What's the best way to dice an onion?
January 4, 2004 11:22 AM   Subscribe

What's the best way to dice an onion? [more inside]

I dice onions a lot.

About once a month I make a delicious clam chowder that requires two onions, diced, and, of course, there are plenty of other recipes that require the dicing of these delicious bulbs. I don't mind the tearing so much (though I'd love to hear how people deal with that — I just stick my head out of doors for a few moments), but I hate the fact that my attempts at dicing produce laughably goofy chunks of onion.

Is there some secret method I'm missing? Is there a (non-electric) gadget I can buy that does the job for me?

The worst part of this whole thing is that my wife knows how to dice an onion, but refuses to divulge her secret. (And I'm too dense to pay attention when she's working with them.)
posted by jdroth to Food & Drink (23 answers total)
This might help.
posted by bshort at 11:25 AM on January 4, 2004

Place the onion on a chopping board with the flat (root?) end at the bottom. Cut parallel slices toward the bottom but do not cut all the way through. Rotate the onion 90 degrees so that the flat end is still at the bottom, but you are now looking sideways at your previous chops. Again, cut parallel slices through the onion, again, not going through completely. You will now effectively have elongated cuboids of onion all protruding from the root end.

Now rotate the onion 90 degrees, so that this time the root end is off to the side. This time slice downwards but all the way through. Voila! The onion comes off in dices.

Clearly the size of your dices is determined by the gap between all your slices, so bear this in mind before you begin. I've found this technique works a charm, I just hope that I've communicated it clearly.
posted by nthdegx at 11:35 AM on January 4, 2004

I'm willing to bet that's her technique. An added advantage is that by leaving the root end intact for most of the procedure, the main oompha of the onion is contained, so your eyes shouldn't water too much.
posted by nthdegx at 11:36 AM on January 4, 2004

And, er, the plural is dice, of course :/
posted by nthdegx at 11:38 AM on January 4, 2004

My tactic is to put the onion in the fridge or even the freezer before cutting. That apparently slows down the tear gas.
posted by mcwetboy at 11:39 AM on January 4, 2004

I held out for years, but I joined the dark side during this Hanukkah season, when I had to grate a lot of onions.

I bought a food processor ($30 Hamilton Beach from Target).

I will never dice, slice, or grate another onion.
posted by jasper411 at 11:59 AM on January 4, 2004

I use a hand-operated vegetable chopper something like this one. Search on "vegetable chopper" or "onion chopper." All the tear gas is contained in the device.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 12:06 PM on January 4, 2004

wearing contact lenses seems to protect my eye. I say that because I wear a lens in only one eye and when i dice, the non-lensed eye tears but the other one doesn't
posted by Fupped Duck at 12:08 PM on January 4, 2004

Of course, make sure that your knife is very sharp.
posted by gyc at 12:11 PM on January 4, 2004

My technique is somewhat different, but it seems to work well: First, cut the onion into quarters like you would an apple. This gives you a flat surface to place against the cutting board, which makes it a whole lot more stable & easier to cut. Trim off the top & bottom, and remove any outer layers that don't look so hot.

Then, for each quarter, do the following: Cut the quarter into slices, going all the way through the quarter, parallel to one of the flat sides (i.e. not the sides that were the top or bottom.) You should now have a stack of onion slices. Turn the stack 90 degrees, so that the flat side you just made the slices parallel to is sitting against the cutting board, and repeat the process, slicing parallel to the other flat side. You should now have a pile of onion sticks, which can easily be cut into dice.

nthdegx's technique is the one in Joy of Cooking, but I've never had too much success with it — I always have trouble stopping the cuts before I reach the bottom. If you try it, though, I recommend cutting the onion in half (as bshort's link recommends) and then applying the procedure to each half separately, for the aforementioned stability reasons.

Oh, and I cannot understate the importance of a sharp and (ideally) thin knife in chopping onions.

So are you going to favour us with your clam chowder recipe?
posted by Johnny Assay at 12:17 PM on January 4, 2004

Response by poster: So are you going to favour us with your clam chowder recipe?

Here is my clam chowder recipe, but be warned: it's imbedded in my weblog.

This is a damn fine clam chowder, one to which I am making constant refinements. I'm still frustrated by the potatoes, though. I prefer my chowder potatoes al dente, slighlty firm to the tooth, but for some reason I always get potatoes that are soft and mushy. I keep reducing the time they're on the heat, but to no avail. I believe that the final "bring everything together step", which I stretch to half an hour instead of the specified five minutes, might be contributing to the soft potatoes.

I love food. Unfortunately, my physique reflects this...
posted by jdroth at 12:25 PM on January 4, 2004

jdroth: An old Portuguese trick, apart from the obligatory distinction between waxy, yellowish potatoes (better for boiling) and floury, mealy potatoes, better for chunky fries), is to boil all potatoes with the skin on and then peel them just before serving or, if you're among friends, at table.

The peel protects the delicate potato from the boiling water and makes a difference to the flavour as well.

I assume you already know that potatoes should always be placed in cold, cold water and then warmed up till boiling point, at which point they should just simmer, until a fork can go half-way through. (Cooking times are pointless as they depend on too many conditions: are the potatoes new or old, what the temperature in the pan and kitchen are, etc...).

Chucking peeled, sliced potatoes - no matter how good they are - into hot liquid is asking for trouble, unless you want them to disintegrate and thicken the stock.

Thanks for the recipe - I'll be trying it this week! I love chowder but I've never been able to reproduce the sumptuous flavour which the Nova Scotians manage so effortlessly - with that unlimited bounty of cheap scallops they have! :)
posted by MiguelCardoso at 12:59 PM on January 4, 2004

We got this wonderful set a few months ago. The shallow "bowl" of the cutting board matches the curve of the dual blades, so anything you place on the board will be minced and collected. And it's fun to use, thought maybe a bit dangerous for the exceptionally clumsy.
posted by grabbingsand at 1:47 PM on January 4, 2004

dicing an onion, made by me.
posted by crunchland at 2:21 PM on January 4, 2004

My technique is similar to nthdegx's, except I halve the onion first, and make cuts almost to the side, not bottom.

A really good knife helps. The best knives I've found for chopping are Japanese chef's knives, which are high-carbon steel instead of stainless. So they need a little more TLC than stainless knives, and are more prone to nicking, but hold a really good edge for a long time.
posted by adamrice at 2:21 PM on January 4, 2004

Nothing personal, crunchland, but I really think the ideal way for your demonstration video to end would be for you to cut off part of a finger. Were the special effects available, it would've added the perfect amout of MeFi insanity.

I expected this in much the same way I expected Matt to step over a dead body toward the end of his walking-in-Vancouver video.
posted by Danelope at 2:31 PM on January 4, 2004

I'm with gyc on this one. Sharp knives are absolutely of the essence. WIth a blunt knife I just end up with torn off bits, especially if the onions aren't entirely fresh. With a sharp knife I can even do without the chopping board, just make incisions 4/5th of the way in in two of the directions and then slice off above the pan. Mind your fingers though!
posted by fvw at 5:24 PM on January 4, 2004

I cut the onion in half before I score it in 1/8th inch parallels nearly to the root.

Then, I cut crosswise to the score marks.

This produces a relatively even dice, and quickly enough so that one doesn't have to chill or freeze the onion.
posted by tomierna at 7:18 PM on January 4, 2004

RE:Dicing the onion: If the fuming gets to you hold a piece of bread in your mouth to extend out and prevent the fumes from hitting your eyes.

RE Recipie: Canned clams!? No, no, no . . . lifes to short for canned clams. Use the real deal and you can skip the clam juice too, just reserve the natural juices. Mmmmmmmm! Also, my version would replace the bacon with finely minced fatback (salt pork) and would use Sriracha hot sauce.
posted by ahimsakid at 7:58 PM on January 4, 2004

Response by poster: ahimsakid, I went clam-digging last summer and came home with a batch of fresh long-necks. The chowder I made from those clams fucking rocked. It was easily the best clam chowder I've ever had. However, it also took several extra hours to boil and shuck the clams.

Also, I'm not sure where to get salt pork, though to be honest, I've never really looked.

Yes, if you can get fresh clams, by all means use them!

By the way, thanks to everyone for the onion dicing suggestings. I've printed out this page and will refer to it the next time I have and onion to dice. And crunchland, thanks for the video! Did you use an Aiptek video camera to make it? :)
posted by jdroth at 8:59 PM on January 4, 2004

I actually made that video several months ago for an online cooking community I used to be a part of, not only to demo how to cut an onion, but to also demonstrate that it was possible to make instructional videos for the web without necessarily needing a lot of expensive equipment. Unfortunately, the latter point fell on deaf (and dumb) ears.
posted by crunchland at 9:35 PM on January 4, 2004

Lately I have been only dicing about a quarter of the onion I use in recipes, adding the dices at the very last to keep their texture, using raw as a garnish just before serving, or serving on the side as a condiment.

For the actual cooking, I chop the remainder into a coarse mush in a food processor. This tends to give dishes a sharper onion taste, but this suits my palette and also allows me to go heavier with other spices.
posted by mischief at 10:00 PM on January 4, 2004

If I can find buy clams here in the Midwest (I live in the front range of Mt Level) I'm sure you can find them for sale in Oregon. As for saltpork, it's available in most meat departments; it resembles nothing so much as a 1-inch thck piece of hard fat.
posted by ahimsakid at 1:46 PM on January 5, 2004

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