Dicing onions like a pro


Over at CRAFT, Paul Stern shows how to dice onions like a pro. I find onions almost as loathsome as cilantro, but I like Paul's technique!


    1. It takes a tremendous amount of effort for me to accept that each of us is chemically distinct from the next to such degree that taste has a high variance. Each person experiences each flavor in very different ways.

      It doesn’t stop me from chastising people who poo-poo cilantro.

      1. An allergy to cilantro is a lot more common than most people think. Many people have the reaction and don’t realize it was because of the cilantro. For me, I get major headaches from cilantro. You can keep your filthy cilantro (and rosemary, while you’re at it), thanks. You can have my share.  :)

        1. You say it’s common; but from what I understand it’s an ‘alergy’ that exists exclusively in the US. Maybe it’s because for some reason you don’t call it coriander.


    2. Alas, some of us become rather violently ill when eating onions. You don’t know how hard it is to avoid them until you try to eliminate them from your diet; they are everywhere!

      Cilantro, at least, merely tastes like soap; it doesn’t make me suffer for days.

  1. Last year Anthony Bourdain hosted a “techniques” program that featured this technique in one of the segments.

    I always have a hard time peeling the damn things, even after slicing off the ends.

    I eat a steamed chopped onion (along with a couple of chopped carrots and a handful of spinach) almost every night.

  2. I want to second the motion that using a sharp (10in or longer vegetable) knife allows you to work fast and to not shred the onion, which results in less (almost no) watering of the eyes. 

    However, stand your steel vertically (not like in the picture), and ‘shave’ it with your knife.  You’ll have perfect control of the angle and you won’t ding the blade’s edge.

    Also, I don’t know why you need to do the second set of parallel cuts.    Really.

    1. It helps if you’re going for a small even dice, but for the most part its completely unnecessary and dangerously destabilizes the onion.

  3. I’m just some jerkoff grad student, and this is how I’ve always cut onions.  Isn’t this just the normal way?! or have I really been unknowingly using some secret chef method all these years without realizing it?

    And seriously, while cilantro is awesome, I do realize it tastes “soapy” to some people, but no onions?!  That’s just wrong.  Cooking up some diced onions in some butter and/or oil is the start to pretty much every great recipe, from meat dishes to soup.

    I can totally understand not liking things like raw red onions on your salad, sandwich or pizza, but sauteed onions really are pretty much an essential first step to a large sum of recipes across many cultures and cooking styles.

    Seriously, go to allrecipes or something and look!  The first step of so many recipes is almost always the following (randomly grabbed from a recipe for Indian Chicken Curry):

    “Heat olive oil in a skillet over medium heat. Saute onion until lightly browned.”

  4. Interestingly, he explains all around it, but never actually points out that this technique causes less crying (which is due to the release of sulphur).

    Chop off the top of the onion first, not the root end, no matter what else you do and in what order.

  5. nothing better than the smell of cooking onions and garlic.. cilantro, however, is the devil’s stink-weed…

  6. Good stuff but I skip that horizontal slice.
    Chef Jean Pierre has a strange additional technique of coring the ends a bit, but he eliminates the horizontal slice. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zr1ZQ94E-YA
    I also share Mark’s disdain for cilantro.

    1. I always do the horizontal slice(s), but sometime I forget.. to be honest, I can’t say I notice the difference, and the horizontal one is the most difficult IMHO.

  7. loathing onions and/or cilantro should be seen as a sign of vampirism, just as an aversion to garlic is.

      1. as a rule, I always (at least) double the garlic in any recipe.. we can bribe our kids to eat their veggies by offering them garlic..

  8. My bf doesn’t like onions, which drives me nuts, because everything I like to cook includes onions.  Also, onions are delicious.  I can eat them raw.  Oh god do I love onions.

  9. This is the same French method taught at all culinary schools, and it’s outdated. It requires 3  separate directional cuts, when 2 will do: split the onion in half without the root attached, then slice in the direction of the “lines” of the onion concentrically all the way from one side to the other. Use your index finger to hold down each slice as you draw the knife out, move index finger to next slice to hold it down. When the half an onion has been sliced in this way, turn it- still together- and slice the onion against the grain into dices. If done with practice this can result in cleaner and more accurate slices than the above method. And it’s safer.

    I think it’s very irresponsible to encourage people with marginal knife skills to have the blade of a knife cut towards the palm, especially since most home knives tend to be far duller than would be used in a professional setting.

    1. ^^this. when you need brunoise for 10 gallons of consomme, your fancy knife tricks are only going to leave you bleeding. cut off both ends, split axially, peel, slice horizontally, spin 90 degrees and slice vertically. you are going to end up with a much more precise dice, in less time.

      after chef-ing in various capacities for the last ~12 years, i’d add that the majority of professionals that i know, (including myself) use mostly japanese knives for prep work such as this. the big ol’ wedge of a wusthof in the pic above is probably what spawned this technique in the first place to prevent wedging in dense veggies.. not a problem when your blade is twice as sharp and a quarter the thickness. (i use a kikuichi santoku for veg prep, but a kobayashi or shun is a cheaper alternative)

      if i could only have one of any knife in the kitchen it would be a vg-10 santoku.

    2. The whole point of leaving the root attached is to keep the onion from falling apart, which makes for very messy cutting. As for the horizontal cut, it is to get smaller pieces. Yeah, a very fresh onion and a super-expensive knife works wonders but sometimes that’s not an option.

      1. I understand the reasoning behind it but the method I described keeps the onion together as well with less cuts. I’ve cut tens of thousands of onions, for better or worse, over the last 20 years professionally and I train people daily in this technique in my current job. Without a doubt it’s the safest and most efficient way to process piles of onions.


      cut off both ends, split axially, peel, slice horizontally, spin 90 degrees and slice vertically

      This is exactly what I do, since my mother taught me many years ago.

      Is there any real reason to use a big 10″ knife for chopping onions? I find it much easier to use a slim 4″ knife.

  10. I have always used this method, though I chop both ends off because the root is quite deep and a firm part that will hold the onion together while you cut still remains even after you have cut enough of the root off to remove all the brown skins part.

    However I fail to see why he suggests you make 1-3 horizontal cuts as this is the direction the layers of the onion go, so your onion will fall into 4mm thick pieces in that direction anyway making these cuts superfluous.

    My eyes seldom water using this method.

    Another method of peeling onions that is useful is when making pickled onions, is to soak the whole pickling onions with the skins on in a brine solution over night, in the morning cutting through the skins of these very small onions is then very easy, you simply cut off both ends then make a shallow cut across from top to bottom and the damp skin peels off very easily.

  11. This is how I was taught in class, though it will depend on exactly what shape/size cut you’re intending.

    As long as you have fair knife skills and good SHARP knives, you’re good. A dull knife is more dangerous than a sharp knife, even though that is counter-intuitive. A dull knife doesn’t go where you want, and can easily slip off what you’re trying to cut, and then you lose control.  Get yourself a nice (small) set of Henckel’s Pro S. Or Wusthof. Maybe Sabatier, if you can put up with wood handles (not for me, thanks). The balance of a Pro S from Henckels can only be experienced, not described. Once you’ve handled one IRL, you’ll *know*.Then, stop using the effing non-stick pans for anything other than omelettes. If you have non-stick coating coming up off the pan, throw it away immediately – it’s a health hazard.

    Now, go cook something! Today’s recommendation: Afritada!

    1. if you are going to buy a knife for prep work, do yourself a favor and shell out 60 bucks or so for a shun santoku. you’ll never go back to european style knives.

      1. Totally a matter of preference. I have a good Shun santoku and a Henckels chef in my stable, and got the santoku after hearing how great they were. After using both for a while, I more often than not reach for the Henckels. Still like the Shun though.

        1. here’s a quick test for you: grab a couple of fresh carrots with fairly thick tops on them. now, cut them at the top across the width with both knives. you’ll notice, if your carrots are fresh, that the shun (if it’s sharp) is going to /cut/ straight through the carrot, while the henckels is going to cut about halfway through, maybe a little more, before the carrot /breaks/. this is because of the wedge shape of the blade, vs the flat sided shun.

          my point here is: when that carrot breaks, you are no longer controlling the knife, you are just along for the ride. any dense vegetable is going to do the same thing. onions are especially tricky because the juices tend to grab-and-release randomly, so the smoother the cut, the better off you are. not to mention the precision of your cut, which can be a big sticking point in a professional kitchen.

          i have a henckels too, wouldn’t do without it for dealing with bones, frozen stuff, etc. but when it comes to bulk veggie prep, there is no comparison. 

          i am not a shun fanboy mind you, i don’t have a shun santoku myself.. but i will argue that in certain situations japanese steel is going to outperform german steel hands down, just because of the geometry of the blades.

          1. I’ve sliced many carrot tops off with my 10-in Sabatier Lion Cook’s knife.  They don’t break off. 

            The set of five knives (paring, cook’s, cleaver, bread, and meat) plus the steel, cost me about $98 when I bought them thirty-five years ago.  I was just beginning to cook for myself; it was one of my first purchases.  

            I’m so glad I made the ‘foolish’ decision to get a proper set of kitchens tools.

          2. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I know the Shun is probably the better tool for the job (like you had described.) My point is just that, for the most part, your personal comfort handling a knife trumps which knife is theoretically best. My girlfriend uses a paring knife or a small vegetable knife for most of her cooking not because there aren’t better knives around but because that’s what she likes to use.

  12. As far as a chef’s knife being expensive, depends. 
    My Ken Onion designed German steel chef’s knife $150(?) is a big hulking beast that just sits there in it’s cage. 
    My Shun hollow ground $150 is equal art and tool. And yet- the go to knife I would take on the road is a $25 Fibrox by Victorinox- Although maybe that’s how/why I lost that knife! Can’t wait to get another.

    most importantly, utilizing the honing steel really keeps things tip top sharp.

    1. Ever try a ceramic knife? I have a pretty nice set of stainless knives gathering dust in my block, but my Kyocera Santoku is used daily, for pretty much everything.

      The only downside is that you have to send ’em out to get ’em sharpened (maybe annually), and by that time you’re so spoiled that using  other knives while you wait for it to come back feels incredibly dull and clumsy.

      1. You know, I’ve never used a ceramic knife. And now that I have seemingly given in and decided to remain as poor as possible I likely never will. Unless I find one at Goodwill or an estate sale for $5. 

        1. Has anyone tried the cheap ceramic knives from Harbor Freight? $15 for a chef size, $5 for a paring knife.

      2. I haven’t tried ceramic knives, but I have a hard time believing the balance or lack of heft is a good thing. What is it about them you prefer? Have you compared them to professional knives, or just regular ones?

        1. They’re sharper than any other I’ve used, which makes ’em feel like a culinary laser on the end of your arm. Just a pleasure to use.

          As Flugfrei mentions, you can’t chuck ’em around or bash them like you can with metal, so if you need tools that can take a ton of abuse, it’s not for you. That said, if you treat it appropriately (no cracking it against metal surfaces, trying to cut thru bone, twisting while it’s stuck in something, etc), they are phenomenal.

          I’ve had mine for over 5 years, I cook with it almost daily, and have sent it out to be sharpened once in that time. (Though it is getting time to send it out again.)

      3. ceramic knives shatter.

        if you whack your cutting board or torque them at the wrong time, they’ll chip like glass. like glass, you do not want ceramic chips in your food.

        a lot of restaurants will not allow people to use them.

        on top of that, you can’t sharpen them. as far as i’m concerned, a tool you can’t service is a tool that you don’t own.

        1. Yeah, I could see ’em being inappropriate for industrial use.

          Not so convinced as to reasoning re: self-servicing,  though… do you dry-clean your wool coats yourself? Fix your own car? Or for that matter, perform your own dental and optometry checkups?

  13. Actually, if you make slices radiating towards the center of the onion, instead of vertically OR horizontally, you’ll have perfectly consistent chunks.  And, as a bonus, the onion will hold together much better while you’re cutting it!  :-)

    1. Well… I too detest onions, and I can always tell they’re there, and I could when I was a kid too. If anything, I was even better at detecting them as a kid – my mom tried to pull a fast one on me a few times and served my spaghetti with the pasta sauce brand that put tiny bits of onions in it instead of the kind she normally bought (other vegetables in the sauce were fine), and I made sure she knew that I noticed :)

      In a lot of dishes they don’t really ruin it or anything (though I pick around them when possible, sometimes leaving just a pile of onion bits on the plate at the end)… so I wonder, why are they there? They’re not really adding anything, either.

      I don’t like garlic, either, unlike Mark. In western-style food, the only things I dislike to the point of avoiding at all costs are garlic, vinegar, shellfish, and ketchup – and I can detect even trace amounts of any of these ingredients, and they ruin the dish for me (like many people when it comes to cilantro). Onions I avoid too, but I can’t be too picky since they are in so many different things and in moderation they are tolerable.

  14. This is the way all the TV chefs advocate. But the fact remains that the only times I ever cut myself dicing onions were the two times I convinced myself to try doing it this way.

    There’s only one really useful piece of advice here: curl your fingers under.

    There’s one really useful piece of advice missing: slow the hell down. You’re not a TV chef, don’t try to show off like one.

    Other than that, do what seems natural and reasonable to you. If it feels natural, you’re less likely to cut yourself regardless of what the pro chefs say.

  15. Not being anal retentive, just throw the damn things in a food processor and be done with it.  It’s cooking, not geometric analysis.

  16. Onions are great. They are also very good for metaphors.

    And then theres this fine little animation : http://youtu.be/yV_dzvA_INU

  17. How else would you dice an onion?
    The only thing I don´t get are he horizontal cuts, since the onion falls apart in layers anyway after cutting.

  18. Personally, I think the desire for small and perfectly uniform chunks is a little OCD.

    What I do is chop off the head, halve it, chop off the tail, skin it, cut each half 3 times across the grain, then make three cuts with the grain, angled towards the centre.

    Lots of lovely assorted size chunks, that separate easily. And it takes much less time and effort than this PRO-TIP! method. If some chunks end up slightly more cooked than others, this is generally a good thing since it adds more flavours and textures.

    And cilantro is American for fresh corriander. You learn something new everyday. Normally I dislike American terms (egg-plant, WTF? And don’t get me started on ‘erbs).  But I think the English language could use a separate word for the seed (which most people like) and the leaves (which is an aquired taste).

  19. Kind of amazed that the common techniques I learned cooking in professional kitchens years ago are considered interesting and slightly rareafied knowlege worthy of a boing-boing post today.

  20. “Personally, I think the desire for small and perfectly uniform chunks is a little OCD.”

    Nope, you do it that way so they cook evenly.  So some are not cooked and some raw when you serve the dish.

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