Slice ‘em and Weep

Five or six years back, I was discussing cooking with Naval Ravikant, who observed that a surprising majority of the entrepreneurs he knew seemed to love to cook. I’d noticed the same thing, though it made a lot of sense to me: both are about creating something from scratch, then sharing it with others. But while a startup requires years of slow slogging, a meal is something you can put together, enjoy with others, and receive course-correcting feedback on within the span of a single evening. Cooking fills your evening with a sense of success, of completion, that’s far more elusive in a company-building day job.

In the years since, I’ve watched the habits of chef-ing entrepreneurs, and it’s clear most of them bring the same science-loving nerdiness, and the same analytical approach, to both pursuits. Which is why so many of them also seem to be fans of Serious Eats, where Cook’s Illustrated alum J. Kenji López-Alt perfects recipes with a modern foodie spin on America’s Test Kitchen rigor.

Jess bought me a copy of López-Alt’s excellent The Food Lab earlier this year, and (though it’s a bit of a doorstop at 900+ pages) I’ve since read it cover to cover. Among the many takeaways was a small and surprising point I thought about this morning, as I was making salads to pack for lunch: how you slice an onion has a significant impact on how those slices taste.

You can read a full discussion of the difference here, but in summary:

Most people slice onions by cutting them in half, turning the stem to the right or left side, then slicing into half moons, like so:

The problem is, that ruptures a lot of cells in the onion, releasing lachrymators, the chemical compounds that make your eyes water and that sometimes give raw onions an off-puttingly overpowering taste.

To minimize that, simply rotate the onion ninety degrees, and instead slice it pole-to-pole, like this:

You can test this side-by-side, cutting the two halves of an onion different ways. Even better, store the two batches in separate containers for ten minutes, then open and sniff them. As López-Alt puts it, “there's no doubt that the orbitally sliced onion is stronger, giving off a powerful stench of White Castle dumpsters and bad dates.” I’ve tried it myself, and he’s most certainly right.

So, if nothing else, start slicing your onion the better way. But also consider buying and reading The Food Lab, so you can put similar insights to work across the board. If you’re a results-minded home (or even pro) chef, it’s definitely worth the time.

April 19, 2017