Thursday, January 14, 2010

French Onion Soup, the ultimate slow food that can’t be rushed.

Over the holidays, when we were snowbound and had plenty of time to make lunch, I jumped at the opportunity to make French Onion Soup—or at least, some poor misguided soul’s idea of onion soup.   The recipe, clipped from a magazine I’ve since tossed, claimed you could enjoy France’s gift to soup tureens everywhere in 30 minutes.  Tasting nothing like any version of onion soup, foreign or domestic, that I’ve ever had, this flour-y insipid brew was a huge disappointment and a waste of time.  Some things should never be rushed.  French Onion Soup is one of them.
  There’s a lot of lore behind the soup.  Some of it revolves around a bistro called “Au Pied de Cochon”, which was located just outside Les Halles, the once famous and now defunct meat and vegetable market in the center of Paris.  The restaurant served as an intersection of people going to work in the market who, in the pre-dawn hours, started their day at “Au Pied” and a posh crowd who flocked there after a late evening out.  Mingling with the butchers and market workers, the glam crowd tucked into bowls of “Soupe a l’Oignon Gratinee”.  Les Halles closed in 1974, replaced by a ugly mall.  From everything I read, the bistro’s food has gone as far downhill as the neighborhood.  Coasting on its now 35 year old reputation, "Au Pied de Cochon" is one tourist trap to avoid.  But there’s really no need to when you can make spectacular onion soup at home.
        There’s surprising uniformity in recipes for French Onion Soup. The only dissent is whether to use beef or chicken stocks.  I go for beef.  I like the heartier flavor. And I believe the original "Au Pied" recipe, made so close the meat market, used beef in its stock.  However, both Larousse and Patricia Wells, the brilliant American transplant who writes and cooks there, swears by chicken stock; vegetarians can likely use vegetable stock.  The important ingredients are the onions, the ‘croute’ and the cheese that tops it.        

        According the Larousse, the word “soupe” originally referred to the slice of bread, ‘la croute’, that was put in the bottom of bowl and the contents of the cooking pot, “la potage”, was then poured over it.  “Soupe” and “Potage” are now synonymous but, because of the presence of the bread, French Onion Soup is always referred to as “Soupe a l'oignon gratinee

My choice of onions for this soup are the sweetest you can find:
Vidalias are perfect.  When my parents lived in Atlanta, stockings-full of Vidalia onions would make their way north.  I do mean stockings-full.  My mother’s method of keeping onions was to tie them individually in old sheer nylon stockings in a kind of chain.  You’d lop one off as needed.  It worked but it was a relief to not have hose hanging in the kitchen when Vidalias finally became widely available here in New York. 
The most important thing here is to cook the onions to a point at which they virtually melt and caramelize. This has to be done slowly, as slowly as possible.  Exercising great patience shouldn’t be too hard.  Aside from an occasional stir, you can pretty much leave them on low for an hour and they’ll very gradually take on a golden tone.  I’d say the whole process from slicing the onions to putting the soup on the table is a 2 hour deal.  And worth every minute.  Here’s the recipe:

Recipe for French Onion Soup “Soupe a l’oignon gratinee”
2 lbs. of sweet onions, halved lengthwise, then thinly sliced lengthwise.
        3 sprigs of fresh thyme
        2 bay leaves
        ¾ tsp. salt
        4 tbsp. unsalted butter
        2 tsp. flour
        ¾ cup of dry white wine
        4 cups reduced sodium beef broth or stock
        1 ½ cups water
        ½ tsp black pepper
        4 slices of baguette, cut on the diagonal, ¾ inch thick
        ½ lb piece of Gruyere, Comte or Emmenthal
        4 tbsp. finely grated Parmigiano-Reggianno*
Special Equipment:  Ovenproof bowls, preferably porcellaine.**

1. Put the onions, butter, thyme, bay leaves and salt in a heavy pot.  (An enameled cast iron pot would be ideal).
Heat over a moderate to low flame, uncovered, stirring every so often until the onions are golden brown and very soft. (About 1 hour).  The thyme will have separated from the stems so fish out the thyme stems, leaving the bay leaves to be removed later.

  1. 2. Add the flour and cook, stirring until all traces are mixed with the onions.  About 1 minute.  Stir in the wine and cook, stirring, for 2 minutes.  Stir in the broth, water, pepper and simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally for 30 minutes.


 Toast the slices of baguette either in a 350 degree oven or in your toaster.  This is to dry them out a bit.  Remove them from the oven or toaster and put one in each crock or ovenproof bowl.  Put the crocks in a shallow baking pan.
4. Discard the bay leaves and divide the soup among the bowls.  Slice the cheese to cover the tops of the crocks and overhang slightly.  Sprinkle with Parmigiano and broil for 1 to 2 mins.
5. Served with a green salad, this is hearty and satisfying lunch or dinner dish.
6. This recipe can easily be doubled, the extra soup frozen to be ready in no time for unexpected guests or just a hankering for a warm bowl of soup.

** There was a period of time when I made onion soup so often, I stocked both our kitchens with individual Apilco Lion Head crocks.  They are wonderful for pot pies and get a lot more use than I imagined.  You can order them right here.  



  1. Sounds delicious! There's nothing better than French Onion soup on a cold Winters day.

  2. You're spot on with your recipe and comments about onion soup. We invented a fabulous twist at our Wine Bar/Restaurant in Montréal "Le Carafon". While we were finishing the interior prior to opening, some innocent American tourists wandered in, thinking we were open. It was lunch time, so I offered to feed them; offer eagerly accepted. It was Soupe à l'Oignon gratinée. JUst about to plonk it under the salamander when I realised I had forgotten to include the obligatory dash of brandy in the lunch portions I had just taken from the big pot. Lifted up the baguette slice and chucked in a teaspoonful. This worked so well that it spawned the subsequent practice of having a kitchen spray bottle of cognac at hand, and each baguette got a wee whoosh just before the gratinating process. it saved a hell of a lot of brandy, and the effect was miraculous. As you plunged in through the melted cheese the aroma of vapourised brandy was intoxicating! Far greater effect than ten times as much dumped into the soup. Try it, your guests will love it. And, by the way, I still believe the best topping is a good Cheddar. Canadian is excellent, though you poor yanks don't have anything resembling real hard Cheddar unless it is imported. Sorry about that; you just don't have the knack for good cheese. Simon Stracey

    1. Tillamook cheddar, preferably aged white.

  3. Our cheese problems stem from the fact that absolutely everything in this country has to be pasteurized. There's no raw milk allowed and not even imported cheese can pass muster here unless it tows the line. But fortunately, there's enough good imported Gruyere and Emmenthal that we can make a good gratinee. Although, on your advice, I'll try some Canadian cheddar. I just got some marvellous New Zealand Cheddar which was a special at Whole Foods.