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.