Onions are an important ingredient that no cook should be without. Onions give a very savory taste and aroma to many dishes. They can be used for everything from soup to stews, and from salads to entreés. While many people enjoy and appreciate the taste of onions, not too many people like its smell. Not only do cutting onions make some people cry, but the pungent and spicy aroma of onions can stick to kitchen tools, your skin, and your breath.
You don’t have to give up the savory goodness of fresh or cooked onions. With a few simple hints and tips, you can eat and prepare onions without the fuss and without the irritating smell.
What Causes Onion Smell?
All fresh foods and produce give off a certain odor when they are cut, but onions, or Allium cepa, have enzymes known as allinases. When the onion is cut, allinases break down chemicals in the cells of the onion, and form foul-smelling sulfide gases. Sulfur itself is a very noxious element, and can be found in objects like volcanic ash, gunpowder, and fertilizer. One of these sulfur-based gases, syn-propanethial-S-oxide, is quite unstable, and wafts through the air until it reaches a source of water, like your eyes.
When the sulfide gas reaches your eyes, a very small diluted amount of sulfuric acid is formed. In high concentrations, sulfuric acid is used as a catalyst for processing metal ores and waste products. The small concentration of sulfuric acid that forms in your eyes is enough to make you cry, but weak enough to not pose a significant health hazard. The smell of sulfides are also very irritating, and stick to your clothes and skin.
Use a Food Processor
Unless you need whole onions or sliced onions, it’s a good idea to mince or chop them in a food processor or a blender. The enclosed environment keeps the odors locked inside the container, which means that you don’t have to worry about the smell. Sulfuric acid compounds are attracted to water; as the onions are chopped, the onion cells release water, which then re-absorbs the sulfuric acid.
There are also many tools on the market that can be used to chop or slice onions. A slicer, mandoline, or a cutter can prepare onions without the hassle of the pungent and irritating aroma. Check the department store or kitchen supply store to see if they carry a stainless steel slicer or mandoline that will last a long time.
Chill the Onion
Chilling an onion helps harden the cells of the vegetable. When you chill the onion, you dry out the excess water found in between the onion layers. The cold temperature also changes the chemical compounds found in the onion, but does not completely alter the flavor. A cold onion will eventually get back its full flavor when cooked, or when it warms to room temperature.
Here are a few tips to keep in mind when you chill an onion:
- Refrigerate, do not freeze. Really cold temperatures can take away the delicate, savory flavor of an onion. Keep the onion at a door shelf, or the crisper compartment of the refrigerator.
- Peel the onion first. The papery outer skin of an onion resists changes in moisture and temperature, and keeps the onion bulb fresh. To keep the sulfuric compounds from breaking out when you cut the onion, peel the outer layer first before refrigerating the onion.
- Keep the onion wrapped or covered. Onions have a very strong odor, and can affect the flavor of other foods you keep inside the refrigerator. When you place a peeled onion inside the fridge, or when you store leftover onions from a previous meal, always keep them covered in a plastic container. It’s also a good idea to wrap a peeled onion in aluminum foil or cling wrap.
Cut While The Onion is Wet and Cold
The sulfide gases in onions form a very weak, diluted form of sulfuric acid that disappears when it comes into contact with water. The best way to prevent the sulfuric acid from reaching your eyes and nose is to chop the onion underwater, but this is not a practical way to prepare onions. Instead, you should keep your hands, knife, and the onion cool and wet before you cut the onion.
Heat will open up your skin pores, and will trap the onion smell in your hands. The water from a wet onion will immediately mix with the sulfide gas, and prevent the compounds from entering your eyes and cause you to cry. Be careful when handling wet knives and ingredients, because your grip may slip and you’ll end up chopping your fingers off.
Rub the Kitchen Sink
One of the time-tested and proven ways to get rid of onion smells on your hands is to rub the rim of a stainless steel sink. It’s not an old wives’ tale. It’s about chemistry. Sulfur atoms in sulfuric acid are attracted to the iron and other compounds in stainless steel. Sulfur is also a very important chemical in making stainless steel. The chemistry behind this odor-removal technique is that the sulfides react with the stainless steel, and lift and remove the odor-causing compounds from your hands.
You can also buy soap-shaped stainless steel blocks at a kitchen supply store. You can use these blocks a lot like how you would use ordinary hand soap. Better yet, before you use a stainless steel “soap” or rub your hands on the kitchen sink, you should wash your hands with soap and cold water to help get rid of the unappealing odor.
Wash With Toothpaste or Baking Soda
Another way to get rid of of that nasty onion smell is to use toothpaste or plain old baking soda. There are compounds in these ordinary household ingredients that help get rid of the nasty-smelling raw onion smell from your skin. Sodium bicarbonate, a compound found in both baking soda and toothpaste, are effective at absorbing and removing odors.
- Toothpaste. Use the paste-type white toothpaste, not the clear gel-type ones. Place a small, pea-sized amount of toothpaste on your palm, and vigorously rub and wash your hands with it. Rinse well to remove the minty smell from your hands.
- Baking soda. Ordinary baking soda is a very versatile cleaning and odor removal tool. To remove the odors that stick to your hands, you can make a paste out of baking soda and a small amount of water. Rub the baking soda all over your hands, and rinse them well with cold water.
Freshen Your Breath
Onion soup, fresh onion salad, and other onion-rich dishes are delicious, but they can leave a smelly aftertaste. Here are some ways to get rid of that pungent onion smell and aftertaste:
- Parsley. That green sprig that decorates your plate is a very effective and refreshing way to cleanse your palate. Chew on parsley to get rid of that pungent aftertaste.
- Mouth spray. A few spritzes of mint-flavored spray can temporarily mask the smell and the taste of onion-breath. Don’t spray on too much; mouthwash and breath freshener are very pungent, and may damage your delicate taste buds.
- Mint candies. Menthol candies or fruit candies also do a good job of masking your onion breath. The more powerful the taste, the longer the masking effect lasts.
Bear in mind that no matter how many sprigs of parsley you chew, how much mouthwash you use, or how many candies you put in your mouth, the best way to get rid of onion breath is to brush your teeth and floss after every meal.
Onions are a favorite of many people, but few can withstand their powerful smell. Worse is when onion smells stick to your skin and your breath. With these simple ways to get rid of onion smells, you don’t have to give up the delicious and savory taste of onions just to knock off the smell.
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