The Onion Chopping Tip You’ll Wish You Knew Years Ago (No More Tears!)
For a New Year’s Eve party one year, a friend and I decided to make enormous batches of braised pork that somehow required us to chop innumerable onions. We sobbed stinging onion tears until we couldn’t anymore, then donned old ski goggles in an attempt to forge on. That evening cemented my hatred of onion chopping — I can barely make it through half of one without having to leave the room.
Over the years, I’ve read all kinds of information about why this happens — your onion is too old, your knife not sharp enough — but a recent TikTok filled me in on a trick to hold down the tears while chopping onions. “Here I am, 20 years old, and I’m crying chopping onions,” the TikTok opens, showing someone, much like me (but, um, younger), with tears flowing over the alliums. Then it flips, and shows a new person, who offers to share their onion wisdom.
“The acid that’s in onions? It’s attracted to a water source,” the woman in the video explains. Usually that’s your tear ducts, but, she claims, if you put a wet folded paper towel on your cutting board, the acid will be drawn to that instead.
I was a little skeptical of the science around this claim, so I reached out to chemist and University of Albany professor Eric Block, who wrote the book Garlic and Other Alliums: The Lore and the Science to see if there was any truth to this theory. He said that unfortunately “there is no science supporting the wet towel theory.” He went on to explain that “the tear factor” from onions is a small, volatile molecule that travels in all directions and quickly fills a room. “There is no scientific reason why it would head for a water source, or specifically our tear ducts, as opposed to going in every direction possible.”
He also noted that “the tear ducts just release tears rather than being a target for the tear factor,” and that most likely “the tear factor dissolves in our corneas causing irritation which triggers release of tears.”
Even though this TikTok tip isn’t valid from a scientific standpoint, I was still willing to give it a shot. Because why not? What’s the worst that could happen?
I Tried the TikTok Trick for Cutting an Onion Without Crying
I dutifully laid out the paper towel under my onion and chopped it slowly in order to give the onion acid time to sear my eyeballs, or whatever it normally does. Nothing happened. No tears, no running out of the kitchen. Nothing.
By the time I finished chopping the entire onion, I could feel just the first tinge of a gentle sting in my eyes — though, that could even have been from the trimmed onion pieces now in the compost bowl next to me (perhaps I need a second wet paper towel to toss over those?). I did, however, feel the first inklings of the same condescension the person in the TikTok video expresses for the crying onion chopper. I felt sad for my younger self, spending that painful New Year’s Eve leaking from my eyeballs. If only I had known sooner.
The Verdict: This Really Works … for Now.
Call it magic, call it the placebo effect, call it whatever you want. This trick somehow, for some reason, worked. So for now, you can find me chopping onions on wet paper towels until I come up with something better or it stops working.