French onion soup
French onion soup and fond memories
When my husband and I were in our early 20's we were both living in Honolulu. He was starting out as a very underpaid lawyer and part-time gardener, and I was waiting tables to pay for college. So there wasn't much extra cash to go around. There was a very chichi French restaurant called The Bistro that offered a late night special after 10 p.m. The after-dinner $10 special included Caesar salad, classic French onion soup and Peach Melba. In the late 70's this was heady stuff. It was our favorite splurge. So whenever I think of French onion soup, I think of our on-a-tight-budget, but very romantic dates, back in the day.
The secret to great French onion soup
French onion soup, on the surface, is a very simple soup made of onions, broth, bread and cheese. There is one key step that delineates the line between an oh-my-gosh-this-is-delicious French onion soup and a watery-flavorless-really? French onion soup. The secret is patient, fastidious and slow caramelizing of the onions.
You can't rush great onions. And you need the right pot. Use something large, heavy and substantial. Do not use a non-stick pan. Non-stick pans will not caramelize. My favorite pan for caramelizing onions is my Le Creuset Dutch oven, but you can also use a well-seasoned cast iron skillet or a heavy-gauged stainless steel pan.
Caramelizing onions doesn't take a a lot of skill, but it does take a tremendous amount of patience. Working on a medium or lower heat, plan on spending a good 45 minutes or more caramelizing the onions. Seriously. And you need to be attentive and stir them frequently, or you will wind up with unusable burnt onions. This is a particular tragedy when it occurs late in the game. I have been there and tossed pans full of onions. It still hurts!
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Why go through this laborious process for a lowly onion?
Because caramelizing onions is transformational. You start with a crisp, eye-watering, astringent bulb, and with a little heat, patience and love, you get sweet strands of mellow goodness that enhance everything they touch - soup, sandwiches, pizza, potatoes, salad, pasta, steak, chicken....you name it. If you are working on a tight budget, learning to properly caramelize onions is a great technique for adding high-value, low-cost flavor to your meals. See my recipe for Caramelized onions for more tips.
- Slice your onions one of two ways: Stem-to-stern, or in rings. Stem-to-stern are easier to eat, but I personally like the rings for the way they catch the melting cheese in the finished soup.
- If you are making a double batch, caramelize the onions in two pans. Once the onions are done, you can combine the onions in one pan before adding the stock.
- To help the caramelization process along, you can add a pinch of sugar to the onions about 10 minutes into the caramelization process.
- If onion bits start to stick to the bottom, you can deglaze with a splash of water, wine or stock and use a wooden spoon to scrape up the bits. Feel free to do this as many times as needed during the process. This is one of the ways you build flavor into the soup.
- The time to caramelize will vary depending on a variety of factors including: the age of the onion, the heat of your burner and the gauge of your pan. It is up to you how far you take them. You will know they are done when they taste sweet and wonderful.
- You can use red or white wine, and chicken or beef stock. I prefer to use red wine and a 2:1 ratio of chicken to beef stock, but this is all a matter of preference, or what you have on hand.
- You need to use a proper French onion soup bowl that will withstand the heat of the broiler. There are a couple options that can be purchased online, with handles and without handles.
- If you don't have proper bowls, melt the cheese on the bread on a baking sheet and then top each soup bowl with a melty piece of cheese and bread.
- Don't go overboard with the cheese. Many restaurants use too much cheese, making it more cheese soup than onion soup. You want to taste the onions you worked so hard on.
- French onion soup freezes well. I always make a double batch. When I go through the trouble of caramelizing all those onions, I want to get a couple meals out of my time.
This French onion soup recipe
This French onion soup recipe evolved over time and after trying many recipes. The addition of a spoonful of dijon mustard comes from a May 1991 Bon Appetit recipe by Eleanor Moscatel. It is unique for French onion soup, but I think it adds good complexity. I sometimes add a splash of balsamic vinegar or a splash of worcestershire sauce, if I feel the soup needs a little more umami oomph.
A meal in itself
For me, French onion soup is virtually a meal in itself, or can be accompanied by a light salad. Nothing is better on a cool winter's night, or a balmy Hawaiian evening, when you are young, in love and broke.
- 2½ pounds yellow onions, sliced
- 1 T olive oil
- 2 T butter
- 2 cloves garlic (optional)
- 1 pinch salt
- 1 sprig thyme
- 1 pinch sugar (optional)
- ½ cup red or white wine
- 3 cups chicken stock
- 2 cups beef stock
- 1 t dijon mustard
- 1 T balsamic vinegar (optional)
- ½ t Worcestershire sauce (optional)
- Salt and pepper
- 4 slices French bread
- 1 cup grated gruyere cheese
- ½ cup grated parmesan cheese
- Melt the butter and olive oil together over medium heat. When the fat is hot, add your onions and stir to coat well. Add a pinch of salt and a sprig of thyme and cook for about 10 minutes, stirring frequently. During the first 10 or so minutes, the onions will soften and release water.
- Add garlic, stir and continue cooking for another 20 to 50 minutes, stirring frequently. You can add a pinch of sugar to help the process along. Turn down the heat if the onions start to brown too rapidly. When they start to stick to the pan, deglaze with a little bit of wine, water or broth. You want your onions to slowly darken and never burn or crisp.
- When the onions are done, add the wine and deglaze the pan by scraping up any bits that are stuck to the bottom of the pan. Cook for a minute or two and add your stock and mustard. Bring to a boil and turn down the heat to low and cook for about 10 minutes. Taste and adjust flavor using salt, pepper, balsamic vinegar and Worcestershire sauce.
- Heat the broiler to high and toast the bread on both sides until golden brown. Pour the hot soup into oven proof bowls. Float a slice of bread on top of the soup. Put a quarter cup of gruyere and 2 T grated parmesan on top of each slice of bread. Pop it in the oven several inches below the broiler and melt cheese for 2-3 minutes until brown and bubbly.
THIS SERVES WELL WITH