I’m firmly of the belief that no matter what ails you in the realm of the kitchen, onion soup can cure it. Never cooked before? Don’t think you’ll be able to pull off the kind of cooking you believe you need to go to a restaurant to experience? Start with onion soup. Have only $5 to spend on dinner? Refrigerator is almost bare? Onion soup is your friend. Want your home to have a transcendent aroma bouncing off every wall, the kind that’s so distracting that you don’t even know or care what’s on the stove, only that you must have it now? Onion soup is waiting for you.
I realize it was unfair to even make a passing reference to weepingly delicious onion soup the other day without refreshing it here. I talked up once in 2006, a lifetime ago (or several, if you’re this guy) but it was a very literal recipe from Mastering the Art of French Cooking which benefits from some streamlining. And yet, not too much. Onion soup is a remarkably simple thing to make but when simplified too liberally — I’ve seen recipes that instructed you to just caramelize onions for a bit, add stock, cheese etc. — the nuance that raises it to the transcendent level I’ve known it to be gets lost. Julia Child’s original version — with the very long caramelization of onions that I beg you not to skimp on because this is all the work there really is, the slip of raw grated onion, the cheese within and on top of the soup and starting the croutons toasted hard so they don’t fall apart in the soup — raises the soup beyond the everyday, without making it too difficult to whip up almost any day. Which I promise will happen when you realize the staggering gap between effort and outcome that Child’s onion soup manages to bridge.
One year ago: New York Cheesecake and Shakshuka
Two years ago: Artichoke Olive Crostini and Chocolate Caramel Crack(ers)
Three years ago: Spring Panzanella and Lemon Yogurt Anything Cake
Four years ago: Artichoke, Cranberry Bean and Arugula Salad and Arborio Rice Pudding
Onion Soup [Soupe à l’Oignon]
Adapted from Mastering the Art of French Cooking
1 1/2 pounds (680 grams or 24 ounces or about 5 cups) thinly sliced yellow onions
3 tablespoons (42 grams or 1 1/2 ounces) unsalted butter
1 tablespoon (15 ml) olive oil
1 teaspoon (5 grams) table salt, plus additional to taste
1/4 teaspoon (1 gram) granulated sugar (helps the onions to brown)
3 tablespoons (24 grams or 7/8 ounce) all-purpose flour
2 quarts (8 cups or 1.9 liters) beef or other brown stock*
1/2 cup (118 ml) dry white wine or dry white vermouth
Freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons (45 ml) cognac or brandy (optional)
To finish [Gratinée] (Optional)
1 tablespoon grated raw onion
1 to 2 cups (to taste) grated Swiss (I often use Gruyere) or a mixture of Swiss and Parmesan cheese
1 tablespoon butter, melted
12 to 16 1-inch thick rounds French bread, toasted until hard
Melt the butter and oil together in the bottom of a 4- to 5-quart saucepan or Dutch oven over moderately low heat. Add the onions, toss to coat them in oil and cover the pot. Reduce the heat to real low and let them slowly steep for 15 minutes. They don’t need your attention; you can even go check your email.
After 15 minutes, uncover the pot, raise the heat slightly and stir in the salt and sugar. Cook onions, stirring frequently, for 30 to 40 minutes until they have turned an even, deep golden brown. Don’t skimp on this step, as it will build the complex and intense flavor base that will carry the rest of the soup. Plus, from here on out, it will be a cinch.
After the onions are fully caramelized, sprinkle them with flour and cook, stirring, for 3 minutes. Add the wine in full, then stock, a little at a time, stirring between additions. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Bring to a simmer and simmer partially covered for 30 to 40 more minutes, skimming if needed. Correct seasonings if needed but go easy on the salt as the cheese will add a bit more saltiness and I often accidentally overdo it. Stir in the cognac, if using. I think you should.
Set aside until needed. I find that homemade onion soup is so deeply fragrant and flavor-rich that it can stand alone, but that doesn’t mean we don’t enjoy the graitinéed top once in a while. Here’s how to pull it off:
Preheat oven to 325. Arrange six ovenproof soup bowls or crocks on a large, foil-lined baking sheet. Bring the soup back to a boil and divide among six bowls. To each bowl, add 1/2 teaspoon grated raw onion and a tablespoon of grated cheese. Stir to combine. Dab your croutons with a tiny bit of butter and float a few on top of your soup bowls, attempting to cover it. Mound grated cheese on top of it; how much you use will be up to you. [Julia Child, in another era, felt that 1/2 cup of grated cheese could be divided among 6 bowls. I can assure you that if you’d like your gooey bubbling cheese lid to be anything like what you get at your local French restaurant, you are looking to use more, such as a generous 1/4 cup.]
Bake soups on tray for 20 minutes, then preheat broiler. Finish for a minute or two under the broiler to brown the top lightly. Grab pot holders, and serve immediately.
* Porcini or mushroom stock are a robust vegetarian substitution.