I Tried the Onion Rings at 6 Fast-Food Chains & the Best Was Crispy and Spicy

I Tried the Onion Rings at 6 Fast-Food Chains & the Best Was Crispy and Spicy When you take a trip through the drive-thru window and order a burger, you’re likely to hear, “Would you like fries with that?” A hamburger and fries combo is the backbone of a fast-food order—and at places like McDonald’s, it is about the only option you have, as fries stand alone in the sides category. But that doesn’t mean you always have to default to fries. Countless chains across the country serve up different sides. For example, other forms of spuds can be found, like tater tots and baked potatoes. Non-fried foods like macaroni and cheese or soups are less common but exist. And, at a selection of both national and regional establishments, humble onion rings also grace the menu board. Onion rings are one of those foods that are underappreciated and also difficult to get right. This is likely why they are a rare fast-food sighting. A good onion ring needs to achieve that quintessential crispness while not being soggy or greasy. The onion slice should be flavorful in and of itself, but some seasoning added to the batter never hurts, either. It seems like a tall order, but some chains are up for the challenge. A few of these daring restaurants are planted around my city of Columbus, Ohio, so I paid them a visit. While some ring renditions aren’t worth the carbs and greasy fingers, the O-shaped snacks at other chains were seriously delicious. Here’s how they compared, ranked from my least favorite to the absolute tastiest. Burger King At the place where you can “have it your way,” onion rings are a popular side. They have lived on the menu for decades and can even be chosen instead of fries for a combo meal at no extra charge. For those days when you can’t decide, you can go halfsies with a combined order of the two sides. Onion rings also appear in the chain’s specialty burgers or sandwiches. You can now find them on the Rodeo Burger, nestled on top of a flame-grilled patty and smothered in sweet and smoky barbecue sauce. At the drive-thru, I asked for a small order of onion rings sans a companion. My total rang up at $2.39. The look: Small bite-sized Os. There’s no variability in size, although some are squeezed together into more of an oval shape. They come in a muted wheat color. The taste: Inside each circle, you will not find real rings of onion–each piece’s identical size and appearance should have tipped me off to that. Instead, it’s more of an onion paste that tastes caramelized and doesn’t provide the snappy texture one would expect from onions. On the outside, the breading didn’t win me over, either. It has a pleasant flavoring of sea salt or garlic powder, but it was mushy and didn’t taste fresh. Maybe I just got unlucky with an older batch, but I will stick to fries next time I dine with the King. Sonic Sonic’s range of food is extensive. Shakes and ice cream specialties are available in abundance. Hungry customers can also fill up on burgers, sandwiches, hot dogs, chicken tenders, and breakfast items such as French toast sticks and burritos. Sides and snacks take up a good portion of the menu—and it’s there that you will find onion rings in the company of fries, tots, limited-time Buffalo chicken dip bites, and more. I went with a medium order of the rings for $3.49. I resisted pairing them with a Nerds Cherry Slush, my personal favorite. The Look: These are undoubtedly plump onion rings. Each is thick and wide, with the largest measuring four inches across. The color is a light yellowish tan, and the surface is crumbly. The Taste: Crunchy and fresh, but they have a strange sweetness. They taste like vanilla and remind me of something sugary and fried you would get at the fair. After a quick Google search, I gathered from copycat recipes and the internet that vanilla ice cream is a main ingredient in the batter. That cleared things up, but I was still thrown off. A more savory coating would have paired better with the big onion flavor these deliver. Swensons Swensons, confined to Ohio and Indiana, is a gem of the Midwest. It’s not your average, everyday fast-food joint. The chain takes you back in time to the days of drive-in diners, following a similar approach as Sonic and A&W Restaurant. At its core, Swensons is a standard hamburger and milkshake establishment. But its menu goes deeper with full dinners, homestyle soups, and what it calls “crispy extras.” Special recipe onion rings make this list. Only one size is available for $3.50. The side comes with a few interesting cooking choices. You can add Cajun spices to your rings, have them cooked well done, or order them broken up so they’re more like onion petals than circles. I bypassed these tempting options and ordered them regular this time around. The look: Large and the darkest of the bunch. You can tell they are extra crispy from a glance, and the breading looks a bit coarse. The taste: I didn’t think it was possible, but these onion rings are too crunchy. They hurt my mouth when I went in for a bite. The outer layer is overwhelming and completely swallows up the razor-thin slice of onion beneath it. It felt like I was eating breading that was slightly salted. Somehow, the onion rings were both dry and greasy. You can see how much grease there was in the stains left behind on the parchment paper baggie. Smashburger Since opening its doors in 2007, Smashburger has sold close to 84 million of its OG Classic Smash Burgers. The chain popularized the name and this burger-cooking method of mashing the meat into an ultra-thin patty for a seared and caramelized exterior. The Smash Burger is the most prominent menu item at the chain’s nationwide locations, but every burger, even a smashed one, needs a buddy. The seasoned Smashfries are a common choice. Or, opt for a different fried favorite: onion rings. Only one size option is available for $3.99. I added a side of Smash Sauce for good measure. The look: The coating here is smoother and more uniform, with no crumbs. The batter adheres nicely for minimal mess while snacking in the car. A few pieces, however, looked a bit too crispy and burnt. The taste: They’re not quite limp, but definitely on the softer side—likely a byproduct of the battering method. The breading that butted up against the onion on the inside was a little soggy, and overall the onion flavor is inconspicuous. When dunked in the chain’s signature Smash Sauce—a mayonnaise-based blend with mustard, pickle relish, and other seasonings—the rings are more enticing. But the mediocre texture can’t be overlooked. I think the golden recipe lies somewhere in between the flimsiness of these Smashburger rings and the rigidity of Swensons. Dairy Queen It’s no secret that Dairy Queen is focused on ice cream. The company developed its soft-serve formula in 1938 and has continued to dish out favorites like Buster Bars, Dilly Bars, and Blizzards in troves ever since. For those times when you’re looking for more sustenance, the chain has some tasty foods and snacks on its menu, including Stackburgers, pretzel sticks, chili cheese dogs, and onion rings. Dairy Queen describes these rings as “hot, crispy and tasty,” and “a great addition to any order.” I bought a regular-sized bunch of them for $3.89. The look: Attractive-looking onion rings. Each one is golden brown and generously crusted. Various sizes of the hoops live together in a cute blue serving basket. The taste: I sat at the drive-thru window for a while waiting for these, and they came out hot, straight from the fryer. They are served with a perfect ratio of breading to ring. The onion itself is snappy without being too hard. Plus, I didn’t have to deal with the entire slice coming out in one bite, leaving behind an empty carcass of breading. The only flaw of Dairy Queen’s offering is that there isn’t a lot of seasoning or standout flavor. But all the bones of a good onion ring are there. Culver’s Hailing from the cheese state of Wisconsin, Culver’s now stands as a franchise of nearly 1,000 locations across 26 states. It’s known for its ButterBurgers, fresh frozen custard, and savory sides like George’s chili, cheese curds, and onion rings. The latter is said to be “thick-cut,” “made from whole white onions,” and “battered with a subtle blend of spices.” They also come in medium, large, or family-size quantities—no small orders around here. As I rolled up on a Sunday afternoon, I picked up a medium bag for $3.69 and tacked on a side of Culver’s Signature Sauce, which I thought was complimentary, but it ended up costing an extra 35 cents. The look: Golden brown, but certainly not as thick as the chain led me to believe. They are the thinnest overall in the taste test. But they’re well put together with no breading granules covering the outside. The taste: These were the first onion rings I tasted, and all others paled in comparison. Culver’s fries up the Goldilocks of onion rings. They are the proper balance of breading and onion so that the vegetable isn’t overshadowed. They’re not overly greasy, but enough to be addicting. They were handed to me, sizzling and crisped. I agree with the chain’s description that the included spice blend is “subtle.” They are well-salted, and pairing them with the Signature Sauce was an excellent decision. It’s a creamy, ranch-like sauce with some cheese flavors and a bit of spice. Not what I was expecting, but I was more than pleasantly surprised.

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