I am furious with myself for never once thinking to make fried pickled red onions until recently. I’m chalking this up to the fact that I don’t enjoy deep frying in my tiny kitchen. It’s always such a production, what with the hot oil and the temperature control and the grease particles making everything a mess. But since I’ve allowed the awesome majestic glory of the air fryer into my heart, I’m much more into the idea of making tiny crispy doodads. I do not use my air fryer under the guise of making “healthy” fried food—I do it because it makes things easier. Air fryers are tiny high-speed convection ovens, not gimmicks, and they’re well worth checking out if you’re curious.
(An aside: There’s not a particular brand of air fryer I’m comfortable with recommending, as I’ve only used one, which I received compliments of Dash. It’s a 3-quart basket model, and though I have no complaints with the way it cooks, it’s a wee bit small for a family of five.)
There’s quite a few places in this recipe where you can choose your own adventure, so don’t worry if you won’t have the exact ingredients on hand. When picking a vinegar to use, don’t go with anything too fancy, like champagne, or too flavorful, like balsamic. I like using red wine vinegar, but have also had nice results with white wine, rice wine, and apple cider vinegars. If you don’t have all the spices this calls for, don’t worry about it—just taste things as you go. For the breading, a happy accident helped me build a better recipe. In my first batch test I used panko, which I normally use whenever I’m making crispy little doodads. For the second batch test I was unable to replenish my panko supply (thanks, panko hoarders!), but luckily I found a bag of cornbread stuffing mix hiding in the back of my cabinet. I crushed it using a rolling pin, added chili powder and a few other spices, and it made for an equally excellent breading that complemented the pickled onion flavor quite nicely. You can also use any sort of crushed-up cracker you have on hand, because the panko hoarders might have made their way to your neighborhood, and it’s best to be prepared.
For the onions:
- 2 lbs. medium-ish red onions (the kind that come in the mesh bag work nicely)
- 2 1/2 cups vinegar (see headnote for types)
- 1 1/2 cups water
- 1/2 cup white sugar
- 1/3 cup kosher salt
- 2 Tbsp. dried oregano
- 1 Tbsp. garlic powder
- 1 1/2 tsp. whole black peppercorns, or 3/4 tsp. coarsely ground black pepper
- 3 bay leaves
For the breading:
- 2 eggs
- 1 Tbsp. water
- 1 Tbsp. pickle brine
- 1 1/2 cups flour
- 2 cups panko breadcrumbs or crushed cornbread stuffing mix
- 4 tsp. chili powder, divided
- 2 tsp. garlic powder, divided
- 2 tsp. cumin, divided
- 1 1/2 tsp. kosher salt, divided
- 2-4 Tbsp. olive oil
Cilantro Ranch Dressing
- 1/2 cup sour cream
- 3 Tbsp. milk
- Juice of 1 small lime or lemon
- 2 Tbsp. dried chives
- 2 tsp. garlic powder
- 1 tsp. onion powder
- A palmful of chopped cilantro leaves and stems (a bit less than 1/4 cup, though there’s no need to be exact)
- 3/4 tsp. kosher salt, plus more to taste
Use a sharp knife to trim the tops and bottoms off each red onion, then split them in half and place on your cutting board cut-side down. Remove the outer layer with the peel, then French the onion into wedges between 1/2-1" thick. Holding the onion together and flat against the board, insert a toothpick through each wedge to hold all the layers together. Put the toothpicked onion wedges into a flat-bottomed container with a lid.
Bring the vinegar and water to a boil in a saucepan over high heat, then stir in the sugar and salt until fully dissolved. Remove from the heat, add the oregano, garlic powder, peppercorns, and bay leaves, and let steep for 5 minutes. Pour over the red onions, cover, and refrigerate for at least four hours—preferably overnight.
Once pickled, remove the onions from the brine* and put on a baking sheet lined with 3-4 layers of paper towels. Let the onions sit out for about 20 minutes to air dry.
Next, set up a breading station. In a narrow glass or mug, whisk together the eggs, pickle brine, and water until smooth. In a shallow bowl, use a fork to stir the flour with half the chili powder, garlic powder, cumin, and salt. In another bowl, toss the panko/crushed cornbread stuffing with olive oil, adding a tablespoon at a time until the crumbs are glistening, but do not stick together. Add the remaining salt and spices, and toss well to combine.
Preheat your air fryer to 375 degrees. Handling them by their toothpicks. dredge the onions well in the flour mixture, then give them a little shake to knock off any excess. Dunk them up and down a few times in the egg mixture, making sure they’re completely coated, then move into the breadcrumbs. Bury the onions in crumbs, gently pressing down with your hand to make sure they stick, then move the breaded onions to a plate.
When you have enough breaded onion pieces to comfortably fit into your air fryer (or convection oven), you can start cooking. When arranging the onions it’s okay if some of them are touching, but don’t overcrowd them, since you need the hot air to be able to blow around them. Precise cooking times will differ depending on the model of air fryer you have, so check them after 5 minutes, then add more time as you see fit. While the first batch cooks, finish breading the remainder of the onions.
While you wait for the final batch of pickled onions to finish air frying, make the cilantro ranch dressing by whisking all the ingredients (the sour cream, milk, lime juice, chives, garlic powder, onion powder, cilantro, and salt) together, then adjust the seasonings to taste.
*Note: Don’t throw out the brine! Add more red onions, or other vegetables, to make a new batch of pickles. If you’re good on pickles for the time being, then use it in a salad dressing or marinade.