French Onion Soup

French Onion Soup (Soupe a L'oignon gratinee)

It’s the middle of summer and over 90 degrees outside, but I had to make French Onion Soup as a prop for a photoshoot… And it was worth every drop of sweat. Sure, I could have mocked something up with watered down coffee, bread, and cheese, but a fake dish never looks quite as delicious as the real thing and I figured if I was going to take the time to fake something, I may as well take a little more time and do it right.

A good French Onion Soup (a.k.a. soupe à l’oignon gratinée) has a crisp layer of bread topped with a layer of crusty caramelized cheese. Poking a spoon through the crust reveals a deep-brown bottomless pit of flavor that hammers home the rich beefy stock made sweet and nutty from caramelized onions. Because there are so few ingredients, the trick is to get the onions caramelized all the way, and to use a good beef stock.

Onion Soup is such a simple dish, and yet it always amazes me how poorly most restaurants make it. There’s not much to it, but it does take a bit of time to make properly, so most restaurants cheat by adding too much sugar, excess salt, or MSG so they can get away with not caramelizing the onions all the way. These shortcuts result in a soup that’s too sweet, too salty, or unnervingly good tasting. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of saving time, but not at the expense of flavor.

To save a little time in my version of french onion soup (without giving up any flavor), I slice my onions very thin with a mandoline, then add salt and just a bit of sugar to speed up the process. For both caramelization and the Maillard reaction to take place, the onions need to get up above the boiling temperature of water. As long as the onions contain their natural moisture, they will not brown evenly. Slicing the onions thin, helps the water escape more quickly and evenly, and the salt draws the moisture out of the onions through osmosis.

caramelized onions for soup

Ideally you want to get the onions as brown as possible before adding the stock. The problem is that the browned bits stuck to the bottom of the pan will start burning before the onions reach their full potential, so I deglaze the pan once with sherry to slow down the reaction and to scrape the darkest bits off the bottom of the pan. This should get you a pot full of mahogany brown onions that are glistening with butter, and sticky from the concentration of caramelized sugar.

Since making stock from scratch would take all day, I start with a high quality packaged stock and add a spoonful of demi-glace (concentrated veal stock), to round out the flavor of the soup. Some might call this sacrilege, but the six hours saved is worth any minor degradation in flavor.

French Onion Soup

4 large yellow onions sliced very thin
4 tablespoons of butter
1 tablespoon Kosher salt
1 tablespoon sugar

1/4 cup dry sherry
1 quart good quality beef stock
1 tablespoon of demi-glace (optional)
1/2 teaspoon dried marjoram
1 bay leaf
black pepper
salt to taste

8-12 slices of baguette sliced 1/2″ thick and lightly toasted
6 ounces grated Comté (a.k.a. Gruyere) cheese

To make the onions caramelize relatively quickly and evenly, use a mandolin to slice the onions very thin. The idea is to evaporate as much water as possible, and caramelize the sugars in the onions without burning them.

Add the butter to a large dutch over and melt. Add the onions, salt and sugar and cook over medium high heat, stirring occasionally until the onions are wilted and just starting to turn brown (about 20-30 minutes). Turn down the heat and continue caramelizing, stirring frequently to prevent burning (about 30-40 minutes).

When the onions are sticky, glossy, and a medium brown, add the sherry. Deglaze the pan by scrapping up all the browned bits from the bottom of the pot and reduce again, until the onions are sticky, glossy and dark brown (about 10 minutes). Add the beef stock, demi-glace, marjoram, bay leaf, then salt and pepper to taste. When salting, keep in mind the soup will reduce a bit when you’re melting the cheese on top, so don’t make it too salty. Let this simmer for about 10-15 minutes for all the flavors to meld.

Ladle the onion soup into broiler-safe ramekins, crocks, or mini cocottes (there should be enough soup for 4-6 individual servings depending on the size of your bowls). Don’t fill the containers all the way. Top with the soup with 2-3 slices of toasted bread and push them into the soup. Top the soup with a generous helping of cheese.

Place your ramekins on a baking sheet. Move the oven rack to the top position, and turn on the boiler. Put the baking sheet in the oven with the French Onion Soup directly below the heating element. Keep an eye on them to prevent burning and broil until the cheese is hot, and bubbly, and lightly browned. Serve right away.

  • http://www.blissfullyunrefined.com Shea M @ Blissfully Unrefined

    If anything on this green Earth could be called food porn, it’s that photo of the caramelized onions. Really, there is very little in the world that’s better than a quality French Onion Soup (although they do make a very nice version in southwest Germany that’s also pretty good, but lighter). Thanks for this – except the fact that now I’m craving a big deep bowl of the stuff. I refuse to thank you for an unindulgeable (is that a word?) craving!

  • http://squirrelbread.wordpress.com/ heather

    i can always count on your posts for gorgeous photos and delicious recipes. who can resist french onion soup, even if it’s H-O-T?!

    cheers,

    *heather*

  • Peter G

    This soup looks perfect for the current cooler weather here…great tips and your first pic is very droolworthy!

  • Jcarden

    Marc, another HOME RUN from your personal recipes! I love soup, no matter what time of year, and will definitely make your French Onion Soup this week! The weather is over 100 degrees here, but it’s nice and cool inside!

  • http://www.maameemoomoo.com/blog Maameemoomoo

    I so feel like having this right now. It’s midnight and i want your French Onion Soup!

  • http://karmaperdiem.wordpress.com/ Lisa McB.

    I don’t care that it’s 105 outside. Need French Onion Soup immediately!

  • Barbara @ VinoLuciStyle

    I have what I think is the most amazing recipe for onion soup; sooo am pretty tickled to see yours and just how similar they are! White wine in mine vs sherry in yours and mine sits overnight before serving. It’s from a restaurant that was in a premier store in St Louis when I was growing up; the store is now gone but the recipe and the memories of my co-workers chowing down on at least a bowl a week…priceless.

    Fabulous pictures; makes me wish I had a bag of onions here right now!

  • http://chewonthatblog.com Kathryn

    That looks delish! You should try my favorite split pea soup with kielbasa- it amazing!

  • Seriouslysoupy

    Oh, I love this one! Looks delicious.

    Seriously Soupy

  • http://www.tomatokumato.com Emiglia

    This looks positively sinful.

  • L. Lapierre

    I love your recipe. It is the true and true french onion soup. I have also made it with amber beer. It is not bad but not as good as with the sherry.

  • Annie

    How do you keep the bread from getting soggy though? That’s MY problem…please write back to help, thanks! xrsize2@aol.com

    • Anonymous

      It’s supposed to get soggy on the bottom, but the hot oil from the melting
      cheese should crisp the top layer of the bread.

  • SkibumJH

    Onions are currently on our 2 burner stove. We are relaxing after a full day of field work and backpacking up to 11, 500 feet. The tundra lab on Niwot ridge in Colorados Front Range is a nice haven from the 25 degree temps and 30 mph winds. The smell of the onions fill the lab and we cannot wait to enjoy the filling soup. Another day of field work awaits us tomorrow and the melted cheese, butter, and french baguette we hauled up the mountain with us will help keep us warm. Awesomeness!

    • http://norecipes.com Marc Matsumoto

      Wow awesome! Thanks for sharing your story. Hope the soup helped keep you guys warm. Be safe!

  • Regina

    That was the best soup I ever made !

  • Regina

    But I used red wine instead of sherry

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  • Lyn

    Hi Marc, I can’t consume alcohol, so would you have an alternative for that dry sherry?

    • http://norecipes.com Marc Matsumoto

      Hi Lyn, the alcohol burns off, so there won’t be any in the soup by the time you eat it. That said, if you don’t want to keep the sherry around, you can just leave it out. It’s there to provide flavor so the soup’s going to taste a little flatter without it, but it will still be good.

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