Because I want to, and because all of this talk of food philosophy and politics is making me hungry.
Because I want to, and because all of this talk of food philosophy and politics is making me hungry.
We all know that onions can cause us to tear up when we cut them. But why does this happen?
As always, we turn to our best friend when we need a logical explanation – Science!
Within each variety of vegetables belonging to the Allium family resides a class of organic molecules called amino acid sulfoxides. These molecules help give the onions their specific bitter flavors.
Within the tissues of these same onions are enzymes called allinases. When these enzymes are released, be it through slicing, crushing, piercing, whatever, they react with the amino acid sulfoxides, converting them to sulfenic acids (RSOH). The sulfenic acids are very unstable, and often will often re-arrange their molecular structure to form syn-propanethial-S-oxide(H7O3S2). It is this chemical that causes tearing. From the Scientific American:
Its effects on the eye are all too familiar. The front surface of the eye–the cornea–serves several purposes, among them protection against physical and chemical irritants. The cornea is densely populated with sensory fibers of the ciliary nerve, a branch of the massive trigeminal nerve that brings touch, temperature and pain sensations from the face and front of the head. The cornea also receives a smaller number of autonomic motor fibers that activate the lachrymal (tear) glands. Free nerve endings detect syn-propanethial-S-oxide on the cornea and drive activity in the ciliary nerve–which the central nervous system interprets as a burning sensation–in proportion to the compound’s concentration. This nerve activity reflexively activates the autonomic fibers, which then carry a signal back to the eye ordering the lachrymal glands to wash the irritant away.
There are several ways to prevent or mitigate the causes of tearing. One, you could have brain surgery that would block any sensory information sent from the ciliary nerve. However, that may be a tad impractical.
Water is the best route. Cutting onions under water, or soaking the onions prior to slicing will work. Choosing onions with higher water content can also lessen the tearing. This means purchasing onions that haven’t been dry cured. Any “named” onions, such as “Vidalia” or “Walla Walla”, will do. Dry cured onions inlcude the generic white, yellow, and red onions.
If the only options available to you are the generic whites, yellows, and reds, it would be the white onions which should have higher water content, and red onions having the least amount.
Another way to prevent or lessen tearing is to preventing an excessive amount of allinases from being released. The best way to do that is to cut the onion in such a way that minimally damages the tissue. In other words – the sharper the knife the better.
Finally, cut the onions in a well ventilated area. The vapors released from the onion can be dispersed quickly with a fan in the area.
So all of you out there cutting red onions with a butter knife in a windowless room, cut it out. You’re only asking for trouble.
Picture the following:
It’s 640 A.D in Wales. The Roman Empire has long ago packed up, went home, and divided into two separate “Empires”. The Saxons have moved into the neighborhood and have picking their battles, wanting to take over the Welsh lands. Other lesser Tribes are also on the loose, terrorizing the citizenry, picking fights, and generally making a nuisance of themselves.
The Welsh are a tad peeved at all of this. A gentleman going by the name of Cadwaladr is particularly irked, because some dude named Oswald had killed his father and was now getting all cozy with the aforementioned Saxons. Oh, and by the way. Cadwaladr’s Dad just happened to be King of Gwynedd – Gwynedd being an area of Northern Wales.
Cadwaladr wanted to make a name for himself in order to regain the throne (which had been usurped by someone outside of his bloodline). What better way was there to make a name for himself than by kicking some Saxon tuchus.
All of this sounded like a decent plan, except for one little detail. The Saxons looked an awful lot like the fine folks of Wales. Even more so when the Saxons dressed in the latest Welsh fashions , which is exactly what many Saxons did. You could see where this could lead to some difficulties. There you are, upon your mount, giving the order to attack the enemy, when some of your army either runs away, or starts attacking the rest of your troops (who had no idea why the Welshmen with the Germanic accents began smacking them with clubs).
At one battle, Cadwaladr decided he had enough. During the pitch of the battle, he shouted to all of his countrymen his fellow countrymen to wear a common piece of vegetation in their caps to distinguish themselves from their Saxon foes. That piece of vegetation turned out to be what we know to be the leek. Now that they could tell friend from foe, Cadwaladr’s troops routed the Saxons, Cadwaladr became king, and the leek became the national symbol of Wales.
Lucky for the Welsh that the pineapple isn’t indigenous in Northern Wales.
It’s a great story and legend. Alas, with most of the legends surrounding food, it doesn’t really pass the basic sniff test when anyone with a passing knowledge of history takes a look at it. For one thing, Cadwaladr would have been seven years old in 640. Secondly, what would have prevent the Saxons from picking up a leek and placing it in their caps?
But I’m not here to bury the story, but rather praise it. For as the cliche goes, when your telling a story, and you have the choice between telling the reality or telling the legend, one should always go with the legend. It keeps the audience more attentive.
As always, feel free to add your own tips in the comment section.
I will be covering slicing onions and tear prevention in a later post.
The very first recipe that I cooked for someone outside of my family was in my ninth grade French class. For a project that entailed opening a french bistro (for one day), we had to come up with a french recipe, cook it and serve it. My group of four people made the following:
Soupe Ã l’oignon au gratinÃ©
That phrase has stuck in my head for nearly twenty five years now.
Soupe Ã l’oignon au gratinÃ©
For a child of 15, the phrase rolled off the tongue with joy and ease. In my mind, the primary essences of the French language were seemingly all present. There is the gender distinction of the feminine Soupe. There are the common accents found upon the ‘a’ (Ã ) and ‘e’ (gratinÃ©). There is the abbreviated determiner (l’). And then, my favorite, the word oignon itself, which gave a bunch of college bound children from a blue collar neighborhood to use our newly discovered exaggerated French accents. If ever there were a surreal moment in my life, it would be the time when I sat in a classroom of 25 children, each of us nearly shouting the word “Unh-Yunh!! Unh-Yunh!!“
Yes, in my opinion, there is no better phrase in the French language than
Soupe Ã l’oignon au gratinÃ©.
Say it out loud. You’ll see what I mean.
Place a dutch oven or stock pot over medium heat and allow to come to temperature. Add the butter. Once butter has melted add a layer of onions and sprinkle with a little salt. Repeat layering onions and salt until all onions are in the pot. Do not try stirring until onions have sweated down for 15 to 20 minutes. Lower the heat to medium/medium-low. Cook the onions for 50-55 more minutes, stirring the onions every five minutes or so. The onions should be a deep reddish brown.
Cover the onions with the white wine. Turn heat to high, allowing the wine to reduce reducing (this should take about 5 minutes). Add the beef consume, the chicken broth, apple cider, cognac and the herbs. Reduce heat and simmer 15 to 20 minutes. When the soup is considered done, remove the herbs.
To serve, place 1-2 slices of the baguette in an oven safe bowl and ladle the soup over top. Top with a slice or two of Gruyere. Place under a broiler long enough for the cheese to melt and brown.
One of the first events of my life that made me realize that my passion for food ran a little bit differently from most other folks was when I was a kid in fifth grade. It was a cold winter day, and my younger siblings and myself had just come home from a marathon session of sledding. While my brother and sister migrated to the instant cocoa packets, I went to the fruit cellar and picked out an onion, brought it upstairs, and placed several slices of it (along with a smear of yellow mustard and a slice of cheddar cheese) upon toasted bread.
It was heaven.
It also earned me several stares that implied that it was best if I never admitted I was related to my siblings.
So, yeah, I have a bit of a soft spot in my heart for onions, also known as Allium cepa.
Apparently I am not alone. When you think about all of the major cuisines in the world, a member of the onion family is bound to play a pivotal role. Leeks, garlic, elephant garlic, chives, shallots, Welsh onions, Chinese chives as well as the typical bulbed onions we see everyday at the grocery store (all of which belong to the genus Allium) can be found in nearly every corner of the globe. Although I have no evidence to support this claim, I would not be surprised to learn that onions are the most popular food on this planet.
It is claimed by some that many food historians believe that onions had originated either in central Asia or around what is present day Iran and Pakistan long before the era of recorded history. Best estimates have said that cultivation occurred as long as 5000 years ago. The economic impact of the vegetable is instantly recognizable. They were easy to grow, and could be raised in many different climates. They were less perishable than other foods of the time and could be transported over long distances without fear of spoilage. And they could be easily dried or pickled, allowing their shelf life to last far into the cold winters. Onions were a near requirement to have on hand.
The Egyptians recognized this about the onion, and evidence of this veggie abounds in tomb paintings, inscriptions and documents. Ditto for Ancient Greece and Rome. And once again, nearly all of Europe, including the British Isles, have the Romans to thank for introducing the onion to their cultures.
However, it is important to note that onions were seen as very much as a “lower class” food. Probably thanks in large part for the odor it carries, the rich and powerful tended to avoid the onion, or cook it enough so that it lost it’s pungency. The Egyptian priests avoided it, and the Brahmans and Jains of India were forbidden to eat it. But The Code of Hammurabi, the ancient law of Mesopotamia, provided for the needed by dictating that a monthly ration of bread and onions would be given out, a ration that comprised the mainstay of the peasant diet.
From Europe, the onion was introduced into the new world, although wild varieties did grow in Native America.
Likely due to it’s pungent nature, the onion was often used for medicinal and spiritual purposes. Olympic atheletes of ancient Greece consumed large quantities because it would “lighten the balance of the bloodˮ. Roman Gladiators were rubbed down with onion juice to “firm up the musclesˮ. In sixth century India onions were used as a diuretic. During Colonial times in the U.S., a slice or two of wild onions was thought to be a cure for the measles.
The onion has had a long and eventful history, and it’s unlikely I can do it justice by spending only three recipes on it. But I shall try. Meanwhile, grab a toasted onion sandwich and see what we can learn.
UPDATED: To fix an issue noted by the language police.
There’s something about making a soup on a rainy and chilly Saturday afternoon. With the smell of the onions permeating the house, it seems to invite people to stay at home, and allows them to look forward to dinner. In my opinion, nothing says home like the aroma of cooked onions.
This is an Italian soup, from Umbria. For those of you following along with the cookbooks at home, the use of butter and olive oil would have been the clues that could pinpoint the region.
This is also the first “onion” recipe, even though I have yet to officially announce that “onion” is the next ingredient up for discussion.
Place a dutch oven over medium-low heat. Add the pancetta and cook until the fat starts to turn yellow. When the fat starts to run into the pot, increase the heat to medium and add oil, butter, onions and sugar.
Cook the onions for 20-25 minutes. When the onions starts become soft and golden. Add the chicken stock and chopped tomatoes. Bring to a boil and then lower the heat to low. This should bring the soup to a simmer. Cook for 40 minutes.
When serving, place a slice of toasted bread into the bowl. Ladle the soup over top and then garnish with the Parmesan cheese and strips of basil leaves.
Serves 4 – 6