[Welcome to the final installment of ✨ Newer, Better Month ✨ on Smitten Kitchen, when I update a few SK classics with new knowledge, new techniques, and with real-life time constraints in mind. Previously: Perfect Spaghetti and Meatballs, Extra-Flaky Pie Crust, and Extra-Billowy Dutch Baby Pancake.]
French onion soup is not just a forever favorite of mine, it’s — along with the other recipes I updated this month — what I consider a core recipe in my arsenal because it aligns with so much that I think is important in cooking. It’s totally budget-friendly (and downright cheap) to make. It’s made from buy-anywhere ingredients and very few of them — 99% of the flavor comes from just onions, cooked very slowly, transformed by a technique you need no advanced cooking skills to master. And it has a depth of flavor that is unparalleled in almost anything else I know how to make.
Up until a few years ago, I only made it one way: Julia Child’s. I still think her onion-caramelizing technique is great. It saves a little hands-on time, basically a miracle when it comes to caramelizing onions, although nothing is going to make it go quickly. That’s how I cooked when I began this site: the way I was told to. But through repetition and real life, I’ve made adjustments. For example, I always felt that the soup needed more onions, more bulk, for the amount of stock. I never found that the flour added any notable body to the soup the way it should; it didn’t really stay suspended. And when I added booze, it was sometimes wine or vermouth but just as often a dry sherry or even cognac, and I’d deglaze the pan with it and cook it off as much as possible. When I began with more onions, I didn’t need to cook the soup as long after the stock was added (15 to 20 minutes is plenty) to end up with a soup with good body.
And I finish it with as little frippery as possible. Don’t have ovenproof bowls? Make a casserole of it, like a giant pot pie. Or, create individual cheese toasts and drop them onto the soup. Want it vegetarian? Use a good dark vegetable stock, or mushroom broth, which is a favorite here; the more robust, the better. Cannot possibly imagine spending an hour or longer frequently attending to caramelizing onions? Check out The Food Lab’s approaches (pressure cooker or other) to speeding it up. Want less hands-on time? Check out The Kitchn’s slow-cooker approach. Hate slicing onions? Sigh, that, for me, is the part I dislike the most. For this, I recommend putting on some music, donning your pink onion goggles, and enjoy knowing that once you get this done, the remainder of the recipe is virtually hands-off.
One year ago: Asparagus and Egg Salad with Walnuts and Mint
Two years ago: Cornbread Waffles and Mushroom Tartines
Three years ago: Sesame Soba and Ribboned Omelet Salad and Apricot Hazelnut Brown Butter Hamantaschen
Four years ago: The Consolation Prize (A Mocktail) and Baked Chickpeas with Pita Chips and Yogurt
Five years ago: Whole-Grain Cinnamon Swirl Bread
Six years ago: Lentil and Chickpea Salad with Feta and Tahini
Seven years ago: Soft Eggs with Buttery Herb-Gruyere Toast Soldiers
Eight years ago: Spaetzle
Nine years ago: Irish Soda Bread Scones and Spinach and Chickpeas
Ten years ago: Cream Cheese Pound Cake with Strawberry Sauce and Bialys
Eleven years ago: Caramel Walnut Banana Upside Down Cake and Swiss Easter Rice Tart
Twelve years ago: Mixed Berry Pavlova
And for the other side of the world:
Six Months Ago: Crispy Spinach Pizza
1.5 Years Ago: Chocolate Tahini Challah Buns
2.5 Years Ago: Homemade Merguez with Herby Yogurt and Magic Apple-Plum Cobbler
3.5 Years Ago: The Perfect Manhattan
4.5 Years Ago: Cucumber Lemonade and Sunken Apple and Honey Cake
Essential French Onion Soup
Tip: I always start with an onion or two more than I need, because due to the vagaries of buying onions from grocery stores in the middle of winter, I never know when I’ll get one kind of banged up inside, except reliably any time I don’t buy extras.
- 3 pounds thinly sliced yellow onions (see Tip)
- 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
- Fine sea salt
- 1/4 cup dry sherry, vermouth, or white wine (optional)
- 1 bay leaf or a few sprigs of thyme (optional, and honestly, I rarely bother)
- 2 quarts (8 cups) beef, chicken, or vegetable (mushroom is excellent here) stock, the more robust the better
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 1 garlic clove
- One (3/4- to 1-inch) thick slice of bread for each bowl of soup
- 1/4 cup grated gruyere, comte, or a mix of gruyere and parmesan per toast
Uncover the pot, raise the heat slightly and stir in salt — I start with between 1 and 2 teaspoons of fine sea salt, or twice as much kosher salt. Cook onions, stirring every 5 minutes (you might be fine checking in less often in the beginning, until the point when the water in the onions has cooked off) for about 40 to 90 minutes longer.
[What? That range is crazy. Stoves vary so much, even my own. If your onions are browning before 40 minutes are up, reduce the heat to low, and if that’s still cooking too fast, try a smaller burner. The longer you cook the onions, the more complex the flavor, but when you’re happy with it, you can stop — the ghost of Julia Child will not haunt you, the Shame Wizard will not taunt you or anything.]
Make the soup: Onions are caramelized when they’re an even, deep golden brown, sweet and tender. Add sherry or vermouth, if using, and scrape up any onions stuck to pan. Cook until it disappears. Add stock, herbs (if using), and a lot of freshly ground black pepper and bring soup to a simmer. Partially cover pot and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes. Taste and adjust seasoning as needed; discard thyme sprigs and bay leaf if you used them.
While soup is finishing, heat your broiler, and if you don’t have a broiler, heat your oven as hot as it goes. If your bread is not already stale (i.e. you did not leave the slices out last night to harden, probably because nobody told you to), toast them lightly, until firm. Rub lightly with a raw garlic clove. Line a baking sheet with foil and arrange soup bowls/vessels on top.
To finish: Ladle soup into bowls. Fit a piece of toast (trimming if needed) onto each. Sprinkle with cheese. Run under broiler until cheese is melted and brown at edges. Garnish with herbs. You can eat it right away but it’s going to stay hot for a good 10 minutes or so, if you need more time.