French Onion Soup

French Onion SoupI took a French cooking class last week, and first up on the menu was French onion soup. I have always loved a good French onion soup, but remembered that I didn’t like it much when I made it years ago. This version was much better, so I wanted to give it another try at home. Using Cook’s Illustrated’s easy, hands-off method for caramelizing onions and some ideas from the class, I set out to make another batch. Not only was it a success, but I really think it was one of the best I have ever had. For the best flavor, make the soup a day or two in advance of serving.

French Onion Soup

Soup:
2 T unsalted butter
1 t vegetable oil (optional)
2 lbs yellow onions* (about 4 large or 6 medium onions)
½ t salt
½-¾ C water for deglazing
2 T dry sherry
4 C chicken broth**
4 C beef broth**
1 sprig fresh thyme
Salt and black pepper to taste

*Do not use sweet onions like Vidalia or Walla Walla, or the soup will be too sweet
**Make each type of broth by stirring 3 t of each Penzey’s soup base into 4 C boiling water; otherwise, use 28-32 oz of each type of canned/boxed broth (Swanson’s brand is best)

Croutons:
1 small baguette, cut into ¼ inch slices
8 oz Swiss cheese (or Gruyère), sliced

Slice the onions. Slice the onions from pole to pole, rather than across the equator. The onions will hold up better when sliced in this direction.

Caramelize the onions. Use either my easy oven method (takes longer but is mostly hands-free), or this traditional stovetop method (takes less time but is more involved): on the stovetop, in a 3 quart saucepan or larger, melt the butter and oil over medium-high heat. Add the onions, stir to coat, and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 30 minutes. Do not let the onions scorch. When they start to brown, reduce heat to medium-low and scrape the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon. Scrape it hard, and scrape everything off the bottom. Continue to cook, stirring and really scraping every few minutes, until the onions are a deep brown, about 40 minutes more.

Deglaze the pan. Add ¼ C water to the hot pan of caramelized onions and scrape the bottom of the pan to loosen the crust. Cook until the water evaporates and more crust has formed, about 6 to 8 minutes. Repeat the process two to three more times, until the onions are very dark brown.

Make the soup. Add the sherry and cook, stirring, until it completely evaporates, about 2 to 3 minutes. Add the thyme and stir in both broths, then scrape up any remaining brown crust from the bottom and sides of pot. Bring to a boil and then reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, 20 to 30 minutes. Remove the sprig of thyme and season with salt and pepper to taste. (For the best flavor, the soup may be cooled at this point, then refrigerated and served a day or two later.)

Make the croutons. Slice a baguette into ¼” slices and toast both sides by placing them in a single layer on a baking sheet. Either bake them at 400 degrees F, or place them under the broiler until the bread is dry, crisp, and golden at edges, about 10 minutes. Turn and toast the other side until lightly browned. Set aside. Alternatively, smaller batches of bread can be toasted in a toaster oven until browned.

To serve: French onion soup is traditionally served in heavy crocks, which can withstand the heat of a broiler. If you don’t have these, or aren’t sure, just use regular soup bowls.

If using regular soup bowls: adjust oven rack about 6 inches from the broiler and heat broiler. Place the croutons on a baking sheet lined with foil. Top each crouton with cheese, completely covering it, so no exposed bread burns. Broil until the cheese is melted, bubbly, and brown, 3 to 5 minutes. Peel the melted cheese and crouton off the foil and float on top of the soup.

If using broiler-safe crocks: adjust oven rack about 6 inches from the broiler and heat broiler. Set the crocks on a baking sheet lined with foil and fill each almost to the top. Place the croutons on top of the soup, but do not overlap them. Top the bowl with the slice of cheese, allowing it to overhang, completely covering the crouton, so no exposed bread burns. Broil until cheese is melted, bubbly around edges, and browned, about 3 to 5 minutes. Let cool 5 minutes before serving.

Recipe adapted from Cook’s Illustrated and Chef Jeff Sandino of Flavors From the Home.

 

Step by Step Details

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Slice about 2 pounds of onions. Trim the poles, halve the onion (pole to pole) and slice the onions pole to pole, rather than across the equator. The onions will hold up better when sliced in this direction. (See my quick tip for dicing onions for help in finding the poles and equator.)

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You should have enough onions to nearly fill a 3 or 3½ quart pot.

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Next, caramelize the onions. This step is going to consume the bulk of your prep time, so you may want to do it a few days ahead. I use an easy oven method, described here. It takes longer than the traditional stovetop method outlined in the recipe above, but it requires a lot less hands-on effort.  Either method will magically shrink all those onions down to a mere handful.

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The next step is to deglaze the pan, where adding a little liquid and stirring a lot will loosen all that dark baked-on crust. This crust is called “fond,” which is easy to remember because we are all “fond” of flavor, and that’s what it is: lots and lots of flavor.

To deglaze, add about ¼ C water to the hot pan of caramelized onions.

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Cook and scrape the bottom of the pan to loosen the crust until the water evaporates and more crust has formed, about 6 to 8 minutes. Repeat the process two to three more times, until the onions are very dark brown.

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Now it’s time to turn this gloppy, fragrant mess into soup. Add the sherry and cook, stirring, until it completely evaporates, about 2 to 3 minutes.

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For any kind of broth in recipes, I love using Penzey’s soup bases. It’s like Broth On Demand.

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For this recipe, I stirred in 3 t each of the chicken and the beef base into 8 C of boiling water, to make kind of a beefy-chicken broth. No need to keep the broths separate, since they are both going in the same place anyway.

Add the thyme and stir in both broths.

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Scrape up any remaining brown crust from the bottom and sides of pot.

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Bring the mixture to a boil. When it gets a little frothy, reduce the heat and simmer, uncovered, 20 to 30 minutes.

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Remove the sprig of thyme and season with salt and pepper to taste. (For the best flavor, the soup may be cooled at this point, then refrigerated and served a day or two later.)

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To make the croutons, slice a baguette into ¼” slices.

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Toast both sides. Place them in a single layer on a baking sheet. Either bake them at 400 degrees F or place them under the broiler. Toast them until the bread is dry, crisp, and golden at edges, about 10 minutes. Turn and toast the other side until lightly browned.

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Alternatively, smaller batches of the bread can be toasted in a toaster oven until browned on both sides. Just watch them carefully. My first batch was black and smoking in no time.

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Set the toasted croutons aside. Break off any blackened bits.

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Slice the cheese, if you aren’t using pre-sliced cheese. Slicing a softer cheese like this was really kind of a pain, so I recommend just buying it sliced.

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French onion soup is traditionally served in those big, heavy crocks, which can withstand the heat of a broiler. If you don’t have these, or aren’t sure if yours are broiler safe, just use regular bowls. Adjust an oven rack about 6 inches from the broiler element, and heat the broiler.

If using broiler-safe crocks:

Set the crocks on a baking sheet lined with foil and fill each almost to the top. I can’t remember why I lined this with foil. Probably for easy cleanup of spills and melted cheese.

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Place the croutons on top of the soup, but do not overlap them or crowd the top. I got lucky and happened to have bread the same size as my crock.

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Top the crock with the cheese, allowing it to overhang, completely covering the crouton, so no exposed bread burns. I even patch up the holes with little bits from the corners. You just can’t be too careful, right? Besides, once it’s melted, no one will know.

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Place the baking sheet under the broiler. Don’t drop it. Oops.

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Now I remember why I lined the baking sheet with foil…

Load it up again and place it under the broiler. Carefully. I repeat, don’t drop it.

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Broil until the cheese is melted, bubbly around edges, and browned, about 3 to 5 minutes.

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You might get a crouton poking up a bit out of the bowl. That’s no big deal.

Let the soup cool 5 minutes before serving, and be careful lifting the crocks off the foil – they will be very hot. Serve the soup with French colors for added authenticity. Enjoy!

French Onion Soup

If using regular soup bowls:

Place the croutons on a baking sheet lined with foil. Top each crouton with cheese, completely covering it, so no exposed bread burns.

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Broil until the cheese is melted, bubbly, and brown, 3 to 5 minutes.

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Use a spatula to lift the melted cheese and crouton off the foil in one piece, like the fried egg it resembles, and place it on top of the soup. Enjoy!

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6 thoughts on “French Onion Soup

  1. Making this right now, sounds like a good Sunday night supper! And the long caramelizing process (even though I’m just using the stovetop method) leaves me lots of time to peruse the rest of your blog : )

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