There is no question about it, French onion soup is a worldwide favorite. A dish so humble, it is perfection! For me, French onion soup is my “madeleine de Proust,” its powerful aroma bringing back memories of fun times, pure friendship, and late family suppers!
Its main ingredient, the onion, as modest as it can be, has quite an exceptional history. Considered THE “doping” food in ancient Egypt, it was consumed by the kilo and given to the slaves during the construction of the pyramids for extra strength. Common in the Old World and used in many recipes, it was viewed as the poor man’s food, surely because it was cheap, abundant, and had a long shelf-life.
As for the onion soup, it has been part of the European folklore for centuries. In many regions, the union of a young married couple was celebrated with an onion soup, served in the early morning, probably to bring back some force to the happy couple. It was often dished up directly in bed in a kitchen pot or on a large plate that would be broken afterwards, or even in a chamber pot (my parents still have theirs)!
The French onion soup became famous at the end of the nineteenth century with the opening of the gigantic food market Les Halles in Paris. At dawn, workers and night owls sat together around a fragrant yet cheap bowl of steaming soup. The first ones to get reinvigorated, the second ones to avoid any hangover!
The recipe enjoyed a resurgence of popularity in the 60’s when French cooking was promoted in the United States by some famous American Chefs such as Julia Child.
Mine comes from a French cookbook my mother passed on to me:
First you need to choose your onions carefully. Each variety of onion will give your soup a slightly different flavor:
- Sweet onions will be mellow and sweet.
- Red onions have a deeper flavor with a slightly bitter edge and less sweetness.
- Yellow onions are both sweet and mildly bitter but have a lot more taste.
- Shallots will bring a more balanced sweetness with a hint of bitterness.
- Mixing different types together produces a well-rounded and more complex taste.
- If you don’t know, just go for the yellow onions. They are a sure choice.
- Peel the onions (500 g) and cut them in slices.
- In a casserole, put 80 g of butter and one teaspoon of sugar, add the onions, and cook on low heat for about 30 minutes. As Julia Child instructed in her “Mastering the Art of French Cooking”, the onions should be cooked to an even, deep, and golden brown. Not black or deep brown, unless you like your soup sour!
- Sprinkle 15 g of flour over the onions and mix well for two minutes. Add two pressed cloves of garlic.
- Pour 1.5 liter of beef stock over the caramelized onions. Homemade stock is best but if you don’t have any, over the counter ones will do. You can also use chicken stock or a combination of the two. Add one bay leaf. Stir well together and let it simmer for 30 minutes.
- Give your soup a little twist by adding a glass of white wine, vermouth or brandy! Season to taste with salt and pepper.
- Meanwhile, cut the French bread into 2 inches thick slices. Place them on your oven grid and grill for 3 minutes on each side.
- The proper way to serve your soup is to fill out 6 individual dishes. Place a slice of bread over each bowl. Sprinkle each slice with some grated Gruyère. Grill at 350 degrees F for 5 minutes or until the cheese is bubbling and golden. Serve immediately!
As Ludwig van Beethoven used to say, “Only the pure at heart can make a good soup.” So put on your apron and enjoy this deeply savory soup with family and friends.