How to Chop an Onion

Washington, D.C., circa 1921. "Junior high school: Home Ec."


“After a long day of routine work many people find the creative act of cooking a relaxing change of pace that restores their energy. It’s a gift to be able to cook for others—and it’s wonderful to be cooked for.” —Deborah Madison in Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone

I recently asked an old friend for some poetry recommendations. Being a literal minded and pragmatic sort of person, I have always avoided poetry, my most oft cited reason being, “Why do they have to talk around everything? Why can’t they just get to the point?” After being moved by a poem at the end of last year, I realized that, as is often the case, I was wrong. I have since set about rectifying the situation, and my friend gave me some sound advice: “Do yourself a favor and don’t think of yourself as a novice poetry reader. Everyone’s a novice at reading good, surprising poetry, you know?”

Now, this blog post isn’t really about poetry (I’m just not ready for that yet), but about something near and dear to my heart: cooking. I am not an authority on the subject of cooking; I am simply someone who likes to cook at home and has realized (as I’ve started getting older and am attempting to grow up) that I really enjoy cooking and preparing food. So I’m saddened when people say they “can’t cook,” as if it’s a skill they are not capable of learning with time and practice, like any other skill. To the stubborn naysayers and non-cookers among us I say: if I can pick up a book of poetry, then you can surely pick up a frying pan. Cooking is for everyone, and I think my friend’s advice about poetry translates well to the art of preparing food—don’t think of yourself as a novice cook; everyone’s a novice when it comes to creating simple, carefully and lovingly prepared food.

Luckily the library holds an impressive cookbook collection. One place you might want to start is with Harold McGee’s new book Keys to Good Cooking: A Guide to Making the Best of Foods and Recipes. This book does not contain recipes, but definitions of different foods and how to cook them. It is all about the science of cooking, which is not as scary as it sounds. For example, let’s say you want to make a cheese sauce (because seriously, who doesn’t want to make a cheese sauce?), and the last time you made one with cheddar cheese, it turned out all lumpy and oily. This does not mean you can’t cook—it simply means you had not realized that you needed to check this book out from the library. According to Mr. McGee, cheese sauces are a cinch:

Cheese sauces are made by melting and dispersing solid cheese into hot liquid. The cheese adds both flavor and body thanks to its concentrated proteins and fats, but these can also cause stringiness, lumping, and greasiness…to prevent cheese in sauces from turning lumpy and greasy, grate the cheese finely. Add the cheese to hot but not boiling liquid. Stir as little as possible to avoid forming protein strings. Include some flour or starch to prevent protein clumping and fat puddling.

Mr. McGee is not a poet (unless you consider discussions of “fat puddling” poetic), but he is a very well-respected food scientist, and Keys is a well-organized reference tool for cooks both new and old. If you’ve ever wondered about all the various ways you can cook an egg, or what the difference between frying, sauteing, sweating, glazing and wilting vegetables is, then this is the book for you.

Of course, food science tips are hard to put into practice without having some recipes to work with. A co-worker recently recommened Deborah Madison’s weighty tome Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone to me, and I can already tell that it’s going to become one of my favorite cookbooks. True to its title, this is not simply a cookbook for vegetarians—I think everyone can find something tasty and appealing in this book. Many of the recipes are straightforward and simple, and in addition to including a primer on cooking methods, utensils and seasoning, there is a section of recipes ordered by vegetable and a short background on what to look for when selecting particular vegetables, how to store them, and, most importantly, how to use them.

And if you’re in need of still more food inspiration, there is always this fine little book.

Of course, as in poetry and writing, sometimes it’s easier to begin from a prompt. I am embarassed to admit this, but I only recently discovered the proper way to chop an onion. If you’re afraid of cooking, and are not sure where to begin, this is as good a place to start as any:



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5 responses to “How to Chop an Onion

  1. Joelle

    “Fat Puddling!” Poetry in motion. I do have to say that as a well seasoned cook, I have to take exception to the way the onion is being cut. I don’t like how she cuts parallel to the cutting board but not against anything. I like to cut the top off, cut the bottom edge with a two diagonal cuts, peel the skin so I dont have to touch wet onion (cutting the top off helps with this – also a little water helps to peel it too). then cut in half, put the flat end against the board, then, like in the video, with the grain, then against the grain. Running water over the knife immediatly afterwards avoids all tears.

  2. Corey

    Favorite cookbook (though the lack of pictures is always a bummer).

  3. avid

    Thanks, Tara, for your inspired and inspiring writing.

    I know there has already been one President Madison in this country, but how about a second?

    Deborah Madison for president!

  4. Amanda

    The sequel to “How to Chop an Onion” post based on the stint at the last job I worked could have been titled “How to make friends with vegetables”

  5. Someone gave me Madison’s book as a gift lo these many years ago. Best present I’ve ever received, all dog-eared and splotchy now from countless kitchen adventures…enjoy!!


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