French Onion Soup

Introduction

You'd think I would have grown up on French Onion Soup and to be honest, I don't particularly remember instances of Onion Soup being a thing in our home — in Alsace we tend to go for hearty, meaty stews. Onion Soup is very much more a thing if you're from Paris or the Lyon area, so I admit I came to appreciate Onion Soup a bit later in life.

A properly made french onion soup is a joy to behold and an interesting experiment in food chemistry if you consider the simplicity of the ingredients — all you have to work with is some onions, stock and a bit of wine (discussed below) and that's it. Heat does the rest. What happens is that the onions are cooked very slowly, and they release their sugar over an hour or so.

I devised this recipe after quizzing various members of my family and friends as to what they believe traditional onion soup is supposed to be like — and also after having a better understanding of how heat affects ingredients. You need to accept that patience is key here. Do not try to speed things up — some recipes call for browning the butter, as well as browning the onions on high heat. You don't need to do any of that and it will not taste good. 

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The WHICH-WINE-SHOULD-I-USE debate

Depending on who you ask, you will get a different answer — some people favour red wine (or red wine-based stock), some will use white wine.

When you consider what happens during the onion soup cook — the onions can get much sweeter depending on the types of onions you use. You want to balance this with a bit of acidity. Using red wine will bring tannins to the soup which you don't particularly want — or maybe you do if that's your thing — while using white wine will add a bit of fruity acidity. 

There has been "research" done on the subject suggesting white wine is the best option — and I'm definitely with Julia Child and Raymond Blanc on that front. I will use a dry but fruity white wine — such as a Riesling. I have also been known to use left-over Rosé in a pinch. But I'll never use red wine. The trick to getting that "onion soup" taste if to add a little bit of sherry or Calvados to the white wine.

That said, Onion Soup has a fairly deep flavour because of the onions and the beef broth,  so when serving your soup, you should absolutely pair a red wine with it — it can be however sweet or dry as you like, but it needs to be a viscous, deep red: Pinot Noir, Beaujolais, Shiraz.

Making croutons

What's a french onion soup without bread "croutons". As a child, I remember our family having the stereotypical wooden baguette box, which was replenished every day with a fresh baguette from the local baker — and older baguettes left to go stale to make the occasional French Toast, or for adding to soups.

I personally don't bother adding bread to onion soup — and that's very much a personal preference — but if you're patient enough and want to do this the right way, get a baguette from the supermarket, leave it to go stale for a couple of days, cube it roughly into 1-inch cubes and apply grated gruyere on top and cook in the oven at 180ºC for 5-10 minutes in the oven before adding to your onion soup.

PREPARING THE ONIONS

With so few ingredients, texture is important — you must cut the onions the right way to get that "stringy" onion mouth feel.

Start by cutting the onions in half lengthways — as shown here. Then slice then as thinly as you can. If you do it this way, you'll end up with lots of thin and long onion strips. And this is what you want.

STEP BY STEP

  1. Start with a large saucepan with a lid — at least 3L. You want a COLD start, so don't turn the heat up yet.
  2. Slice the onions as above. Add to the pan.
  3. Dice the butter and add to the onions, stir them in.
  4. Start on a low heat and wait until the butter has melted
  5. Have a glass of white wine while you're waiting. This will take a little while. You're waiting for the onions to start to caramelise a little bit — once they go translucent after 10-15 mins, wait until they catch a little and add a small pinch of salt to prevent them from burning. Then wait for another 5-10 mins until they brown a little more
  6. Add the glass of white wine, stir immediately
  7. Add 4 tbsp of Worcester sauce 
  8. (optional) Add a glug of sherry (about 70-80 mL) 
  9. Leave it to cook for 5 minutes
  10. Add the pint of stock
  11. Increase the heat to high, bring to a boil. Then immediately go back to a low heat
  12. Put the lid on
  13. Leave it alone for at least 30 mins
  14. When you come back to it, the soup will have turned a deep, brown colour. Stir and you could choose to cook it for another 30-60 minutes from this point if you have the time, stirring every 20-30 mins or so.
  15. Add the rest of the sherry, leave it to cook off for 2-3 mins
  16. Serve with grated cheese on top (which is my personal preference)
  17. For a more "traditional" version: bake the cubed baguette on a baking tray lined with parchment paper as indicated in the section above, then laddle the soup into your dishes, top the soup with the cheesy croutons, grate a bit more cheese on top and cook in the oven at 180ºC for 5-10 minutes before serving immediately.

Ingredients

Serves 2.

  • 2 white onions
  • 1 red onion
  • 250 mL white wine (Riesling or other dry & fruity wine)
  • 1 pint beef stock
  • 4 tsp Worcestershire sauce
  • (optional) 150 mL Sherry (I find Amontillado best) — or a bit of Calvados

For topping:

  • A strong, mature cheese: French gruyère, comté, a mature cheddar and / or a bit of freshly grated parmesan
  • Cubed stale French baguette (1" cubes)