When I was a student living in England, French onion soup was considered the height of sophistication. Having just visited Paris and tasted the extraordinary version at Les Halles, I produced my own budget interpretation. I cooked some onions, added a can or two of beef broth, grated whatever cheese I had on top and served it with toasted bread. Sophisticated, indeed.
Nowadays, it’s just the sort of comfort food we need as we deal with the chills of fall and the lurking presence of COVID-19.
Some tips on ingredients and preparation:
Use regular cooking onions, instead of sweet or red onions, which have too much sugar for a balanced flavour. I find Spanish to be a little sweet for my taste, but they are perfectly fine if that is your preference. And proper caramelization of the onions is key. Cook them slowly until they become a deep brown. Too high a heat burns, too low means they take too long. They should take approximately an hour or so to brown on medium to medium-low heat. As you need a lot of onions, I find it easiest to slice on a small, handheld mandoline such as the one made by Oxo Good Grips. It is a real boon in the kitchen.
The stock is crucial. Although homemade beef stock is best, I get a good result using organic beef broth from Better than Bouillon. I’ve also made the soup with chicken stock, though it is not quite as rich.
When it comes to cheese, gruyere is the top choice, but you can use any cheese that melts well, such as cheddar. I have had versions made with blue cheese, but I found its strong flavour distracted from the oniony goodness. I like to add some Parmesan, but only when mixed with gruyere.
And this soup cries out for baguette, brushed with garlicky oil and baked in the oven. The bread’s texture holds the cheese and takes longer to go soggy in the soup. White sourdough works as well.
My French onion soup
To make the croutes, preheat oven to 400 F. Mix 1 teaspoon crushed garlic in 1/4 cup olive oil. Cut a baguette into 8 half-inch thick slices. Brush both sides with the garlic oil. Bake for about 10 to 15 minutes, turning once, or until golden. Grate 100 grams gruyere cheese. Sprinkle 3 tablespoons on each bread slice and top with some grated Parmesan if desired. Reserve.
Melt 3 tablespoons butter and 1 tablespoon olive oil over medium heat. Add 5 to 6 cups thinly sliced cooking onions (about 2 lbs) and sprinkle with salt, which helps extract some of the liquid. Reduce heat to medium-low and cook, stirring frequently, for 45 minutes or until the onions are an even, golden brown. Remove from heat and add 1 tablespoon good-quality balsamic vinegar and half a cup of dry cider or dry white wine. Bring to a boil, reduce for a couple of minutes then add 3 cups of stock. Simmer 30 to 40 minutes, partially covered, or until the soup is full-flavoured. Season well with salt and pepper. Adding some cognac is optional.
Broil the cheesy bread slices separately and place one in each of four bowls. Top with soup. Add 2 or 3 more dollops of cheese on top and broil for about 1 to 2 minutes, watching carefully. Serve the second croute on the side.
For a different look and taste, puree the soup in a food processor or blender and top with chopped chorizo and shredded Taleggio or comte cheese.
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