Onion is among my favorite flavors, right after almond, cardamom, and garlic. Fortunately, it’s also one of the basic components of savory recipes, especially soups, and when making a sauté, braise, or poach, one must always keep onions in mind, even if they make you cry (tears of joy because they are so delicious.)
The best thing about onion soup, aside from the sumptuous beef stock, is the simplicity. I am all about simplicity. Give me a recipe with ten ingredients and I’ll try to make it just as well with five. Emphasis on the word “try,” of course. You could easily make this recipe more complicated, and you can even make it simpler than I do (though you may regret it if you do.) Unlike with those ingredient-heavy poached salmons and technique-intensive braised chickens, though, french onion soup is really a two-step deal: cook the onions on low, simmer the stock on low. The low-and-slow technique really draws out the flavors from the onions, shallots, garlic, and herbs, and simmering helps intensify the wine and stock flavors.
Skipping past all of that mumbo-whatsit, onion soup, while it can take a while (1-2 hours at least for a really good dish), is really just a long period of doing nothing. Normally when I plan a meal, I can only manage 1-2 things from scratch, because by the time those two things are prepped, I’m too tired to prep anything else but salad from a box. Moreover, some dishes require delicate timing so they’re still warm when it’s time to dig in, or precise timing so they don’t burn or explode before they’re ready. The balancing act of getting dishes started and finished is exhausting, and some evenings I give up and only serve one thing, with a side of kale. Onion soup, though, is mostly waiting, with the occasional checking and tasting.
Let’s say you wanted to serve homemade bread with your soup. Prepare the dough either in the morning or the day before and leave it in the fridge. Start by heating the oil and slicing the onions. While the onions are caramelizing, shape your dough (stacked rolls for brioche, loaf pan for focaccia, misshapen slabs for ciabatta, etc.) The dough can proof a second time while the onions are cooking, and now you can prep the rest of your soup ingredients. Maybe you want some protein, too. Pull your (thawed/not frozen) steak, fish, chicken, whatever out of the fridge at any point while the onions are still cooking (or even before), and get that ready (rinse, dry, whatever needs to be done.) Now you have soup base going on the stove, meat drying and coming to room temperature, and bread proofing, and you don’t even need to have the oven preheating yet!
Most recently, I made brioche dough the day before the soup, and while the onions and shallot cooked, I prepped the dough in fluted brioche cups, then put them in the oven (at 80 degrees F/ C) to rise. While the dough was rising and the onions were caramelizing, I was getting all the rest of the soup ingredients ready and washing the dishes. I also had fillets of fish drying off and warming up at the same time. After adding the garlic, flour, wine, and beef stock for the soup, I took the dough out of the oven and set the oven to preheat, assembled a salad, and even assembled dessert, which I put into the freezer until it was ready to bake. I seasoned the fish, and after the oven was fully preheated and the soup had been simmering for ~20 minutes, I heated up the oil in my cast iron skillet for searing the fillets, set out plates, bowls, and utensils, and cleaned up my mess. Everything was able to come out at the same time without all the running around and hair-tearing and inside-crying that usually happens when I cook.
You can prepare not just one entire meal, but more than one, while you make french onion soup and that, in addition to the taste, is why I love it so much.
I have on and off problems with lactose intolerance. Some days, dairy is deadly, while others, I frolic around the dairy fields, carefree and crap-free. Pills help, depending on how far I am towards the “dairy bad” side of the spectrum (some days, the pills do jack squat to keep me from the Irish sport of stomach hurling.) I try to be pretty strict about dairy (and I usually fail), and because the last time I made this soup, I had already prepared lemon oregano brioche buns, I decided just to do the soup without the cheese and toast. It’s still just as delectable.
Not only can you make the soup sans cheese, but you can also make it vegetarian or vegan by swapping out other soup stocks (mushroom, for example) and replacing the butter with other oils. Beware, though, that a lot of grocery-store mushroom stock has beef in it. I would recommend making your own mushroom or onion stock (or a combination!) Vegetable stock works, as well, but the flavor is very bright and tart compared to the beef stock and caramelized onions.
french onion soup
1 T light olive oil, or any other refined oil
1 T unsalted butter
2 yellow onions
3 – 5 cloves garlic, plus one extra for toast if using
1 T all-purpose flour
1 c dry white wine (eg., Pinot Grigio)
4 c (1 quart) unsalted beef stock
1 – 2 rosemary sprigs (with or without leaves)
coarse sea salt
Heat oil and butter in a stock pot on low-medium heat.
Thinly slice onions and shallot and add to the pot. Stir occasionally (every ~10 minutes.) Let the onions and shallot cook until sufficiently brown and soft, 30 – 45 minutes.
Mince garlic and sauté with the onions and shallot for a few minutes. When you can start to smell the garlic, add flour and whisk well. Let everything cook for a minute or two. The flour and butter form a roux and help thicken the soup.
Pour in the wine, bring to a simmer, and reduce slightly, then add the stock and bring to a boil. When boiling, throw in the rosemary sprigs. Reduce the heat and simmer for 30 – 45 minutes, tasting occasionally and adding salt for flavor.
If doing gratinée
4 – 8 slices of baguette
2 – 4 cups of shredded cheese (parmesan, mozzarella, gruyere, etc.)
1 T unsalted butter, melted, or 1 T olive oil
1 clove garlic, or 1 T garlic salt
Once the soup is simmering, preheat the oven to 375 F/ C.
Arrange the baguette slices on a baking sheet and brush with melted butter or oil.
Crush the garlic clove, if using, and rub onto the baguette slices, or sprinkle the slices with garlic salt. Toast for 5 – 10 minutes until just starting to turn golden.
Remove the bread and turn the oven up to 450 – 500 F/ C, or preheat the broiler.
Divide the soup into oven-safe bowls (ceramic or stoneware), top with 1 – 2 slices of baguette each, and sprinkle cheese liberally on top to cover the whole surface of the soup.
Toast/broil the soup in the oven or broiler until cheese is melted, bubbling, and a little golden brown. Serve garnished with rosemary leaves, black pepper, parsley, or any other desired herb.
Bon appetit, mes chers!