Soups are great in and of themselves, and French Onion may be the king of all soups. It’s like having an awesome grilled cheese sandwich and bowl of delicious sweet savory onion goodness all at once. I’ve spoken with a few people who have cringed at the idea of French onion soup – worries about how complicated, intricate and intense the process is, seemed to scare them away. But in reality, although there are a few steps and some technique involved, there’s also a fair about of “wiggle” room (that means you can mess up) and all and all it’s pretty simple to make a great soup.
- 3 – 4 Onions for 4 to 5 portions of soup. Sliced julienne cut.
- 2 – 3 cloves of garlic, minced
- Thyme – Fresh if you have it, dry if not
- ~ 48 ounce container (the big one) Beef or Chicken stock – homemade if you have it, but store bought is fine
- A Swiss cheese – I like Gruyere, but you can also use Emmentaler, or any other good melting cheese
- French baguette
- Olive Oil
- 1/3 cup of Cognac
- Tomato pasta – optional
- Flour - Optional
The critical components to a good French onion soup are the flavor of the broth itself and the texture/flavor of the cheese & bread topping. To ensure the broth is great, make sure you spend the time caramelizing the onions and extracting their flavor. For the topping, make sure you use enough cheese; when I started making this dish I regularly put too little on.
One note on the serving bowl – it matters. Obviously the cheesy crust makes this soup, and one of the ways to help that crust stay on top of the soup and bake off nicely is to have a bowl that is narrower on the top than in the middle. That narrow top helps the crostini and cheese “float” on top, so if you have that right bowl – use it.
Slice and start cooking the onions
- You’re going to want thin strips of onions, so after cutting them in half and removing the skin slice them thinly and as uniformly as possible
- The total cooking time for the onions may be up to 1.5 hours, so before I start prepping my other ingredients I put a pot on the flame and start the onions
- Once the pot is hot, add a couple tablespoons of olive oil, the onions, as well as a couple pinches of salt. Toss the onions to coat, and then leave them alone to cook.
- Over the next 20 – 30 minutes the water in the onions will start to evaporate and the sugars will start browning. Once that happens you’ll want to scrape down the bottom of the pot with a wooden spoon and mix up the onions. You’re looking for all the onions to develop a medium (or darker) brown color, and you’ll probably have to scrape down the pot 5 – 6 times.
- The one thing you want to watch here, is burning the onions. You’ve got quick a bit of leeway, especially on medium heat, but you do have to watch and listen to the pot. If you find they are looking too dark, just add a bit of water to the pot, that will cool things down.
Once the onions are fully caramelized
- Add the minced garlic and thyme to the onions. You want them to cook in the oil a bit, but they really only need a few minutes.
- As an option, you can also add about a tablespoon of flour. The flour will combine with the oil in the pan and make a roux. If you do this, the finished broth will end up being a bit thicker with more body, it’s not traditional, but it’s also not bad. But, don’t add too much flour, because you want the broth to be thin, and with too much flour and you’ll end up with a bisque like consistency – so err on the light side.
- Also optional, is a small dab (a teaspoon) of tomato pasta. This will also add a bit more body and flavor to the sauce, but again err on too little, as you don’t want the finished product to scream tomato.
- If you use them, make sure you let the tomato and flour cook out for 5-6 minutes
- The final step before adding our broth is to add about a 1/3 cup of Cognac. The cognac adds a great flavor to the soup and is a key component. Be careful adding the alcohol, as it may flame up on you. If it does, that’s perfectly fine, the flames should die down in a minute or so, if not, just put a lid on the pot, and that will put it out. Let the cognac cook off and reduce by half.
Add the broth
- Once the congac is cooked down, go ahead and add the broth, bring it to a boil and let it simmer for about 30 minutes.
- If the soup tastes too weak, let is continue to simmer, as the broth evaporates, the flavor will concentrate. If needed, reseason with salt and pepper
- While the soup is simmering, cut enough rounds from the baguette to cover the top of your serving bowl(s), and bake them in the oven at about 300 degrees until they are firm and crunchy.
- Grate enough of the cheese in long threads so that you create a layer of cheese about ¼ inch deep on top of the crostini.
- Preheat your oven to 350 degrees
- Fill the bowls nearly to the top with the onion and broth mixture making sure to get some of the cooked onions in there. You’ll then want to lay the toasts on top, so that they just reach the top of the bowl, and then layer on the cheese.
- It will help keep everything floating on top if you overlap some of the cheese with the bowl itself, and press the cheese into the bowl’s edge so it sticks a bit. And the cooked cheese on the side of the bowl tastes great.
- Put the bowls on a baking sheet and move to the oven for about 30 minutes until the top is melted and toasted brown.
- Pull out of the oven and server….enjoy!!