The Three Ways to Cut an Onion
Yes, the three ways to cut an onion.
In regards to about 99.9% of all things in life, there is no “one right way” to do things. There are many paths to a destination, and I’m a big proponent of taking circuitous and creative routes. However, when it comes to cutting onions, there are three ways to do it right. (Four if you count making onion rings, but how often are you making onion rings?)
Before you run away screaming, let me explain two things:
It’s really not hard to do it right, and I’m going to show you how. With pictures!
There is a reason I’m militant about cutting onions, and it mostly has to do with you going through life with ten beautiful fingers, or however many you currently have.
So, second thing first: Why am I so militant about cutting onions?
A. Onions, like ogres, have layers. They're complex beings.
Those layers are confusing and restless. They want to shift around while you’re trying to cut them. Because of them, your hands can slip, your knife can slip, and you can end up with onion on the floor at best, bloody onion at worst.
Then they have that skin between each layer. Again. Slippery. Dangerous if you don’t have a plan.
As you may have noticed from previous experience handling onions, they make your eyes hurt and tear. It may even be very hard for you to see what you’re doing while you cut onions. Once you learn proper knife techniques, you can safely cut an onion with your eyes closed. Literally.
B. Maybe you’re mystified by how to cut an onion evenly because you don’t really get how all the layers and geometry work together. These techniques work with the onion to yield even cuts. It will take practice, but this is the roadmap.
C. Let’s say you share space with other people, and you decide you only want to use half an onion for the dish you’re making. So you put half an onion back in the fridge. But since you cut it in half the wrong way, that second half is now much harder to use.
So here are the three ways to do it right.
Below we will review the three ways to cut an onion: Salad Slice, Sauté Slice, and Dice. The beginning is the same for all of them, so we’ll start with that and then diverge.
How To Begin Cutting an Onion
(Directions for right-handed people. For lefty directions, click here.)
0. Practice your bear claw.
1. Place the onion on your board so that the root end is facing left and the top end is facing right. The root end is the “bottom” — the part that has those funny white hairy thingies. The top end is what you’d see sticking out of the ground if you were growing them yourself.
2. Slice off about an inch of the TOP end, just enough so that you create a flat surface that the onion can stand on. Creating flat surfaces is a key safety strategy because it ensures that your vegetable won’t roll away and cause your knife to slip.
3. Stand the onion up on that flat surface you just created. You should be looking down at the root end. Slice the onion in half.
4. Peel both halves of the onion. Make sure you expose the part of the onion that is grippy — not the outer skin, and not a layer of inner filmy skin; both of those are too slippery to work with safely.
Now you’re ready to choose your slice!
Place an onion half on your board so that the big flat surface is in contact with the board and the root end is facing right. Slice off the root end.
Now rotate the onion 90 degrees so that the root ends and top ends, which you have lopped off, are parallel with your hips. Moving from right to left, cut even slices along with the lines on the onion however wide or thin you would like them to be. When the piece you’re holding with your left hand becomes too small for comfort, turn it around (rotate 180 degrees) so that it’s easier to keep working with.
Place an onion half on your board so that the big flat surface is in contact with the board and the root end is facing left. The top end (which you’ve sliced off) should be facing right. Moving from right to left, cut even slices however wide or thin you would like them to be until you can’t get any further.
This one requires the most practice, but once you get the hang of it you’ll be an onion whiz. I recommend watching this video* to get a better picture, and starting with a large dice as you’re getting used to the mechanics. And please be careful.
This bears special mention because it’s so crucial for this cut: DO NOT CUT OFF THE ROOT END. LEAVE IT RIGHT WHERE IT IS. It’s holding the whole onion together.
Place an onion half on your board so that the big flat surface is in contact with the board and the root end is facing left. The top end (which you’ve sliced off) should be facing right. Place your left palm flat on top of the onion and flex your fingers so that they’re up and out of the way.
Hold your knife parallel with your board (yes, this should feel weird) and slice into the onion, moving from the top end towards the root end and stopping just short of cutting all the way through. How many slices you make depends on how big or small you want your dice to be, but for a medium dice I usually make two or three parallel cuts, moving from the bottom to the top of the onion.
Rotate the onion 45 degrees so that the root end is pointing towards the back-left corner of your cutting board. Moving across the onion from left to right, make a series of cuts straight down, but keep the slices about an inch in from the root so that you don’t actually cut the onion apart.
Now turn the onion so that the root end is facing left and the top end is facing right. Moving from right to left, slice the onion as though you’re doing salad slice and watch all the nice little squares fall onto your board.
Rinse and repeat until this all becomes second nature!
* note that in the video they show a different way to hold the onion while you’re slicing into it laterally. I recommend palming it because I think it’s safer.