Technique: How to dice an onion
Jan 04, 2012, Updated Jan 09, 2023
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What more gracious gift has the table been given than the onion? It seemed as though I was seeing onions for the first time in all of their gorgeous splendor when I saw them through the camera lens this week. Onions are perhaps the most ironic of all foods, and that may be why I am drawn to them. The same volatile compound in onions that make you cry is what makes onions taste so good. Our dear Lebanese poet Khalil Gibran’s words come round again and again: Your joy is your sorrow unmasked. And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.
To dice an onion, as we will do for the mujadara this week, start with a large, sharp knife (a chef’s knife). Your hands are going to need to work well together here, so tell them to behave. Slice off the stem end, which is the end with the long, trumpet-like extension. Cut the onion in half lengthwise through the root. Peel back the layers of skin. As I did this, I couldn’t help but consider how the layers of my life are getting peeled back too. The onion teaches me that there is another fresh layer beneath, waiting to be revealed. Even though we eventually do discard the old, dry layers, those beg us to take a closer look—not just for their flaws, but for their beauty. What has passed—the layers of our lives, with their mistakes and troubles and wish-I-could-do-it-over-again longings—is beautiful.
Slice off just the spindly ends of the root end, leaving the nugget that keeps the onion intact. Lay the flat side of the onion on your cutting board. Use your dominant hand to slice, and the other hand, claw-like, to hold the onion in place.
Turn the knife with blade perpendicular to the board and, using the tip end of the knife, make three or four vertical cuts into the onion, about ½ inch apart. Some of the onion pieces will fall off the front of the onion half. Just leave them there or push them out of the way.
Hold the cut onion with thumb and pinkie on either side of the onion half. The rest of the guiding hand is propped on the onion like a claw, with the tips of the three middle fingers pressing down on the top of the onion to hold it in place. The first knuckle of the middle finger is where the flat side of the blade of the knife should rest, serving as a guide for the blade. This takes some practice; main thing is not to cut yourself.
Slice from the center of the knife blade pushing down into the onion, making three or four vertical cuts about ½-inch apart. Don’t try to cut too close to the root end because the onion can destabilize and move, causing you to cut yourself.
It would have been much better to show you this technique in a video, or at least with a second person here to demonstrate the hands while the other takes the photos. But I am here on snowy Main Street solo, with Mama in the sunny south and everyone else back where they belong after the holidays. A good time to keep peeling back the layers to discover the beauty in what has passed, and the freshness of what’s to come.