B. Rosie Lerner
Purdue Extension


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Onions Can Bring You To Tears

As summer is nearing its end, gardeners will soon be harvesting their onions, which may just bring tears to their eyes.

Onions are ready to harvest when the tops bend over at the neck. Gently lift the plants out of the ground to collect the bulbs and avoid bruising the tender skins. For short-term storage, spread the plants in a single layer, leaving the tops attached, and air dry 2-3 days in a well-ventilated area. When dry, remove the tops to about 1 inch above the bulb and place in a cool, dark area.

Onions that will be stored for longer periods should be "cured" first by air drying for another 10-14 days before removing tops. Then, place in a dark, dry, cool (33-45 F) area. Depending on the cultivar and storage environment, cured onions should keep for 3-6 months.

Onions are notorious for causing teary eyes and bad breath. In both cases, sulfur-containing compounds are the culprits. That ability to bring tears to just about any dry eye is caused by sulfur-containing fumes given off as the onion is cut. This chemical is so volatile that it has been difficult to study. The predominant view today is that the volatile sulfur compound combines with the moisture in your eye to form sulfuric acid, so it's no wonder you want to cry.

You can avoid the eye irritation by chilling the onions first so that the chemical will be less volatile. Alternatively, the onion can be peeled under cold running water. The water will dissolve the fumes before they reach your eye.

As for the bad breath, yet another sulfur-containing compound is at work, this time within a volatile oil that enters the lungs and then is exhaled with the breath. Many a remedy has been recommended, including munching a mouthful of parsley, celery tops, coffee beans, cardamom seeds, roasted beet roots or cloves. None of these remedies appear to work every time for every mouth, so it's best to invite your friends and relatives to share your onion with you.


Writer: B. Rosie Lerner
Editor: Olivia Maddox