BuffaloSpree.com's Recipe of the week: French onion soup
From Michael Ruhlman’s Twenty (Chronicle Books, 2011)
The key to great French onion soup is time. But we’ll get to that in a bit.
The origin of onion soup is not French, but rather Roman, or perhaps even Greek. As with most cookery, provenance is always up for debate, but the French were certainly the first to add the definitive accompaniments of a crisp crouton and melted cap of cheese. The classic Lyonnaise recipe rose to popularity here in the US during the 1960s when French cuisine was all the rage, thanks to Julia Child and America’s growing passion for air travel.
Today French onion soup can still be found on menus all over the country, from big, fancy steakhouses to tiny pubs. But ubiquity can lead to bastardization, and the nuances that made soupe à l’oignon à la lyonnaise an American (nonetheless French) staple are often lost. Too many of today’s restaurants use powdered beef bases, frozen precooked bagged soups, or other shortcuts. With this in mind, it is fair to say that not all French onion soups are created equal—which brings us back to time.
Many people equate the big flavors found in the soup’s broth with beef, and many good preparations of the dish are, in fact, made with beef and beef stock. But in many places in France, French onion soup is actually prepared with chicken stock, and cookbook author Michael Ruhlman argues for the use of everyday tap water and a splash of sherry or wine, as that is the method used by traditional bouchons (Lyonnaise bistros). Recipes can be found, dating back to 1651, that support Ruhlman’s experience. With any option, the bold flavors and fragrant overtones of a good French onion soup are imparted by caramelizing the onions, patiently and thoroughly, building flavor over time. Online, potential soupmakers will find all sorts of advice for shortcuts to this process. Cook’s Illustrated suggests caramelizing the onions in the oven, using a partially vented dutch oven. Alton Brown recommends the use of an electric skillet. I swear by the tried and true stovetop method. No matter which approach you take, the only way to coax the maximum amount of flavor from the onions is to understand that you might spend a few hours on this step alone. The steps that follow are simple and quick, so the only real investment happens here, with you, a wooden spoon, low heat, and a lot of onions. Fortunately, the process requires only moderate monitoring and the end result is worth the wait.
Other required ingredients are up for debate as well. Some chefs recommend that soupe à l’oignon should be made with yellow onions alone; arguing that sweet onions are too sweet once caramelized. Others suggest a trio of onions for improved depth of flavor—yellow, red, and sweet. The imperative crouton and melted cheese face no less scrutiny, so I’ll spare you the details and tell you that a very crisp, toasted crouton and a high-quality grated Gruyere cheese are your best bet.
We’ve included a very good recipe for French onion soup here, sans beef.
from Michael Ruhlman’s Twenty
(Chronicle Books, 2011)
Serves 4 to 6
1 tablespoon butter
7 or 8 Spanish onions (7 to 8 pounds, thinly sliced)
Freshly ground black pepper
6 to 12 slices of baguette or any countrystyle bread (it’s best if they cover the width of your serving bowls)
1/3 cup sherry
Red or white wine vinegar (optional)
Red wine (optional)
1/2 to 3/4 pounds Gruyere, grated
1. Preheat the oven to 200 degrees when the onions have begun to release their water (see
step 3, below).
2. Place the pot over medium heat and melt the butter. Add onions, sprinkle with 2 teaspoons salt, cover, and cook until onions have heated through and begin to steam.
3. Uncover, reduce the heat to low, and cook, stirring occasionally (you should be able to leave the onions alone for an hour at a stretch once they’ve released their water). Season with several grinds of pepper.
4. Place the bread slices in the oven and let dry completely (you can leave the slices in the oven indefinitely, as the heat is not high enough to burn them).
5. When the onions have completely cooked down, the water has cooked off, and the onions have turned amber—this will take several hours—add 6 cups of water. If you’d prefer a more delicate soup, add 1 additional cup of water. Raise the heat to high and bring the soup to a simmer, then reduce the heat to low.
6. Add the sherry. Taste and season with salt and pepper as needed. If the soup is too sweet, add some vinegar. If you would like a little more depth, add a splash of red wine. I like the onion-to-liquid ratio with 6 cups of water.
7. Preheat the broiler/grill. Portion the soup into ovenproof bowls, float the bread on top, cover with cheese, and broil/grill until the cheese is melted and nicely browned. Serve immediately.