Classic French Onion Soup – mon petit amour!

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(Classic French Onion Soup – ‘my little love’ - recipe in post)
I can still remember the first time I had good French onion soup. Sitting down with a friend on a chilly night, at a fancy little restaurant neither of us had been to before. We unsuspectingly ordered a bowl to share, and I can clearly recall my doubts that a simple soup of onions would satisfy.

The dish arrived, still bubbling and hot. Our spoons dove through the crust of cheese and bread, beneath which I discovered rich, savory broth, sweet caramelized onions, and a mingling of flavors unlike any other. We ate gingerly, savoring each bite, wanting it to last. This was an experience I would later seek out again and again.

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(Thyme Together)
Unfortunately, good French onion soup is hard to find. Restaurants often skimp on the ingredients, short-cut the caramelization, or over-season the finished product. After having my share of salty, watered down broth, I decided to see if I could do justice to my picture-perfect memory of what this soup should be.
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The results did not disappoint. Rich and hearty, this soup warms you through-and-through. It would be perfect for cold winter evenings, brisk fall days, or any time in between. Simple, and simply divine.
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French onion soup can be made with any variety of onions, though yellow are probably the most traditional. Because the long caramelization process brings out so much sweetness already, some prefer not to use sweet varieties. I made my soup especially sweet, and loved it that way – but feel free to use what you have, what you like, or even a combination of different varieties.
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The most important (and most time-consuming) part of making a good French onion soup is proper caramelization. Generally, this would mean standing over the stove for a few hours, slowly wilting and constantly stirring the onions. Here, however, I’ve adapted a recipe from Cook’s Illustrated which suggests doing the bulk of the cooking in the oven, eliminating the need for constant attention and leaving you free to do other things. I found that this method also helps to draw out more flavor, and produced fabulous results.
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Recipe note: to make the soup vegetarian, substitute mushroom (preferred) or vegetable stock – to make it vegan, substitute the butter and cheese with your favorite alternatives.

Classic French Onion Soup
(Adapted from Cook’s Illustrated)
Serves 6
6-8 large sweet or yellow onions (4-5 lbs.), sliced
3 TBSP unsalted butter, cubed
1/4 tsp. sea salt, plus more to taste
1/4 tsp. fresh ground black pepper, plus more to taste
3/4 cup water
1/4 cup white wine (or dry red wine)
1 TBSP balsamic vinegar
1-2 cloves garlic, roughly chopped or minced
1/4 cup dry sherry
4 cups low-sodium chicken stock
3 cups low-sodium beef stock (or use all beef or all chicken, for a richer or lighter soup)
6-8 sprigs fresh thyme, bundled with kitchen twine
1 bay leaf
For serving
1 baguette (or other crusty French bread)
3-4 TBSP olive oil
1 clove garlic, minced
Freshly sliced or grated Gruyere cheese (or Swiss, or Asiago)
Freshly grated Parmesan, optional
Bread bowls for serving in, optional (a small boule of sourdough would be lovely)

Method
Preheat oven to 400f.
Halve or quarter the onions and slice to 1/8th-1/4 inch thickness.
Thoroughly grease (or coat with non-stick cooking spray) the inner sides and bottom of a heavy bottomed pot or lidded Dutch oven. Add the sliced onions, butter, salt, and pepper. Cover and place on the middle rack of your preheated oven, and cook for 60 minutes.
Remove the pot and give the onions a stir – they should be wilted by about half their original volume. Return the lid, leaving it cracked slightly for steam to escape, and cook for another 60 minutes.
Stop again to stir the onions, scraping down the sides of the pot. Return it to the oven once more, lid ajar, and bake for another 30-45 minutes.
At this point the onions should be a light golden brown, with a fair amount of liquid in the bottom of the pot.
Carefully move the pot from the oven to the stove top, and place over medium-high heat. Stirring frequently, cook uncovered for 15-20 minutes, or until the onions begin to deepen in color and stick to the bottom of the pot. This may take more or less time depending on your onions, so keep an eye on things and stir, stir, stir!
Once the moisture is gone and the onions begin to stick, add 1/4 cup of the water to deglaze the pan. Scrape the fond (browned bits) from the bottom with a wooden spoon or spatula, and continue to cook, stirring constantly, until the liquid has completely evaporated. Repeat with another 1/4 cup of water, and finally the last of the water, stirring and letting all of the moisture evaporate between each addition. The onions will turn a very deep, rich brown color. Reduce the heat if necessary to keep them from burning.
Stir in the wine, balsamic vinegar, and garlic. Cook 1-2 minutes, letting the wine reduce slightly.
(Optionally, at this point the onions can be cooled and stored in an airtight container in the fridge for quick soup preparation a day or two later. Continue with the recipe as directed.)
Pour in the stocks and sherry, and add the thyme and bay leaf. Bring to a simmer, then reduce the heat to low. Simmer, uncovered, for 30-35 minutes.
Pull out and discard the thyme and bay leaf, and season to taste with more salt and pepper.
(Optionally, at this point the soup can be cooled and stored in the fridge for up to several days before serving, or can be frozen indefinitely for later use. Chilling overnight will allow the soup to develop more flavor. To serve, continue with the recipe as directed.)
To serve:
Preheat oven to 400f.
In a small dish, whisk together 3-4 TBSP olive oil and 1 clove minced garlic. Set aside (can be covered and set in the fridge for an hour or so ahead for a stronger flavor, but do not make this oil more than a day in advance).
Cut the baguette at an angle into 1/2 inch thick slices (or, chop bread into 1/2 inch cubes to make croutons). Brush both sides (or toss croutons) with the garlic/olive oil, and spread in a single layer on a baking sheet.
Toast for 5-6 minutes, then flip the slices (or stir croutons) and return to the oven for another 3-4 minutes, or until golden and crispy. Remove from the oven and set aside.
Preheat broiler, and check that your rack is positioned so that the tops of your bowls or ramekins will be 5-6 inches from the heating element.
Ladle soup into oven-safe bowls, ramekins, or hollowed-out bread bowls. Top each with slice(s) of toasted bread or croutons, and generously cover with cheese. Optionally, add a pinch of parmesan over the top for a touch more flavor.
Broil until the cheese is bubbly and brown – this should only take a few minutes, so keep a close eye on them!
Serve immediately.
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______________________________________________________
This soup goes out to my friend Jen, who took it upon herself to mail me a box of the sweetest onions I’ve ever tasted.
Texas 1015′s are sheer horticultural brilliance – an incredibly sweet, mild onion that can be found nowhere else in the world. Jen describes the flavor as an ‘onion hug’ and I can’t disagree.
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(Check out Jen’s post about these onions here: “Everything’s Sweeter in Texas“)

Thank you so much for my onion hug, Jen!

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32 Responses to Classic French Onion Soup – mon petit amour!

  1. Jen @ Juanita's Cocina May 10, 2012 at 12:46 am #

    I think you did your onion hug justice.

    I wish I could have some now.

    • Willow May 10, 2012 at 12:56 am #

      I wish I had some left-over to send you!! I still have an onion left, just have to figure out how to use it. :D

  2. D B May 10, 2012 at 4:19 am #

    Wow! This sounds like a lot of work and perfect for my own website. I’ve resisted French Onion Soup recipes primarily because I don’t have oven safe bowls. Wish I could’ve tasted it.

    • Willow May 10, 2012 at 11:20 am #

      It is quite time consuming, but the oven method makes caramelizing the onions much simpler.

      If you don’t have oven safe bowls, you can melt cheese over the toasted bread or croutons, and then simply add them on top of a hot bowl of soup. Would be just as tasty, for sure. :)

  3. Julia @The Roasted Root May 10, 2012 at 5:28 am #

    I have had a serious craving for French onion soup lately…there really is nothing like it! So comforting with all sorts of different tastes and textures. Your recipe and photos are gorgeous!

    • Willow May 10, 2012 at 11:20 am #

      Many thanks! It really is a special dish. :)

  4. Sunday Morning Banana Pancakes May 10, 2012 at 5:27 pm #

    I love French Onion Soup, I remember my first time making this – it was a vegetarian version as a first course for my Dad’s Birthday, it was so AMAZING, I used both vidalia, red onion and yellow onions. I absolutely love the tip of slow roasting in the oven – I have yet to make french onion soup since the last time due to the amount of time it takes to carmalize the onions…I see a whole lotta french onion soup in my ver bear future.

    Loving the mood of the photos – beautifully done Willow!

    • Willow May 10, 2012 at 7:40 pm #

      Nice! It does take a while, but it is so worth it.

      And thank you so much! I was lucky with the lighting, for sure. :)

  5. From Valeries Kitchen May 11, 2012 at 10:30 pm #

    These pictures are amazing Willow! French onion soup is divine and yours looks perfect.

  6. OCFoodBlogger May 12, 2012 at 7:38 am #

    One of my favorite soups. Thanks for sharing!

    • Willow May 13, 2012 at 1:58 pm #

      Mine too! No problem. :)

  7. Kat May 12, 2012 at 2:19 pm #

    I always love a good French onion soup. You’re absolutely right – they’re hard to come by if you’re looking for a really good one, which is a shame because it’s fairly simple to make (even if it takes a while). Your gorgeous photographs are really making me want to make one (if it wasn’t 80 degrees today)!

    • Willow May 13, 2012 at 1:59 pm #

      Wow, that is way too hot to be caramelizing onions, haha! Thank you, though… I was quite pleased with my pictures this time. Perhaps I’m improving? *Hopeful*

  8. Renee @ Tortillas and Honey May 14, 2012 at 8:55 pm #

    Your photos are always gorgeous and make me want to eat everything you photograph. French onion soup is one of my favorites, I can eat it any time!

  9. Ritroviamoci in Cucina May 15, 2012 at 11:09 am #

    My boyfriend loves this soup and he ate it in Paris whenever he could with the excuse of the cold weather.
    You version is amazing and I can say without a doubt that is the most appetizing I’ve seen from blogs.
    I’ve never prepared because I was unsure of how to achieve coverage of bread and cheese, but now that I have seen your I will prepare it for Fabio.

    • Willow May 15, 2012 at 12:57 pm #

      Wow, thank you so much! I hope your boyfriend enjoys it! :D

  10. Kelly | Eat Yourself Skinny May 15, 2012 at 7:57 pm #

    What a fabulous recipe, this looks absolutely delicious!! :)

  11. Janet@FCTC May 17, 2012 at 11:06 pm #

    I think I want to give an onion hug to that soup… but that would probably be messy, huh? Ok, I’ll just eat a bowl..or six..of it. Looks wonderful!

  12. Jennie @themessybakerblog May 18, 2012 at 4:27 pm #

    Yum! French onion soup is one of my all-time favorite soups. This looks absolutely delicious. Your photos are beautiful.

  13. Vijay @ NoshOn.It October 24, 2012 at 8:19 pm #

    This looks so good and love the oven technique. So much more fool proof than having to keep an eye on the stove and worry about burning. Also, we’d love to get in touch about featuring you on NoshOn.It but couldn’t find an email address =)

    • Willow October 24, 2012 at 8:32 pm #

      Wow, thank you so much! I would love to work something out – I sent you a direct message on twitter with my e-mail in it. Let me know if it doesn’t come through, or if I should contact you some other way. :)

    • Vijay October 26, 2012 at 8:57 pm #

      Thanks Willow! Will shoot you an email.

  14. Alex January 30, 2013 at 2:00 pm #

    Willow, I wanted to let you know that two of my family members have made your onion soup on separate occasions.

    The first time was by my brother-in-law’s mother in Montreal. She made it for their family’s Christmas dinner. They said it was “the best onion soup they’ve ever had!”

    My brother just made it last night for his wife’s birthday dinner. She emailed me this morning to tell me it was “soooo delicious!”

    • Willow January 30, 2013 at 5:19 pm #

      Wow – thanks! I’m glad it’s been such a hit. :)

  15. Carole June 30, 2013 at 3:00 am #

    Lovely, Willow. Merci beaucoup

  16. Graham August 17, 2014 at 8:38 pm #

    Quite a few years back (1975) as we young Australians travelled rather rough through Malaysia and Thailand then down the Mekong River into Laos and landed in the provincial capital Luang_Prabang. Searching for eats we walked into this charming little French eatery and was served French Onion Soup…..as it turned out a dish to die for. Until this day I have tried it so many times to find that experience again and tried to make it from a range of recipes but I could never get anywhere near to that amazing experience we had all those years ago. Your full explanation of how to prepare a masterpiece is well laid out here and the photographs themselves make me very keen to create this dish for my family. Thank you Willow for sharing so much detail of this treasure with us.

    • Willow August 18, 2014 at 11:23 am #

      You’re so welcome! I hope this recipe lives up to your memories of it, if you try it. It’s one of my favorites!

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