The Lure of French Onion Soup

French Onion Soup is perhaps the most iconic and well-traveled of all French dishes. Worldwide it has seduced more stomachs than even our beloved New England clam chowder, which incidentally, is another French export. Onion soup is, as author Robert Courtine suggests, “a daughter of the streets… In her presence, all castes dissolve. Rich and Poor are equal in appetite.” Her simplicity seduces all.

And from the subtle depths of all past ages, the scent of the gratinee is the incense of haves and have-nots together in the dark, together because of the dark. The early to bed know nothing of her. They are the sons of error and is certainty itself.

- Robert Courtine, The Hundred Glories of French Cooking

Hunting For Royal Onion Soup

I once read a legend that onion soup was probably “invented” by Louis the XV and promptly spit up my morning coffee laughing. In this histoire, Louis was out hunting with the boys when they returned to the hunting lodge and found nothing but a couple onions and a bottle of Champagne in the cupboards. What is a poor monarch suppose to do but improvise when confronted with such bare necessities? Laughable at best.

In truth, a version of onion soup has been simmering on stovetops in peasant homes since the dawn of time. A recipe that has much more to do with economy and efficiency, than royal snacks for hunting parties. Nowadays it seems we have this crazy obsession to want to claim everything as the original recipe like somehow it is scientifically traceable to a single, exact defining moment of the onion soup genesis.

The addictive flavor is derived from slowly caramelizing the onions.

The Original Onion Soup

One google search later and you will find at least one hundred recipes claiming to be the original or most authentic. Onion soup, at its very essence, is nothing more than onions and water boiled together. Period, done, finished, everything added from that point on is pure opinion.

Caramelizing the onions brings out sugars, and makes a more luxurious silky and sweet soup, adding flour gently thickens and provides body. Some will argue about whether adding water or stock is more authentic, I say who cares, add chicken or beef stock if you are so inclined, or be like your ancestors and simply use water.

Some people add white wine, red wine or even sherry wine which adds a bit more complexity to the final flavor. I have seen multiple recipes advising milk and dairy products. The late, great chef Escoffier advised using small amounts of bechamel mixed with pureed onions to spread on the toasts before sprinkling them with grated cheese.

And her soul at peace. She cradles a whole world of bohemianism, of merrymaking, of fatigue and encroaching soberness in her sturdy matron’s arms. She consoles, in those small hours, our sickness of heart and disillusions.

— Robert Courtine

Onion soup exudes my free spirit approach to perfect cooking; deeply rooted in the classics but without the constraints of rules and boundaries. Allow the moment to embrace you, let passion dictate your next moves, what is already in your cupboard will more than likely decide the final outcome.

Who knows, maybe Louis the XV did invent it.

The major steps of making classic French Onion Soup.

The Original French Onion Soup Recipe

Whatever the history, try making onion soup at home this weekend. To make it properly will require both time and patience, but the reward will be the incredible smells that fill your home and the pride of making the best onion soup you have ever tasted.

I love to see your takes on my recipes so please hashtag #PistouAndPastis

French Onion Soup

My version of a classic French Onion Soup. I have fantastic childhood memories of going to La Creperie, a small crepe shop on Chicago’s North Side, with my father and watching people savor steaming bowls of cheesy onion soup.

Ingredients

  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • 2 strips bacon diced or sliced
  • 4 sweet onions about 2–2.5 pounds
  • 4 cloves garlic mashed
  • 1 tablespoon flour omit if you are gluten intolerant
  • 1 cup red wine
  • 10 cups chicken stock or water
  • 1 sprig thyme
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 8 croutons see notes
  • 6 ounces Emmental cheese
  • 2 ounces mozzarella

Instructions

  1. Melt butter in a thick bottomed, heavy pan. The weight of the pan matters greatly; the heavier it is, the less chance of scorching the onions during the low and slow cooking for two hours.
  2. Add bacon, and cook till lightly browned.
  3. Add onions and garlic and cook on medium heat for 30 minutes stirring often. The onions will get soft and start to brown slightly.
  4. Turn the heat down, and continue cooking for another 1.5 hours. During this time the onions will get very brown BUT not burnt. The sweetness and richness of flavor comes from this step. Stir quite often.
  5. Sprinkle flour over and stir into onions, if you do not eat gluten you can omit. This step gives onion soup a bit more depth and body.
  6. Add red wine, chicken stock or water, thyme, and bay leaf and simmer for 30 minutes.
  7. You can cook the soup this far and save for another day. The soup should have a beautiful golden brown hue and taste incredible.
  8. Use whatever bowls you have. I tried everything from classic French onion soup bowls to regular bowls to a beautiful Lodge cast iron pot I had sitting on my shelf. Put two croutons per bowl.
  9. Shred the mozzarella and Emmental, Gruyere, or Swiss cheese. I like a ratio of three parts Swiss-type cheese to one part mozzarella. The mozzarella really adds a beautiful molten cheesy quality to it. Add as much cheese as you want.
  10. Put the bowls on a cookie sheet and set under your broiler till golden brown, about five minutes.

Recipe Notes

Cut eight slices of a baguette. Put directly on the oven racks and cook at 350 degrees for 15 minutes. Adjust accordingly to your oven. The goal is lightly browned and completely dried bread.

An easy recipe for chicken stock can be found in my cookbook, Cuisine of the Sun.

My Onion Soup, version two

When the soup is done puree in a blender. The soup will get a creamy look and taste even sweeter. Float toasted croutons topped with one poached egg and grated cheese.

Tuscan Onion Soup, version three

Substitute pancetta for bacon in the original recipe. Half the amount of onions used and add one red onion and one fat leek. When you add the chicken stock and red wine, add a shot of balsamic vinegar. Top with a crouton, sliced Fontina cheese and a dusting of Parmesan.

Written by

My earliest attempt at cookery began with the filleting of my sister's goldfish at age 2 and cooking my pet rabbits by age 7. Life has been downhill ever since.

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