Why Southerners Love Sweet Onion Sandwiches

The sweet onion sandwich is a Southern tradition that hinges on the Vidalia onion.

Vidalia Onion Tea Sandwich
Photo: Sheri Castle

Serving raw onion sandwiches at a fancy party might sound like a plot from a silly sitcom, but come Vidalia season, it's a story with a happy ending.

The Distinctive Vidalia

Vidalia onions are the benchmark for sweet and mild onions in the South. They come from a specific area in Georgia, and only there. Although sweet onions grow elsewhere, the distinctive taste and demeanor of a Vidalia is derived from the combination of weather and soil found in only twenty South Georgia counties. These prized onions are Georgia's official state vegetable.

Vidalias are available within a limited window from April to August. The Vidalia Onion Committee announces each year when the season starts, and that could be anywhere from mid to late April. Get them while you can.

At one time people had to go all the way to Georgia to fetch these onions, so prized that there are stories of women wrapping each onion in a lace doily or linen napkin and nestling them in the drawers of the china cabinet for safe keeping. We can now find authentic Vidalia onions in many grocery stores. Look for their distinctive flat, squat shape and read the labels to ensure you're getting the real deal.

WATCH: What Exactly Is A Vidalia Onion?

Bite Into A Vidalia

These onions are exceptionally mild and juicy. Some people say that you can eat them like an apple, and although that might (might) be a bit of an exaggeration, it is true that they are delicious when eaten raw, with none of the sulphurous bite and lingering aftertaste of the average uncooked onion. A Vidalia is more likely to inspire tears of joy than make us cry.

Their polite disposition makes Vidalia onions ideal for onion sandwiches. Yes, raw onion sandwiches are a thing, not a stunt. Legendary cook and food writer James Beard and his catering company famously served onion cocktail sandwiches to the New York social scene. He was quoted as saying "I could easily make a whole meal of onion sandwiches, for to me they are one of the greatest treats I know."

vidalia onion

Sweet Onion Sandwich Magic

The premise of an onion sandwich is simple: rounds of raw onion are tucked between slices of crustless white bread spread generously with mayonnaise, including the edges, which are coated in finely chopped fresh parsley. (Think of fancy cucumber tea sandwiches to serve at a party or shower, but made with sweet, crisp, tender onions.) We don't know whether James Beard ever used Vidalia onions in his sandwiches, but it's probably safe to say he would have approved.

Beard's recipe calls for slices of buttery brioche or challah, although any high-quality tender white sandwich bread will do. Trim away the crusts, at a minimum, although you'll earn style extra points for stamping out rounds when serving these at a party. Beard also stated a preference for homemade mayonnaise, although these days most of us turn (with great loyalty) to our favorite brand of bottled mayo.

More Onion Sandwich Tips

Slice the onion crosswise into rounds that are thick enough to hold together, but thin enough to bite easily. Ideally the onion slices and bread rounds are the same diameter, although you can arrange slices as needed to cover the bread. (Call on your experience with making tomato sandwiches, here. The onion should be sliced, never diced.)

Please don't skip the parsleyed edges, which are there for more than looks alone; the bright herbal notes of finely chopped fresh parsley go beautifully with the crisp onion. A smattering of flaky salt does, as well.

As with most tea sandwiches, you can assemble them a few hours ahead if you keep them covered (so the edges of the bread won't dry out) and refrigerated until time to serve.

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