Jan has been cooking and writing about food for over 20 years. She has cooked on multiple television stations, including the Food Network.
Classic French Onion Soup
When I was a little girl, my daddy lived in Birmingham, Alabama. As a confirmed foodie, he faithfully explored every restaurant he could find, and the area was blessed with a profusion of great places to eat. I loved my visits with him because we would eat out at every meal, fostering the fledgling foodie in me.
Being the 1970s, quite a few restaurants had what they considered to be a somewhat French influence, and there was French onion soup everywhere. I went through a period of ordering it every time I saw it, having fallen absolutely in love with the tang of Gruyere, the buttery lusciousness of the toasted cheese, the salty bite of parmesan, and the silky sweetness of caramelized onions. It wasn’t long, though, before I realized that the recipes varied tremendously and some places just didn't get it right.
Eventually, I was able to distinguish why some onion soups were very good and others weren’t worth washing a dish over. It comes down to three elements; the onions, the broth, and the cheese.
Like many of the most delicious things in the world, classic French onion soup is a study in simplicity. It requires treating each ingredient exactly right and asking them to talk to you. At each step, pretend you are coaxing a shy date, and your soup will reward you with a conversation in the end that’s unparalleled. This dish isn’t quick, but it’s extremely simple, and while a couple of steps take some time, none of them take much attention or work. In the end, you’ll have an authentic soup that is complex, layered, bursting with flavor, and more fabulous than you could believe. I love great food, but I hate fussy food, and this is just about the perfect embodiment of that!
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To make this soup absolutely fabulous—the kind of fabulous that makes you close your eyes and make little "mm-hmm" sounds—you’ll need to pay attention to three tricks.
Tips for Making the Best Authentic French Onion Soup
- Make sure you take the time to allow your onions to fully caramelize with the herbs. The full, rich sweetness can’t be rushed. You don’t have to hover over it though—do something else, come back every few minutes, give it a stir and it’ll do its thing.
- Use homemade beef stock. I make almost all of my own broth, both chicken and beef. If you must use commercial stuff, spring for the best you can buy. It’s a major flavor component, so this isn’t the place to skimp.
- The no-skimping rule applies to the cheese as well. Because so much of this dish is inexpensive, try to splurge on good cheese. Look for a great Swiss, Gruyere, Emmentaler, etc. Under no circumstances use the pre-sliced Swiss cheeses–you may as well just pour your soup down the drain if you get that chintzy. A piece of good cheese can run about $10; it’s not something you’d buy every day, but since the entire pot–enough to serve 8 people—costs about $15, I spring for the good stuff, even as stingy as I am with the food budget.
Give this classic recipe a try—you’ll be surprised at what fabulous, authentic flavor you can get with such easy, accessible ingredients!
- 1/2 cup (1 stick) butter
- 4 medium onions, thinly sliced
- 2 large garlic cloves, finely minced
- 2 bay leaves
- 2 fresh thyme sprigs, or 1 teaspoon dried thyme
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1 cup red wine—cabernet or merlot
- ¼ cup all-purpose flour
- 2 quarts homemade beef broth
- 1 baguette, sliced
- 1/2 pound grated Gruyere
- ¼ cup grated Parmesan
- In a Dutch oven over medium heat, melt butter. Add onion, garlic, bay leaves, thyme, salt, and pepper. Cook for approximately half an hour, stirring occasionally, until the onions are soft, deep golden brown, and very fragrant.
- Add the red wine and simmer until the wine has evaporated, about 10 minutes. If you’d like, toss in the bay leaves and thyme sprigs. (I usually forget to remove the bay so I’ve made it a game: whichever kiddo gets the bay leaf gets to make a wish.)
- Carefully sprinkle the flour over the onions a bit at a time, stirring well, until all of the flour is incorporated. I like to use a mesh strainer to really sprinkle it on without lumps. Reduce heat to low, and cook for about 5 minutes or so.
- Stir in beef broth and bring the pot to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Season to taste with salt and freshly cracked black pepper.
- Preheat oven to 350°F. Slice the baguette into 1 inch slices and toast them in the oven for about 10 minutes, or until very dry.
- Turn oven to broiler. Place 1-2 toasted baguette slices into each bowl, then ladle hot soup over the top of the bread. On top of that, sprinkle a generous handful of the Gruyere and sprinkle with the Parmesan. Carefully place bowl under the broiler and broil until the cheese is golden brown and bubbly.
© 2012 Jan Charles