There truly may not be a more comforting and deeply savory dish than French onion soup. While sometimes relegated to a supporting character status as a mere appetizer, this soup soup deserves center stage. When I was in middle school, my friend got me hooked onto French onion and I made it a point to try it at quite literally every restaurant that offered it — and I’ve never looked back.
Built from rich, immensely craveable broth and onions and topped with a cap of bronzed, perfectly crisped cheese, French onion’s hold on the world of ramekins is absolute. Restaurant-style French onion soup, served in a piping hot ramekin with Gruyere melted to the top and sides, is one of the best experiences one can enjoy while eating out.
Making or enjoying it at home, or perhaps even as takeout or delivery, is often another story entirely.
Early in the pandemic, I shifted to ordering French onion soup to enjoy at home, which was was… not nearly as enjoyable. While the soup itself was typically delicious, it was then packaged with sodden, soggy bread and a ball of melted cheese, which certainly caused my enjoyment to dissipate. Furthermore, after giving up red meat, I knew I couldn’t (in good conscience) continue to enjoy this rich, deep soup and all of its accouterments.
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This got me to thinking: what would become of French onion if I were to eschew any-and-all-soggy-bread, remove beef stock and craft the dish at home? It should also go without saying, but I amped the cheese quotient up, too.
Here are the results. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do.
1 stick unsalted butter
1 1/2 to 2 pounds alliums of your choosing (red onions, sweet onions, yellow onions, white onions, leeks, shallots and the like), peeled and thinly sliced
5 to 6 thyme sprigs
No more than a teaspoon or two of vinegar, ideally sherry or black
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce, optional
1/4 vermouth or white wine, optional
4 cups broth, stock, or liquid of your choosing (chicken or turkey broth, Parmigiano stock, roasted garlic base, water, or a combination)
2 to 3 bay leaves
Baguette or bread or your choosing, sliced into 1/2-inch thick slices, ideally about the same shape and size as your serving bowl
1 to 1/2 cups shredded Gruyere or Comte
Grated Parmigiano Reggiano, optional
Chives, finely minced, for garnish
- Using a very large soup or stock pot or Dutch oven, melt the butter over medium heat.
- Add all of your alliums at once, along with the thyme, turn the heat to medium-low and settle in for the long haul. Don’t rush! Also, if the alliums seem to be darkening too much or the pot is getting very full of fond, add a tablespoon of water at a time to help deglaze and loosen things up. Stir throughout, but don’t feel like you need to stand at the stove.
- Once the alliums are super-tender, browned and smelling very aromatic, remove the thyme sprigs, season with salt and add the vinegar of your choosing. Let cook 2 to 3 minutes or until almost evaporated; the alliums should have further darkened. Repeat the process with the vermouth or white wine and/or Worcestershire, if using.
- Add all of your stock, broth, or liquid, as well as the bay leaves, turn the heat to medium-high, cover the pot and let cook another 30 to 45 minutes.
- Toast or broil your baguette slices. Top with cheeses and broil again, just another few minutes, until the cheeses have melted and slightly browned.
- Remove bay leaves from soup, taste soup for seasoning and ladle into large bowls. Top with cheese toast, garnish with chives and serve piping hot.
-Properly caramelized onions need at least 30 to 45 minutes, so find every iota of patience you have and lean into this process. Stay near the kitchen and read a book, scroll through Instagram, play with your puppy, do a puzzle … whatever. Just don’t rush this process; you’ll be a very happy camper later if you abide by these directions.
-I love garlic in soups, but when it comes to French onion, you really want nothing “swimming” around in the broth except for onions. If you’re insistent on garlic flavor, rub some on your baguette toast prior to adding cheese, incorporate a roasted garlic puree of sorts into your broth, or merely sprinkle in some garlic powder before the soup is done cooking.
-I have a strangely sharp aversion to sweet flavors in savory dishes, so I lean into savory flavors as much as possible since caramelized onions are pretty inherently sweet. I do not at all recommend adding sugar, which some recipes do call for, because then your rich, deep, beautiful soup can become a saccharine, strange concoction.
-Since the soup and the toasts are two separate entities here, feel free to utilize that to your advantage and serve this family style. Restaurant-style French onion is iconic served in those ramekins, but doing that at home and with multiple ramekins in a home kitchen oven can be challenging at best or a dangerous mess at worst. If you prefer the idea of a serve-yourself serving bowl with floating cheese toasts instead, that could certainly be a preferable (or more convenient) approach.
-If you are a fan of the bread-at-the-bottom-of-the-bowl component, feel free to throw that in your bowl before ladling any soup in. I would just say don’t worry about toasting it? It seems counter-intuitive to toast a piece of bread to get it crispy — and then pour soup over it. You do you, though!
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