The Real Reason Onions Make us cry.


     There's some pretty neat science happening when you chop onions. Understanding that science is the first step in preventing the tears. And who doesn't want to cry less? Here's the real reason onions make you cry. 


     Can you imagine having to cook without onions? For all the tears and all the burning eyes, they elevate so many dishes to the next level. So in order to understand what it is that makes you have such a reaction to them while you're cutting them, lets get scientific. 

     When onions grow, one of the things they absorb from the soil is sulphur. Onions then turn raw sulphur into an amino acid called sulfoxide. When you cut an onion, it releases this sulfoxide, creating a gas. Receptors in your eyes then recognize the presence of an unfamiliar gas, and communicate with your brain to start the tears flowing in order to help protect your eyes from this compound. The gas is only released when you're cutting onions, though, as the process of cooking them gets rid of all the gas, and causes the gas-forming molecules to become inert. And that's when the real magic happens, as those same enzymes are partially responsible for giving onions their flavor. 

How can you keep from crying?

     No one enjoys having their eyes attacked by vegetable gas. And there are a lot of crackpot methods that claim they will help you avoid crying when chopping onions. But to find a method that actually works, well need to once again turn to real science.

     Just like the heat of cooking keeps onions from releasing the gas that makes you cry, cold stops the gas-forming enzymes in onions as well. So putting your onions in the refrigerator or in the freezer before you're getting ready to cut and cook with them is one way to make dinner prep a lot less painful. You've likely heard that cutting onions underwater keeps the tears from coming, and its based on the same principle of interrupting the gas flow. That might be a bit dangerous to work out logistically, though, so you're probably better off with another option. 

     For instance, The National Onion Association recommends leaving the root end of the onion un-cut, as that's the part that has the greatest concentration of gas-releasing enzymes. And hey, if you're still having problems, you can always grab some goggles and cover up. 

A tear-free onion?

     The thing about onions is that even after you've chopped them and thrown them into what ever recipe you're making, you can probably still smell them. The gas lingers, and no matter how well you wash them or what kind of soap you use, that oniony scent just stays. 

     There are a couple things that you can try. Baking sodas odor-neutralizing properties are well-known, and it can help you wash that onion smell off your hands, too. Alternately, The National Onion Association recommends washing your hands with lemon juice to neutralize the pungent smell. And as for the rumor that rubbing your hands on stainless steel starts a chemical reaction that causes the gas-and-odor causing molecules to bond to the metal surface instead of your skin? Well, a researcher at the University of Pittsburgh tested this for NPR and didn't notice any effect. So go ahead and try it, just be aware that your hands may still stink - and you'll just also look really silly rubbing a frying pan all over yourself.

     The same chemicals that cause you to tear up when you're cutting onions is what makes them such a valuable addition to your kitchens and your recipes. So getting rid of the tears may get rid of the flavor. That devils bargain led to the development of the no-tear onion, the development of which was supported by the British grocery chain Asda. According to the company, the “Asda sweet red” onion was developed over the course of 20 years, with farmer Alastair Findlay selectively crossing hundreds and hundreds of onions to breed a new strain specifically for its lack of tear-inducing enzymes. The result is less pungent and more sweet than other types of red onions, and the British farmer who created the strain also says that they don't leave that distinctive after taste that so many onions can. So is it worth it? Well, you can always try them for yourself to find out. Just remember, though: if they''re not tasty enough, don't come crying to us.


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