If you hear an onion ring, answer it!


June 22 will bring a tear to my eye as I celebrate National Onion Ring Day. Let’s peel away the layers and see what’s beneath this scrumptious, savory rival to the French fry.

Onions are small bulbs having delicate tissues, so they do not leave trace fossil evidence for botanists and archaeologists to determine their origins or time of birth. Food historians believe onions have been cultivated for more than 5,000 years, one of the earliest and heartiest crops, adaptable to a variety of soils and climates.

The origins of the onion ring, however, are quite recent with no one source laying a solid claim to its creation. In the early 1900s, Fannie Farmer published a recipe for “fried onions” in the “Fort Wayne Indiana Sentinel.” Then in 1933 a Crisco ad appearing in The New York Times Magazine included a recipe for deep-fried onion rings dipped in milk then dredged in flour.

But fried onion rings were officially launched at the first drive-in restaurants – the Texas Pig stands (a thriving chain restaurant in Oak Cliff, Texas) in the 1920s. While around that time, restaurants in the Big Apple were slicing sweet Bermudas thinly, battering the rings and then frying them as a savory change up from the popular French fried potato to attract the cosmopolitan palates of New York diners.

Fast food chains, including A&W and Burger King, added onion rings to their menus in the 1960s and ’70s, while Aussie’s Outback Steakhouse did a riff with the “bloomin’ onion,” an onion on steroids battered and deep-fried whole, artfully sliced to resemble petals of a blooming flower, accompanied by its signature mayonnaise chili dipping sauce!

High-end steak houses, microbreweries and burger joints serve onion rings in loaves, strings, towers or pyramids, or cups stuffed with creamed kale (Ruth’s Chris). The coatings range from classic beer batters to tempura, cornmeal and panko breadcrumbs.

While the onion is a healthful member of the lily family, loaded with potassium, folate, Vitamins A, B6 and C, dietary fiber, and rich in odoriferous sulfur compounds found to lower blood lipids and blood pressure, when those crispy little things come out of the deep fryer, a transformation occurs.

The mighty onion, which is naturally sodium-, fat- and cholesterol-free, now packs on calories, carbs, cholesterol and fat. So here are a pair of recipes, one classic fried for those who love the onion ring unconditionally, foibles and all, the other baked and lean for the cholesterol- and calorie-conscious with a dipping sauce to dial up both versions.

Classic Fried Onion Rings

1 large sweet onion, (Vidalia or Maui), peeled, sliced 1/2-inch thick, separated into rings

1 cup pastry flour

1/2 cup dark beer

1/4 cup sparkling water

1/2 cup buttermilk

1/4 teaspoon each of mustard powder and cayenne

1 egg white

Sea salt and cracked black pepper to taste

1 cup milk

1 tablespoon of grapeseed or canola oil and extra for frying

Method: In a large bowl, soak the onion rings in milk for 10 minutes. In a food processor, blend the beer, water, buttermilk, oil, and seasonings. Gradually add the flour until a smooth pancake batter consistency forms. Blend in the egg. Drain the onions and dip in the batter.

In a large skillet heat ¼- to ½-inch of oil. Fry the rings until golden, turning only once. Drain on paper towel. Serve immediately with dipping sauce.

Oven Crisp Onion Rings

1 large sweet onion, sliced 1/2-inch thick, separated into rings

3/4 cup unbleached flour

1/2 cup buttermilk

1 cup panko breadcrumbs

1 egg, beaten

1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika

1/4 teaspoon each of mustard powder and cayenne

Sea salt and cracked black pepper to taste

2 tablespoons olive oil

Method: Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. Line baking sheets with parchment paper greased lightly with olive oil. Make an assembly line with 3 shallow bowls. The first with 1/2 cup of flour, the second with the remaining flour blended with buttermilk and egg, while the third with the breadcrumbs and seasonings.

Dip the rings in the flour, then in the batter, last in the breadcrumbs. Line the rings single-file on the baking sheet, and bake for about 15 minutes or until crispy and golden.

Dipping Sauce

1/2 cup mayonnaise

1/2 cup sour cream

Juice from half a lemon

2 teaspoons Cajun Spice Blend (Zatarain’s Creole Spice Mix)

1 tablespoon ketchup

Method: Blend ingredients in a bowl. Refrigerate before serving.

Cook’s Tips

• Reduce teary-eyes by chilling onions for one hour before prepping. Cut off the top and leave the root end intact as this contains the densest amount of eye-stinging sulphuric compounds.

• Don’t buy onions with soft spots, wet patches or blemishes. The outer skin should be dry and smooth.