When I think about French onion soup, I immediateley think of the 1960s and 1970s, when Julia Child introduced French cooking to the American masses and people still had formal dinner parties. My mother would make French onion soup as a special starter to the dinner parties she and my father hosted. The scene was so elegant as I peered over the edge of the table as my mother set it.
Elegant French onion soup comes from humble roots
When a friend brought some French onion soup to an impromptu gathering recently, I was reminded how much I like it. It's definitely going back on my regular menu rotation - for everyday elegance.
Ironically, for something that seems quite elegant now, centuries ago, onion soup was seen as peasant food because the basic ingredients were so plentiful, easy to grow, and, well, cheap. Even the addition of some bread on top is a nod to frugality since it is a great way to use some stale bread that would otherwise go to waste.
French onion soup is a culinary paradox
It's simple and complex all at once. You can create a very good soup very quickly, or you can spend extra time and make it extra wonderful. You can also go too far and completely overwhelm it.
The key is in cooking the onions
The basic and most key technique for French onion soup is caramelizing the onions. This part cannot be rushed. Cooking the sliced onions slowly in butter to bring out the sugars is what makes the soup's flavor so special. Beyond that, some beef broth, a slice of bread and some cheese, and you have a wonderful meal.
Basic French Onion Soup
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 onions, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
6 cups beef broth
4 slices bread
4 slices of Swiss cheese
1. In a large pot over medium heat, melt the butter. Add the onions, and cook, stirring often, until the onion is soft and the edges have begun to caramelize. This will take 15 to 30 minutes.
2. Add the flour and stir. Add a cup of the beef broth the deglaze the pan, then add the rest. Reduce heat to low, cover and simmer 10 minutes.
3. Set the oven to broil. For each serving, ladle soup into an oven-proof bowl. Lay a slice of bread on top, and a slice of cheese on top of that. Place bowls on a large baking sheet and set under the broiler until the cheese begins to bubble. Remove carefully and serve.
Additions to French onion soup
After mastering the most basic recipe, you can mix things up:
- Use sweet onions, such as Vidalia or Walla Walla onions instead of regular yellow or white onions.
- Use sherry or cognac to deglaze the pan, or wine -- either red or white will work.
- Use a combination of wine and stock instead of just stock.
- Include some apple cider in your liquid.
- Use very good crusty French bread -- or hunks of stale bread and just spoon the soup over it.
- Try croutons instead of bread.
- Use grated Gruyere or another melt-easy cheese on top -- even pepper jack!
- Add a splash of cognac just before broiling.
Trivia: What was Julia Child's last meal? Yes, it was French onion soup.
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