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How to chop or slice an onion

October 28, 2007


The macho manner of the chefs – cutting off either end of the onion and then proceeding – is silly in that the greatest source of the enzyme that causes tearing of the eyes is in the root end of the onion. For this reason, home cooks are especially encouraged to keep their mascara on and retain the root until the onion has been chopped or sliced. The first step for slicing or chopping is the same:

Cut the onion in half from stem end to root, leaving the root intact. Peel the onion and discard the peel or save for stock. Lay the flat side of both halves of the onion down, so the exposed surface is not exposed.

To slice:

Slide the knife up and down in a steady back and forth motion on the onion halve, trying to maintain the same distance between slices. Stop a quarter of an inch or so from the root and save the remainder of the onion for stock..

To chop:

Cut into the peeled onion at regular parallel intervals, working from stem to a quarter of an inch from the root. (Trying to follow the lines Mother Nature has drawn is a help.) Holding the cut portions together with one hand, carefully cut perpendicular to the first cuts, across the body of the onion. move the knife up and down perpendicular to the first cut portions, sliding your knife from top to bottom again, trying to keep the slices parallel and at the same distance. Stop when about 1/4 inch from the root of the onion. This should result in a chopped onion.

Translucent – barely possible to see through the onion.

Opaque - not possible to see through – frequently referred to as “wilted”

Caramelized – a beautiful bronze brown, nearly mahogany in color

To cook an onion:

Although certainly an onion may be cooked in the microwave or without fat in a non-stick frying pan, or even in water until the water evaporates, these methods do not render the most flavor. Your onions should be ready to go before you start.

Heat a heavy frying pan. When very hot, add a teaspoon of oil, preferably olive oil, and two to three tablespoons of butter. There should be a sizzling and a singing sound in the pan.

Add two onions, sliced or chopped, depending on your needs. After the great sizzling subsides, liberally salt the onions. Reduce the flame under the pan, and continue cooking over a low heat until some of the water is extruded by the salt.

The first step is wilting. If making a soup, casserole, etc., add the rest of the ingredients at this time. Acid, however, will slow down the cooking of the onion, so wait until the onion is soft before adding tomatoes, oranges, etc.

The second step is cooking until transparent. This takes about twice as long as the wilting process. If using tomatoes or other acid ingredients, add them now. At this stage the onions are also ready to be incorporated into the onion sauce called a “soubise” sauce by the French.

Finally, if caramelizing onions, preferably brown ones that caramelize more easily, continuing cooking, stirring every few minutes, until the bottom of the pan becomes brown. If, rather than browning, liquid from the onions gathers in the bottom of the pan, turn up the heat, taking care not to burn the onions, to evaporate the liquid. Alternately, heat another pan with some oil and butter and move half the onions to the hot pan, so there is not a deep layer of onions, with a propensity towards “steaming” rather than caramelizing.

When the bottom of the pan begins to brown, stir the onions so the brown goodness transfers to the onions. Continue until all the onions have become a tawny brown. Continue cooking, over low to moderate heat, until caramel colored. There should be no excess liquid in the pan, but the onions should not be burned. Hot water or stock may be added to remove the brown from the bottom of the pan, “deglazing” it, adding brown goodness to a gravy or soup.

Sugar may be added any time in the cooking process, but a white onion in particular should not need any to be a flavorful, rich caramelized onion.

Caramelized onions are welcome as themselves, as a side vegetable, or atop liver, steak or chicken. Sprinkled with parsley or another herb, they can be a lively garnish. They are the base for onion soup, among others.

When cooking onions, more may be cooked than are needed, refrigerated and ready to use later in the week when time is short, or frozen.

Spring onions: Green onions, or spring onions, are immature onions, pulled from the ground and not left in the sun, but sold as they are, with the fresh green ends on. They have a larger bulb than a scallion, and are round rather than flatish. Many southerners call scallions or anything like a baby onion pulled from the ground a green onion. I do. Both the greens and the onions may be used in cooking. Discard any dry greens, or use for stock.

Scallions: I never knew anyone who grew scallions, although I have known plenty who grew onions and spring onions. Scallions have a sharper, more bitter taste than green onions. The greens and the scallions may both be used in cooking. Discard any dry greens, as above, or use for stock.

Shallots: Shallots are a member of the same family (ck.) as the onion, but are much smaller. They taste like a cross between an onion and a garlic, with a nutty finish preferred by chefs and gourmets. They come red or brown, and may have only one clove or several, most often two. Peel and chop as an onion, above.

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