick. They are from Ethiopia and use onions in 70% of their dishes.. Needless to say I’ve always been very sensitive to onions so now I never cut without my ear pieces lol.. This was me last night

    • Ha ha, I’d never seen this trick, you look great! Thanks for sharing.

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