A wide variety of onion rings exists. Actually, onion rings may be too narrow. Let’s say, ‘fried onion products.’ That may also be too narrow. Perhaps ‘onions cooked in some way and breaded with something.’ It’s impossible to pin down. Suffice it to say that the onion ring represents a unique place in the culinary landscape.
You, intrepid reader, may at this point be wondering, “Is this entire column going to be about the onion ring? How pointless could this possibly be?” Well…
The onion ring is very important. More important than any other issue I could possibly address.
The basic onion ring is probably best represented by what you get from Spangles, which is a local chain here in Kansas — circular, rather than oblong, rings with an approximately equal volume occupied by the breading and the onion. For the budding onion ring enthusiast, this is probably the place to start. The industry standard is a mix similar to that which is produced by McCormick, under the brand name Zebbie’s. Unless you have a deep fryer, it is probably simpler to go to Spangles or almost any chain restaurant other than Burger King.
Some of you have probably never had an onion ring before. Many of you who have had onion rings have, unknowingly, eaten them in an incorrect manner. The correct way to eat an onion ring is with the onion still secured within the breading. Do not, as my younger sister does, remove the onion from the breading and eat both separately; this is an embarrassing faux pas. Sometimes it can be tricky to keep both unified without gulping down an entire ring in one bite (another faux pas). A foolproof method is to apply pressure with two fingers at either end of the diameter. This flattening of the circle allows the teeth to make contact at one point, rather than two. Use the molars rather than the incisors.
After you have mastered the Zebbie’s baseline, taking care, of course, to note the subtleties of smell, texture, and shape that will make it possible for you to render critical judgement, you can move on to the several other basic varieties which proliferate. One I will call the ‘crumbly-breaded’ variety. It is easiest to find the ‘crumbly-breaded’ variety at Burger King. I have never liked crumbly-breaded onion rings as much as Zebbie’s, but a bit of horseradish sauce improves them greatly. Most baked onion rings, such as the kind to be found in the freezer aisle, are of the ‘crumbly-breaded’ sort.
Another variety is ‘beer-battered,’ less common at fast food restaurants, but dominant when it comes to casual dining, as well as in sports bars and the like. I am split when it comes to beer-battering. Light battering can add a subtle and enjoyable twist to the basic flavor, but over-battering drowns the onion and, one would assume, is meant to be eaten by people who don’t want to interrupt their beer with some other flavor. Beer-battered rings are more prone than any other variety to over-breading. Consider these factors when ordering rings advertised as beer-battered.
The above descriptions are only a broad outline of the most common varieties; there is a whole universe of non-ring shaped fried onions. I haven’t even covered onion blossoms, onion ‘bites’, onion shreds, and the infamous onion loaf. On the topic of onion blossoms, I will say that the ones at Outback Steakhouse are good, while the ones at Timberline are to be avoided. If you discover a latent passion for onion rings, as millions already have, you will want to reference one of the numerous books, VHS tapes, and movie-musical extravaganzas on the subject.
It is enjoyable to be a connoisseur, if only in one small area. I derive much the same pleasure that a wine enthusiast, or any self-created expert, does: that of being ‘in the know.’ Now that everyone knows that I’m in the know, I’m even happier. Perhaps, in the onion ring, you also have found something you can take great pleasure in knowing more about than anyone else.