One of my favorite soups is French onion. I love onions in general, but when you combine them with beef stock and cheese, it is heaven. If onion soup is on the menu, chances are I will order it. One of our local restaurants that we enjoy serves the most amazing onion soup I have ever tasted. It has a very deeply flavored stock that is balanced by the onions rather than overwhelmed by them. I haven’t been able to talk them out of their secrets yet, but if I do, you’ll be the first to know!
Onion soup goes back many centuries to Roman times and has been popular ever since. It began as a peasant soup because onions were plentiful and easy to grow. The modern version that we know today was developed in 18th century France. If fell out of favor for awhile until it resurfaced in the 1960’s with America’s new-found fascination with French foods. We can thank Julia Child for onion soup being on nearly every menu in this country.
There are three main components of French onion soup – the stock, sherry, and onions. If any of them are inferior, your final soup will be too. If you can, make your own stock, and if time is short, buy the best quality you can afford and boost it with demi glace if you can. Using beef stock is the most traditional, and in my opinion, the best because it stands up to the onions better than chicken stock. If you are not a meat-eater, feel free to substitute chicken, turkey, or vegetable stock.
When any recipe calls for wine or other alcohol, don’t even consider using anything called “Cooking Wine” or an equivalent. It is better to use nothing than an imitation product. If you wouldn’t pour a glass and drink it yourself or serve it to guests, it doesn’t belong in your food!! You don’t have to spend $60 on a bottle, but try to find something that tastes good. An inexpensive alternative that I do endorse is dry vermouth. It is called a “fortified wine” which basically means it has flavorful ingredients added. At only about $3 per bottle, I keep several on hand and use it regularly.
Finally, the onions are obviously of paramount importance. Using a couple of different types lets you add complexity to a deceptively simple recipe. Did you know that each type of onion varies in flavor? You should do a side-by-side taste test to see which ones you like the best. Remember that sometimes you will want a sharper flavor, other times a milder one is better. Of the regularly available types of onions, the green onions (often called scallions), leeks (look like huge scallions), and red onions tend to be sweeter. The white and yellow onions are hotter and more pungent. If a recipe calls for a specific type, try to use it. The recipe writer/developer has combined the ingredients to complement that particular flavor.
Essential to the development of flavor, caramelizing the onions is a lengthy step that cannot be rushed. Onions, like most ingredients, contain natural sugars. When heated, the sugars oxidize, resulting in the familiar nutty flavor and deep brown color. Before caramelization can start, you have to “sweat” the onions which releases their liquid, allowing it to evaporate. If the heat is too high or you try to hurry this step, you risk burning the onions. Once burned – even if only a few – you must throw them all out and start over. Take your time, stir the onions regularly, and keep the heat low. You will be rewarded with the perfect caramelized onions!
To serve, ladle the soup into bowls, top with a toasted piece of bread (called a crouton), sprinkle with shredded cheese, and place under the broiler to melt the cheese. The classic choice of cheese is Gruyere, a form of Swiss cheese. Named for the district in Switzerland where it was first made, Gruyere is a hard yellow cow’s milk cheese that is tangy and melts easily. The strong flavor helps offset the sweetness of the onions.
When you are selecting your serving bowls for this soup, you need something that is ovenproof so you can put the bowls under the broiler to melt the cheese. To make it easier and safer to transfer the bowls from the oven to the table, most have either one or two handles. Here’s a fun trivia item … when a bowl has handles on either side they are called ears! Some of the specialty bowls have lids which are fun to use when serving because it is always fun to lift the lid and discover what tempting morsels await.
When you are looking for an elegant first course that will impress, French onion soup is a winner every time!
Jane’s Tips and Hints:
If you don’t own ovenproof bowls, you can set the croutons onto a baking sheet, top with the cheese, and broil until melted. Carefully transfer to the bowls of soup and then serve.
- 4 oz butter (1 stick) or olive oil
- 4 large red onions, sliced lengthwise into 1/4-inch thick pieces, cut those in half crosswise
- 2 large yellow onions, sliced lengthwise into 1/4-inch thick pieces, cut those in half crosswise
- 4 leeks, dark greens discarded, remaining rinsed well to remove grit* and sliced into rings
- 2 garlic cloves, finely minced, optional
- 1 tbsp balsamic vinegar, or to taste
- 1 cup dry vermouth or white wine
- Kitchen twine
- 1 bay leaf
- 8 sprigs fresh thyme or 1 tsp dried thyme leaves
- 8 cups (2 quarts) good quality beef stock, preferably homemade, or chicken stock
- 1 tsp beef or veal demi glace
- Loaf of French bread or baguette, sliced (see comments below)
- Shredded Gruyere or Swiss cheese, about 12 to 16 oz
- In a large Dutch oven or large stockpot, heat the butter over medium heat until melted and just starting to brown. Stir in the onions and cook for about 10 minutes until wilted. Add leeks and cook until evenly deep golden brown, stirring occasionally, about 30 to 45 minutes. Push the onions to one side and add the garlic, stirring, until fragrant, about 30 seconds.
- Add the vinegar and vermouth to deglaze the pan, scraping up all the good browned bits on the bottom. You can use a heatproof spatula to help get in all the corners. Cook until most of liquid has been absorbed or cooked off, about 2 minutes.
- Use the kitchen twine to tie the bay leaf and thyme sprigs together, leaving a length of twine to tie to the handle of the pot (making it easier to retrieve later). Add the stock, bay leaf and thyme to the pot and stir to combine. Reduce heat to low and cook at a slow simmer (bubbles will break the surface, but not vigorously) for about 45 minutes. Skim any foam that rises to the surface and discard. Remove the herbs, taste the soup, and adjust as needed with salt and pepper.
- Meanwhile, prepare the crouton toppings. Traditionally bowls are topped with a single piece of bread with cheese melted on top. I personally hate struggling to cut the crouton once it is in the bowl with the soup, so I prefer to cut the bread into cubes, toast them, and top the soup with the cubes. Either way, the bread should be toasted before adding to the soup. If you are like me and enjoy having bread with your soup, you can pass a basket of toasted bread cubes and extra shredded cheese for people to add their own
- Preheat the broiler and carefully toast the slices or cubes of bread. Remove from oven and set aside. Ladle soup into ovenproof crocks or bowls. Top with croutons and mound each with shredded cheese. Place on a baking sheet and pop under the broiler until the cheese is melted and starting to brown in spots. Carefully remove from oven and serve immediately.
- If you don’t own ovenproof bowls, you can set the croutons onto a baking sheet, top with the cheese, and broil until melted. Carefully transfer to the bowls of soup and then serve. Be careful, the soup is boiling hot and will burn you badly if you spill it!
- * To Clean Leeks: Leeks are grown in sandy soil and collect copious amounts of sediment as they grow. To clean them, trim off all the dark green leaves (you can use these to flavor stocks but they are too tough to eat) and discard. Split the leek lengthwise in half, cutting through the light green portion only. The white portion grows too tightly together to collect sediment. Rinse leeks well under running water, separating the leaves to remove as much grit and dirt as possible.
- Fill a large bowl with cool water. Slice leeks into rings and place in water. Swish around to release any grit and dirt. Set the bowl aside for 10 to 15 minutes. Impurities will settle to the bottom and the leeks will float. Using your hands, very carefully lift the leeks out of the water and place in a bowl. Follow recipe directions for cooking.
- Yield: about 8 servings