How to cut an onion properly, with bonus onion confit recipe

Toward the end of Henrik Ibsen’s play “Peer Gynt,” a saga of the self under siege, we find Gynt deep in the forest, peeling a wild onion. He compares his many selves – cheat, shipwreck survivor, liar, prophet, betrayer, gold-digger – to the onion’s layers.

Gynt finally exclaims, “What an enormous number of layers! Are we never coming to the kernel?

“Ah, there isn’t one! All the way into the innermost bit, it’s nothing but layers, smaller and smaller.”

Ibsen means to say that however much the self-seeker peels back the layers of their self, what they find is nothing. Not a rotten core; no core at all.

But the center of a real onion, if looked at closely, sports two stem buds by which, if planted, comes the second year’s growth. The core of an onion is the beginning of a new life.

Remember that at the next meeting of your support group.

Those stem buds, positioned upwards from the root end, also indicate to us cooks how best (and less tearfully) to prepare and cook the onion.

It matters much if you cut an onion “pole-to-pole” through both its stem and root ends, versus if you cut it along its “equator,” the opposite direction by 90 degrees, just as with our Earth.

First, the tears. As a defense mechanism against nibbling pests or gnawing animals, each of an onion’s cells contains sulfur, taken up from the soil while the onion grows. The onion also makes an enzyme that, in combination with the sulfur, catalyzes it into biting sulfurous compounds. The enzyme and the sulfur mix whenever the onion’s cell membranes are broken, for example, when cut open by a chef’s knife.

Volatilized into the air around the cutting board, the sulfur-enzyme amalgam converts some of the liquid in our eyes into sulfuric acid. Hence, we burn, we cry.

But the cells of an onion, just like those stem buds, are longer pole-to-pole than in the perpendicular direction. If an onion is cut pole-to-pole, the knife ruptures fewer cell walls than if the onion is cut radially, along its equator. Polar expeditions on an onion mean fewer (though not an absence of) tears.

Also, cutting pole-to-pole results in more uniformly sized slices, both in width and length. For certain cooking preparations using onions, such as French onion soup or caramelized onions (today’s recipe), this means more manageable and uniform cooking and browning. Burnt ends are great from beef brisket; not so much from onions.

Nothing wrong with onions sliced along their equators, just a difference. What would a burger do without its slice of red onion? Or a hot dog without dice from the same cut of a white onion? Well, they wouldn’t stand for those pole-to-pole slices, thank you very much.

Also, thick radial slices are cut more easily into chunks and thus are preferred for food preparations such as stews or other braises.

A cook’s note about those tears: Advisories abound about preventing tears while cutting onions. What works for me is to light two candles and place one on either side of the cutting board, hence burning off many of those volatilized sulfur-enzyme fumes.

The kitchen countertop becomes a sort of altar, which occasionally is both comforting and inspiring.

Onion confit

Cooking onions very slowly and lengthily, into a sort of conserve or jam, brings out their hidden rich sweetness. (It’s estimated that long-cooked onions are 60 times sweeter than table sugar.) Combine that with the liquids exuded by olives and tomatoes and you get a gloriously juicy “confit” to serve alongside (or under) any fish fillet or piece of grilled or broiled cut of fowl or meat. But the onions must be prepared and cooked in a certain way in order to coax all that wonder from them.

Ingredients

3 large red onions, peeled

3 large yellow onions, peeled

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Kosher salt, altogether close to 2 teaspoons

3 medium Roma tomatoes, cored and chopped

3/4 cup olives, green or black or a mixture, pitted and roughly chopped

Directions

Halve the onions along their “poles,” removing small cuts of both root and stem ends and slice pole-to-pole into 1/4-inch thick slices. Place the onions in a large bowl. Toss to mix together the red and yellow onion slices.

In a 12-inch skillet, heat the oil over medium-high heat and add enough onions to fill the skillet to the brim. Using tongs, turn to coat with the oil and cook until they sizzle, about 2 minutes. For another few minutes, keep adding handfuls of the onions, always turning them over and sprinkling with pinches of salt. (The salt draws out moisture.) When all the onion slices have been added to the skillet, lower the heat to medium-low, cover the skillet and allow the onions to cook for 10 minutes. The onions will collapse and a pool of liquid will settle to the bottom.

Uncover the skillet and for the next half hour, scrape and fold the onions every 5 minutes, lowering the heat and maintaining the barest simmer, making sure that they do not scorch, until the liquid has evaporated. (If the onions begin to stick to the skillet’s bottom, overly browning, scrape away and add a smidge of water, lifting up any browned bits.)

When the mass of onions looks dry, add the chopped tomatoes and olives and continue cooking, folding and scraping at the barest simmer, for another 30-40 minutes, until all evident liquid has evaporated and the color of the onions is a very dark mahogany-brown.

Add some onion confit to an omelet or frittata. Use some to top a burger, a grilled cheese sandwich or a baked potato. Add to pasta; cover a pizza; flavor a salad. Add to a mix of sour cream and yogurt for a dip.

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