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23 August 2007

how to chop an onion

how to chop an onion II

The Chef's hands are working-man's hands. On our first date, I noticed the burn on his finger, the callus at the base of his first finger on his right hand (near the palm), the fact that all the hair on his knuckles is gone. Burned off, you see. I loved his hands, right away. They reminded me of this description Ken Kesey wrote of McMurphy's hands in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, the palm scuffed like a baseball from all the hard work. I remember, when I taught that book, reading that quote out loud to students, guiding them to understanding McMurphy's character. But inside, I was thinking, "I wish I could meet a man with hands like that. Someone who really works. Someone who knows how to use his hands."

One look at the Chef's hands, and I was convinced.

The rest of him ain't bad either.

When I asked the Chef this afternoon how many onions he has chopped over the past twenty years, he nearly did a spit take. His entire body moved forward. "I have no idea how to answer that question. A ton? I don't even want to think about it. I just keep cutting."

I've been cooking for years. I adore food. I have recipes in a book with my name on the cover. But I will never know one-tenth of what the Chef knows about food. He has spent his entire adult life in service to the food, in trying to bring joy to other people's bellies.

When I first met him, I was impressed by how he cooked foie gras, by the pork campagnes he makes from scratch (and last week a customer from France came up to him in tears, and told him it was the best pate she had ever eaten), the meals with fancy names.

But the longer I know him, the more I know that my first impression is correct. The Chef is not a diva. He doesn't like to draw attention to himself. He is as humble as an onion.

And just as complex.

The callus on his finger is raised and horny, as solid as the shelter of his arms. The man has held a knife in his hand -- the edge of the blade butted up against that callus, his fingers gracefully gripping it like he holds my hips -- every day for decades. The knives he uses in the restaurant are not the most expensive on the market, or the flashiest. But holding them feels like breathing to him. When he holds a knife in his hand, he is himself.

"The knife has to be your best friend. If it isn’t, it will turn on you and cut you," he said with firm enthusiasm. "Treat it with respect. Keep it sharp. When you have a dull knife, you get cut and you fuck yourself. If you have a sharp knife, you’ll cut clean and you'll be happy. The food will taste better for it."

For years, I cut my food with a dull knife. No more.

For years, I cut onions haphazardly, some pieces enormous, the others thin slivers. I thought it didn't matter. I was a free spirit! But after watching the Chef chop dozens of onions, his head bent forward in reverent attention, I realized I was doing it all wrong.

"When you chop the hell out of the onion, you lose all the flavor," he has told me.

And this isn't about looks, or impressing anyone else. One of the reasons I love the Chef? He doesn't give a damn about impressing people or doing anything for show. He moves with pure grace into the kitchen. Chopping an onion correctly? It's for the taste of the food.

"If an onion's chopped uniform, then it’s all going to cook the same. If it’s different sizes, then the small ones are going to burn, and the largest ones are going to be nearly raw. There is a difference in taste if you do it right."

And so, this afternoon, when he wanted to start preparing for service, the Chef was kind enough to slow down and show me -- and thus you -- one of the most important techniques in great food. How to chop an onion.

how to chop and onion I

"First of all, put a damp towel under the cutting board. This will prevent it from skidding and you cutting yourself."

(He frowns at me when I forget to do this at home. And then he pats my hand and points to it. I love his concern.)

"Slice off the end, but just the end. A lot of people take the core off, but that’s a mistake. The core is what keeps the onion together."

(See the photograph at the top for a reference.)

"Sometimes, even in other restaurants, I'll see onions that are all a shambles. And I know they cut too fast, cut too much. Keep the core. That's how you get a good cut out of it."

how to chop an onion III

"Peel the onion, roughly. Don't fuss and pick at the peel. Rip it off. Onions are cheap. You don't want the peel in your food," he says.

how to chop an onion IV

"Besides, you can always save the extra bits and peels for stock, later."

how to chop an onion VI

"Make fine slices, like this. Just don't go into the core and cut the onion all the way."

how to chop an onion IX

"Cut through once, horizontally. But not all the way."

how to chop an onion VII

"After you have sliced through the middle, once, start slicing the other way. keep your fingers curled, like a barrier against the knife. Watch the onion pieces fly."

how to chop an onion VIII

"This is small dice."

how to chop an onion X

"If you want a minced onion, do the same thing. But make three or four horizontal cuts. And then chop."

Trust a man who has chopped a ton of onions.

A few more facts, from the Chef:

"If a recipe calls for one onion, chopped, that's not helpful. It may mean something to a chef, who knows that recipe already, but not to the person who is trying to follow every word."

Hm. I'm pretty sure I've written "one onion, chopped" in recipes here before. No more.

"Rough chopped means hacking up that onion. You can do that if you're going to puree the onion or put it in a stock."

I'm pretty sure I've done a rough chop all my life.

"Don't put onions in the food processor. You're just beating the shit out of them. There goes all the flavor."

I swear, I conceived this post, and took these photographs, before I saw the latest episode of Top Chef. Poor Casey, chopping onions so slowly. That was really embarrassing.

But you know what the Chef would say if he saw that?

"If you watch a cooking show, and someone’s been going through an onion fast, that guy has been doing it for ten or fifteen years.

You do that? You’re going to cut a finger off. That hurts."

So we shouldn't all try to go fast and be impressive? What should we do instead?

"Practice. Cut up a lot of onions. Take it slowly. You don’t want to hurry.

And don’t buy the stupid utensils for onions that people buy at cooking stores. Just chop as many onions as you can. If you want to put your money anywhere, invest in bandaids."

How did he learn to chop onions this way?

"My teachers showed us." [The Chef went to NECI, in Vermont.] "They made us chop an onion, and then they'd look at it. They'd say, 'That's shit. Do it over.'" So I did.

"They didn't expect us to be perfect. But they wanted us to pay attention and do it right."

That's a damned fine motto, Chef.

Slow down. Pay attention. Do it right.

And chop a lot of onions before you expect to be any good at it.


At 5:26 AM, Blogger Shinscot said...

whew!! at least i think i might pass a light inspection from the Chef:

sharp knife - always
leave in the core - always
peels the heck out of hit - that first layer is history!
cutting method - yep, that's what i learned years and years ago.

but does the sage man himself have any advice or help for those of us (me!) with extreme eye-sensitivity to onions? i'm trying to learn to chop faster, because by my last few cuts, i'm always blind, tears running down my face, nose running, and just in pain. i've tried everything from the stick your face int he freezer trick to wearing swim goggles (quite the fashion statement for the kitchen, no?) and no luck.

so once again, my eternal question to the universe: how to cut an onion without crying?

At 5:43 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mega helpful. Thanks so much!

At 7:09 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am in constant fear at the thought of chopping because I am such a klutz. Cooking shows do go way too fast for me to follow and I am resigned to chopping being over my head. This tutorial is very helpful, though, and certainly helps to demystify this for me.

One question: how do I avoid cutting myself on the horizontal cuts? Even that picture made me nervous.

At 8:00 AM, Blogger PWR said...

What an awesome post! Really, I never knew this! Useful and beautifully written. Thanks, Shauna (and Chef)!

At 8:38 AM, Blogger Tanaya said...

This reminds me of a poem I read once...Tanaya

Valentine by
by Carol Ann Duffy

Not a red rose or a satin heart.

I give you an onion.
It is a moon wrapped in brown paper.
It promises light
like the careful undressing of love.

It will blind you with tears
like a lover.
It will make your reflection
a wobbling photo of grief.

I am trying to be truthful.
Not a cute card or a kissogram.

I give you an onion.
Its fierce kiss will stay on your lips,
possessive and faithful
as we are,
for as long as we are.

Take it.
Its platinum loops shrink to a wedding-ring,
if you like.

Its scent will cling to your fingers,
cling to your knife.

At 8:46 AM, Blogger mary grimm said...

This is something I don't think I do well--maybe I'll make an onion-demanding recipe and practice the Chef's techniques.
By the way, I ate NECI food every year that I went to the Vermont College MFA residency--and it was awfully good. I always used to think, if it's this good when it's the students, how fabulous will they be when they are chefs? And now I know!

At 8:50 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hmm, that's the method I use, but the pieces don't come out as uniform and the onion tends to fall apart before I've done all the cuts. Maybe I need to do the paper towel thing, or get a sharper knife. Thanks for the tips, Chef!

At 10:09 AM, Blogger MasGrandeQueJesus said...

I've been looking for a post like this forever. When I first started cooking-- cooking in a not-in-a-box-with-a-packet-of-orange-powder kind of way, anyway-- I tried to find something like this, and couldn't. I found that it is, truly, a matter of practice.

I didn't like chopping things at first. I'm a fan of instant gratification and I hate when I don't get something right immediately. I remember standing at the cutting board, taking an eternity to chop up a carrot. Each motion of the blade was slow and clumsy, I didn't have the confidence I needed to slice cleanly through.

I'm amazed I still have all my fingers. My only food scar is from a particularly nasty blackberry bush.

With practice though, I got better, a lot better, over time. Eventually I moved onto onions, meticulously, Casey-like (although certainly not as even a dice). I'd never had a person to teach me how. My dad hates onions, and if he ever uses them, they're diced into oblivion. None of my friends are cooks. Sad.

Ultimately, I learned from the Food Network, probably Alton Brown, how to chop an onion. I practiced and I practiced, and now I'm pretty good. I've moved on to other vegtables, and I can even cut ginger and green onions into elegant strands like Kylie Kwong. I definitely owe it to practice.

I only wish I'd had a guide like this when I started. So, thank you for this.

Now, to learn how to break down a chicken....

At 10:14 AM, Blogger Kate said...

Great post! LOL! I, too, watched poor Casey in horror... how in the world was she so... umm.. slow?

My love and yours sound alike. Crack me up.

We were at the kitchen store the other day picking up a few things.. and spotted "Onion Goggles". I realize now from the first poster that someone needs them - but at the time and still now, it does strike a funny bone.

I wonder what the world would have been wondering about Casey if she'd cracked out a pair of onion goggles to boot?

At 1:37 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, I´m glad to know tv does teach a few things, so I´ve got this technique right (though I still have years of practice ahead).
For anyone interested in a wonderful encyclopedia of cooking with tons of techniques and photos, I recommend The Cook´s Book, it´s like $25 and chock-full of information.

At 1:59 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very useful post - thanks! Is the chef a fan of any particular knives or is it simply a matter of finding a knife that's easy to maintain/sharpen? Thanks again for the post.

At 2:37 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

I love this post because it's so rare I learn I'm actually doing something, anything right. I wish the whole internet validated me like this. I kid, mostly.

The only thing I do differently is that I halve the onion with the skin on; I find it much easier/faster to peel the skin off this way.

Great, really helpful post!

At 3:39 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

After you have sliced through the middle, once, start slicing the other way. keep your fingers curled, like a barrier against the knife. Watch the onion pieces fly."

Shauna, can you explain here - what is the other way? through the top again? I think that's what you mean but I'm not positive.

This is very helpful!

At 4:17 PM, Blogger Kristin said...

Fabulous post, Shauna ! I bet these are time-consuming, with the chef having to slow down for photos, but I would LOVE to see more !!! Maybe how to cut up a chicken !?!? Whole chickens scare me !! (And I love the chef's added commentary, in quotes. His voice fits very well in here. You two make a great team.

At 4:40 PM, Blogger Lisa said...

Ha, I love this post. I love chopping vegetables (I find it to be incredibly peaceful, like meditating) and when I cook with friends who don't chop them uniformly I literally itch to rip the knife out of their hands and do it myself. I don't know why it bothers me, but it does!

At 5:41 PM, Blogger sweetpea said...

Sinscot - Try tear free onion goggles (by RSVP) THEY ARE THE BEST. I can chop pounds of onions at a time without shedding a tear. They are my favorite kitchen gadget! Good choppin'

At 10:32 PM, Blogger Amy Jo said...

I knew Ken Kesey, my husband grew up with him in his life, and that man had working man's hands. He lived on a barn turned into a house on many acres of Oregon land, and he worked that land, hard and happily. He was a good man, maybe a little crazy, but a good man with good hands.

My husband has musician hands, guitar, and I too fell in love with them the moment I met him. It's amazing the things we notice when we are in love, the odd things that we didn't know would be so dear to us until they were right in front of us.

I am glad you have the Chef, not only to teach you, but to teach us. Thank you for sharing both of your lives and congratulations on being Mrs. Ahern!

At 8:10 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ha! This post really rang for me. I learned how to chop on a boat in the Pacific Northwest. I was in the galley working with a chef for weeks at a time, and it was the best experience ever regarding chopping vegetables. We always put a damp towel under our cutting board, since you never knew when a rogue wave would hit us...we cooked for about 70 people 3 times a day...and my job was to chop. It was very zen. And today, I am as particular about my chopping as I am about my cooking. Now, I have working woman's hands from twisting wire daily for my job as a jeweler. I love working with my a corporate job in spades. Great post!

At 10:16 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks, that was great. More Chef tips please! Lets show the non-gf world what we can do :)

At 12:19 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have that same knife hubby does! I use it for everything.

I removed a knuckle the first week I got it LOL!

I am NOT a chef, obviously...

looks like we live in the same vicinity too! I am 10 miles west of Seattle.

anyways I am Collette, I just found out this week I have Celiac and I am looking for other people to chat with, and I started a Food blog also and I hope you don't mind I put your blog on my sidebar:)

nice to meet you...btw


At 7:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for the posts, the stories, all of it.

Could you please keep the language clean? You two are intelligent enough to show that with the words you use. I want to feel comfortable reading your blog as I have so long, not cringing because of the crassness of the language.

At 7:17 PM, Blogger Shauna said...


you know, I have no real idea on what to do about the onions making you cry. i've heard that putting the onions in the freezer helps. (That's what the Chef suggests.) But I'm lucky enough to wear contacts, and those block everything out. As much as i think those goggles are silly for everyone else, they may be made for you!


I'm glad!


Go very slowly. Don't try to rush. But also, knowing that you are going that slowly, you can relax a bit. I think we cut ourselves when we tense up!

paul Romaine,

you're welcome. You know, I never knew this before I met the Chef. It's a dividing line, this technique -- people who know it and people who don't.


That's lovely. Thank you for posting that.


From all his descriptions of it, NECI was exactly the rigorous training that the Chef wanted. I only wish I could have eaten those meals when he was there, so I could have met him then!


I'm pretty sure it's the sharpness of your knife. That makes a big difference, to the entire process.


Thank you for your words. I think we could all use practice on this one. And breaking down a chicken? Well, the Chef does love doing that...


You know, after i put up this post, I brought the Chef home for the night. I turned on Bravo, to see if I could find that repeat to show him, and it was on. The relay race. He watched approximately 22 seconds of that poor woman, and he begged me to turn off the tv. It was too mortifying for him.


Thanks for the recommendation. I've seen that book, and it does look helpful. I think there's no substitute for practice, however.


You know, I think it's just a matter of which hands feel good in your hand. He uses Henckels at the restaurant, and we use Wusthoff and Messermeister at home. I'm thinking the favorite is the Messermeister, but he just can't part with the knives he has been using for so long!


I'm so glad you found it useful. I've never seen it done with the skin on!

The Newlywife,

oh, we can always use refreshers. I'm still not that good at chopping onions, but it's so satisfying to me when I do it right!


Yes. You make one horizontal cut, and then you slice vertically, against the open edge of the onion. Take a look at the photo with the diced pieces flying off his knife for visual reference!


Thank you, my dear. I didn't know how much people would like this post, but we definitely have ones planned for the future.


I can understand. The food truly does taste better with the onions chopped uniformly. I'm starting to feel like you do!


I'm so glad you like them. This is a great recommendation!

Amy Jo,

I love that you wrote this. This description of Ken Kesey, whom i have always adored, makes me happy. And I'm glad I found your man with the musician's hands.


i love your description of learning to chop on a boat. You have guts!


Well goodness, we're going to have do some follow-ups to this one! I can tell.


Congratulations on your diagnosis! Everything will be starting to feel much better, soon. And brava for documenting your experiences. That has worked out for me, so far...


you know, i thought about that a lot before I posted this, but I decided to go with the unvarnished language. This isn't a pg website, after all.

And I disagree. I don't think that language has anything to do with intelligence. As someone who adores language and plays with words all the time, I think there's a time and place for a few choice curse words!

mostly, though, I wanted to have the Chef's voice in here, finally. For people who don't know restaurants, kitchen talk is rarely pretty. When he's excited, he talks like that. So there it is.

Sorry that you were offended.

At 8:59 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

This is great! My mom always asks if we can just put it in the processor...I ALWAYS say NO! I hate how it just pulverizes the onion to use putting it in then.

At 4:49 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, my goodness, THANK YOU! This is so very helpful.

At 6:16 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

I loved this tutorial! My husband loved this tutorial! I can say it is the first time I have chopped an onion and have really been happy with the results.

I go through 5 to 10 onions a week cooking.


At 7:51 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wonderful! I love helpful, methodical instruction. And great pictures, too.

At 9:46 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Shinscot, Sweetpea - Any sort of non-ventilated goggles will work, really. If you have a pair of swimming or ski goggles, those will work just as well and hopefully if they're a pair you'll like they'll be comfortable as well.

At 10:03 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The horizontal cut is always the toughest for me. I think it is because when you put pressure on the top of the onion to hold it, it makes it tougher to get the knife through, making you press harder on the knife, increasing the chance of a cut...

At 12:04 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Shauna, I liked your language very much in this post. I imagine it being - though I'm not sure, since I don't know him - very much the Chef-like. Damn fine.

At 5:32 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

My husband and I are both writers. Someone had pitched a new item to us, and made a point of mentioning that the item in question was to be a "family program." The person went so far to say that any show that would use curse words was not to be considered art!

Most of our works are family oriented, but some are not, due to the subject matter. My husband wasted no time in telling that person that if you are truly a writer, you will not write a character without thoroughly considering -- and using -- the words that character would use. To do any less would make it less truthful. The character would not be real and would not be the person he was meant to be. Can you imagine "The Sopranos" with no cursing? The people in question would definitely speak in that manner -- the truth of it is where the artistry begins. The reality of the experience -- that, to me, is true creative freedom.

At 5:55 PM, Blogger Sheri said...

Soooo....if you guys come to Chicago on your book tour, will you and the Chef come here and teach me how to use a knife? LOL I am one of those people that are dangerous with sharp implements who loves to cook. I'll put you up in repayment....(bribing shamelessly)

At 8:22 AM, Blogger Michele said...

Only one complaint... could you please get him to clean under his fingernails?

At 8:48 AM, Blogger Shauna said...

Oh, poor Chef. He's working for the first hour of the afternoon, rushed because we woke up a little late and the restaurant is already booked out for the evening. He's made marinade for jerk chicken and cut up fresh herbs and worked with finely ground black pepper to make it into some kind of paste, when his wife comes running in with a camera.

"Sweetie, can I please just take the photos of you cutting up an onion right now?"

Sweet as he is, even though he is busy, he wipes his hands and says okay. And then he lets me take photographs, so he can help teach other people.

That's why his fingernails were dirty.

This is the real working of a kitchen.

He cleans his hands and his fingernails. Frequently. Sometimes, I give him a manicure in the mornings. Catch any chef in the middle of his work, and his hands are likely to be stained. This isn't tv.

At 9:27 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

For everyone who is hesitant about the horizontal cuts, there's a neat trick that will make you smack your head that you didn't think of it before.

Instead of cutting the onion into two halves, cut the halves once more so you have 4 quarters. Then, with each one make the vertical cuts, and then turn the onion so it rests on the other flat side (created by the quartering cut) and make more vertical cuts that are perpendicular to your first. It's an extra step and a little more work, but you don't have to worry about cutting your hand with the horizontal cut.

At 11:22 AM, Blogger Samantha said...

Nice tips on cutting the dreaded onion. Very helpful information.

At 11:47 AM, Blogger Katelyn said...

Oh yes, Shauna, please keep the language as is! Real life isn't "nice" -- it's wild and truly beautiful, you know? And participating in that true beauty may involve getting offended from time to time.

PS Glad to see the mention of the damp towel!! I figured this out while working at a bakery and doing hours of vegetable prep... having the knife, the vegetables, AND the board slipping away from you is three slippery things too many.

At 10:39 PM, Blogger Sea said...

You know, I had to re-read the post to find the salty language. It is barely brine and adds some flavor, in my uneducated opinion. ;) I liked the post quite a bit myself, and enjoyed the chance to "meet the chef." And I badly need a lesson in chopping onions, so thank you! Very informative.


At 12:22 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I find I cry less when less of my skin is touched by the onion / onion juice. Curling the fingers and using the knife correctly reduces skin contact. I immediately wash in cold water after the onion. I also believe that making the initial cuts and peals in the sink under running water reduces the sting. This evidence may be anecdotal, but I believe it works, and therefore it does.

At 6:54 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

i love this tutorial. i just found your blog and have been enjoying it. i have ordered your book and look forward to reading it.

At 6:16 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

this is a wonderful, truly helpful post!


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