When I was in middle school, I was hanging out with a pal of mine, messing around on AIM, watching syndicated 90s sitcoms or "TRL" (and probably making a prank call or two.) At some point, my friend ventured into the kitchen, where we inevitably discussed ordering a pizza or perhaps heating up some frozen treat.
As my friend perused the freezer and the takeout menus, I spotted a head of garlic on the table and — inexplicably — decided to treat my friend to a lesson in how to properly separate the cloves, peel and mince them.
We were 12 years old and I was insistent upon demonstrating this to her (sorry, Dana).
I hope this anecdote shows you just how much I love mise en place.
After the garlic adventures of the early 2000s, I soon moved to onions. To this day, preparing onions is a joy. When I developed this French onion recipe, I was in my glory, peeling and slicing a surplus of onions with a smile on my face (and some tears in my eyes).
While some are big proponents of wearing sunglasses, bread-in-your-mouth, or other inane "no tears" tricks, I...just go for it? Rarely do I ever have some sort of issue in which I need to dramatically turn my face away from my cutting board in order to wipe away the rivulets of tears cascading down my cheeks.
If anything, there's a bit of a sting, but because I love working with produce so much, I just keep cutting.
For some, though, this can cause lots of issues: over-reliance on onion powder to get away with not using any actual onions, absurd contraptions that supposedly help you cut, mince, or dice (but really just take up space in your cabinet), or a complete abandonment of using onions — or alliums at large — in your cooking. This mustn't continue!
Onions are a true stalwart of the cooking world and they have such an important place in dish upon dish. (If it is really that bad and you're that opposed, you an always opt for bagged, pre-chopped frozen onions).
So, to do my piece to reduce this aversion to alliums and encourage you all to cook with more onions, I wanted to write up this explainer. Please disregard if I get too myopic; I want to be as detailed as possible be here in order to give you as thorough of a walkthrough as possible.
Without further ado, here's some tips and tricks on working with onions:
Cut your allium in half
No matter the type of allium with which you are working (yes, even shallot), it's always best to being by cutting it in half. This will reveal more of the "flesh" and give you a good starting point for peeling the onion, shallot or other allium. If you're working with multiple onions, I'd recommend cutting and peeling all of them right off the bat.
Also, be sure to use your heaviest, sharpest knife for this, as well as your heaviest cutting board. If necessary, stabilize your cutting board by placing some dampened paper towels underneath so that the board itself won't go sliding all across the counter or table. Of course, be sure to work on the flattest, most even surface you can find.
From here, you'll follow a different path depending on how you're cutting ...
Chopping or dicing
Ensure you have a good amount of room on your cutting board: throw out all of the peels and skins, wipe or brush off any of those little "whiskers" found at the end of the bulb and then rinse off your knife.
To start, you'll want to position the "hairy" end away from you, with the cut-side of the onion down, which allows the onion to lay flat, stabilizing it before you start cutting.
Holding your knife firmly, begin making slices through the onion; it's up to you in which way you'd like to do this. One option is making horizontal slices through the onion widthwise; I like to opt for 3 slices through. You want to cut entirely through, but stop just before the root. The other option is to make vertical slices first, which might be 5 or 6 cuts across. Same thing here: cut all the way through, but stop just before the root.
At this point, use your hand to compress the onion together, then begin to firmly and sharply make full cuts through the onion, long-ways, which will produce a relatively small "dice" as you chop. Continue, firmly and decisively, holding the onion and curling or bending your fingers (the point of this is so that if you do happen to nick yourself, you'll make a slight cut on your knuckle as opposed to lobbing off your nail or something equally heinous).
As you get closer to your fingers (and the root!) begin to be more careful, or take your hand off the onion altogether. I sometimes like to stand the onion up once it's been cut beyond halfway and continue to slice or cut until I almost reach the root. Discard the root and you're all set!
If you'd like to go even finer, make a few passes through the diced or chopped onion with your knife, cutting the pieces even smaller.
Again, clear your cutting board of any errant detritus and make sure your knife is good to go.
From here, begin in the same manner, with the furry root away from you, your hand firmly on the onion and a good, strong grip on your knife. Begin to slice longways, directly down, depending on the thickness you're looking for. I like to go for pretty thin when I'm slicing onions. Repeat the process, again, until you're about halfway through, in which case you can then "stand" the onion up, move your hand back and continue to slice until you're about to reach the root. Discard the root and use your perfectly sliced onion as you wish.
If you have a mandoline on hand, feel free to use that! Just be super careful; mandolines are one of the most notoriously dangerous kitchen tools imaginable when used without care.
Cut your onion in half, peel it and cut off both the stem and root ends. Make a small cut on one end so that the onion can lay flat on the cutting board. Grip the stem-cut end with your hand and, with your other hand grasping your knife, begin to make slices (the width is up to you).
Continue to cut through, letting the "rings" fall, until you've cut through the entire onion. Be super careful towards the end, especially since you don't have a root to "hold onto" in this case.
Michael is a food writer, recipe editor and educator based in his beloved New Jersey. After graduating from the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City, he worked in restaurants, catering and supper clubs before pivoting to food journalism and recipe development. He also holds a BA in psychology and literature from Pace University.