It somehow amuses me how a basic dish for poor people managed to become gourmet. If you didn’t know it, find out that onion soup was a popular dish in ancient Rome. Onions were widely available and very easy to grow, so one didn’t need to have advanced gardening skills to be able to cultivate onions in their own backyard.
Another interesting finding is that the word “soup” comes from the Latin “suppa”, which means “bread soaked in a broth”. So, croutons are also originating from ancient soups.
The modern version of this onion soup with beef broth and croutons was born in the 18th century, in France, hence the name “French onion soup”.
What makes a good French onion soup recipe? Although the ingredients are pretty much standard, not everybody can cook a delicious onion soup. Some chefs claim the secret lays in the cooking time, because caramelized onions make the difference, therefore it’s important to cook the onions as slowly as possible to unleash all their wonderful flavors. Caramelization is the process in which the onions are very slowly cooked in olive oil or butter, with the purpose of bringing out the flavors of onions sugars. After the onions turn brown, wine is used to deglaze the skillet and to enhance the flavors.
The French onion soup is made from beef broth and caramelized onions, served with croutons and cheese toppings. The most popular cheese used to top the French onion soup is Gruyere. Various recipes, though, use other types of good melting cheese such as Swiss cheese, mozzarella, Cheddar or even parmesan.
The easiest French onion soup recipe is the one that uses canned beef broth or beef stock and dehydrated onion soup mix. Although it’s easy to just buy, heat and mix, I’m not a big fan of such ingredients which may be full of preservatives, thus not so good for you. I’m for the old-fashioned cooking style, which means starting from scratch and using fresh foods as much as possible.
Ingredients for 4 persons:
- 5 yellow onions, medium sized (sweet onions are best)
- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 2-3 sprigs fresh thyme (if you can’t find it fresh, replace with 1 teaspoon of dried thyme)
- 4 cups homemade beef broth
- 1/2 cup dry red wine
- 4-5 garlic cloves, minced
- 4 slices of white bread, toasted
- 1/2 cup Gruyere or Emmentaler cheese, grated
- salt, pepper
Get five medium-sized yellow onions:
Cut the onions in halves, peel them and slice them thinly. You don’t need to worry too much about how the slices look like, because you’re going to cook them for a long time anyway.
I have to tell you that my chopping board is small, so what you see in the above photo is only a part of the whole quantity. This is how five chopped onions look like:
In a heavy bottomed cast iron skillet, heat the olive oil, then add the onions and a bit of salt. I used a large, thick-bottomed stainless steel pot, as you can see from the image above.
Saute the onions over medium to low heat, stirring from time to time. After 1-2 minutes, set the heat to low, cover and cook for about 15-20 minutes. Don’t stir too often, because you do want the onions to turn brown and to caramelize.
After the onions get brown, add the fresh thyme and the garlic. Gradually pour the wine and scrape the burnt onions off the skillet bottom.
Keep on cooking and stirring for a few more minutes. Pour the beef broth, add a bit of salt and freshly ground black pepper. Cover and bring to a boil. If the soup is dark brown, you know you’ve done a great job with caramelizing the onions.
Ladle the soup into four oven-proof soup bowls, making sure to put some of the caramelized onions in each bowl. If you have a traditional onion soup bowl set, use it, because those bowls have a special shape that makes the soup stay hot until the last spoon. Float the toast croutons, one on top of each soup bowl. Lay the grated cheese on top of the croutons. I found it easier to first set the grated cheese on the toast, then place it on the soup.
Put the soup bowls in the oven and broil them until the cheese melts and starts to get brown spots. This will happen in less than one minute. Make sure to closely watch the food at this stage, because it’s extremely easy to burn the cheese and spoil the whole meal.
This last photo was taken with the soup still in the oven, just before it was done. The cheese had already melted, but it looked like it was going to sink, so there wasn’t time for a proper table setup before taking the final shot.