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The Roots of Flavor

9 September 2009

If there’s a smell more homey that that of onions slowly softening in butter or olive oil, I’ve certainly never smelled it. I don’t know if I’d go so far to bottle the scent and dab it behind my ears, but it certainly draws me into the kitchen. Fortunately, it’s one of the more common scents in my house. From stocks to stews, curries to quiche, many of my favorite recipes start with the cutting and sautéing of an onion.

Despite my love for their aroma and flavor, my cooking ambitions almost foundered on onions. Chopping them can be drudgery if you’re not diligent about honing and sharpening your knives. Dicing and mincing them requires finesse. When I first started cooking, I thought that any attempt to cut onions into uniformly sized pieces was nothing more than an affectation for wannabe chefs. It only took a few less-than-successful meals for me to learn that, with onions, size matters. When there’s too large a difference between the largest pieces and the smallest, you’re likely to end up with some bits charred around the edges and others still half-raw in the middle.

And then there are the tears.

Slice through an onion’s delicate cell walls and you’re activating one of nature’s most effective chemical weapons systems. The sulfur compounds in one membranous compartment mix with an enzyme in another to form a volatile vapor. These fumes fly into your eyes where they break down into a number of noxious chemicals, including sulfuric acid.

A photo taken by a friend early in my career as a home cook, show’s me standing at the counter, chef’s knife in hand, wearing swim goggles to prepare the onions for our dinner. These days, I’m more likely to follow the advice of Harold McGee, the guru of culinary science, who suggests chilling onions in ice water for a half an hour or so before you start cutting. The cold disarms the onion’s natural tear gas by slowing down the enzymes that kick off the chemical reactions. I still keep a pair of goggles squirreled away in my kitchen, though, just in case there’s a call for some last-minute mise en place.

One of my most indelible memories from cooking school was the afternoon our chef instructor made soup with nothing more than onions, butter, salt, pepper, a pinch of sugar, and several liters of water. Some of my classmates thought the absence of beef stock was a measure of the school’s stinginess. I was astonished that the application of heat and care could transform such lowly ingredients into a soup so sublime that I didn’t even miss the stock. Long slow cooking brought out the onions’ gentler side and added a meaty depth to their flavor. Caramelization, followed by gentle simmering, turned the water from clear to woodsy brown.

In the end, I think it’s just these sorts of transformations that make onions so invaluable. Whether they play a supporting or a starring role in a dish, onions supply the magic that steals the show.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Tom Miller permalink
    17 September 2009 11:43

    I turn on the kitchen vent fan whenever I cut onions, and shed fewer tears than if I hadn’t. I think the air currents created by the fan draw most of the vapor away. I do get the impression that the cells in a fresh onion are under some sort of pressure so when you cut through, the vapor is released with enough pressure behind it to disburse it widely. Fiendish!

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