French onion soup is a staple of rustic comfort food.
Onion soups, or soupe à l’oignon in French, have been around since Roman times. That’s because onions are inexpensive, easy to grow and nutritious, and they make for a hearty, flavorful broth even on their own. As it goes with many popular dishes, onion soup was popularized among the poor because of these qualities, and has made its way to culinary history as a soup well-loved across class, time and geography.
The recipes for onion soups vary greatly, but the French onion soup has become the popular version among many Western cultures. Its popularity grew in the United States during the 1960s because of an influx of interest in French cuisine. Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” was first published in 1961. A 1970 New York Times archived article, “The 1960’s: Haute Cuisine in America,” discusses Jackie Kennedy hiring French chef Rene Verdon to head the White House kitchen in 1961, as well as the opening of several world-renowned French restaurants in the early 60s.
French onion soup had swept the United States, and it was here to stay. This contemporary version we know today is a combination of its humble beginnings among the lower classes and its more expensive evolutions, such as the addition of herbs, wine, bread and cheese, which came about through its proliferation in restaurants frequented by the wealthy. But this soup doesn’t have to be reserved for restaurant service. It is satisfying and easy to make at home.
Start with yellow onions, about eight for a pot of soup. They provide the deep sweetness this soup is known for. Cut them in half pole-to-pole, cut off the ends and peel. Thinly slice them equilaterally (across the natural grain) if you like the onion to fully disintegrate during caramelization. If you want the slices to remain intact, slice them pole-to-pole, along the natural grain.
Add them to a large pan with about two tablespoons of neutral cooking oil and a pinch of salt. The salt helps draw out the moisture. To quicken the caramelization, add a teaspoon of sugar and pinch of baking soda. Baking soda is an alkaline substance which helps the browning.
Cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, for a minimum of 30 minutes. You can cook them for an hour or more until the onions completely break down into a concentrated goop, but it is up to you. A longer cook time usually renders deeper flavor.
Beef broth is what really determines the flavor profile of the soup. Make some of your own by roasting vegetables and beef bones and simmering them in water for several hours. Or you can use bouillon or store-bought broth as well. You can always enhance it by simmering it with carrots, celery and herbs like sage and thyme for 30 minutes or so.
When the onions are caramelized, add two tablespoons of flour to help thicken the soup. Cook for a few minutes, then deglaze with 2 tablespoons of brandy for richness and ¼ cup of white wine to brighten the flavors and provide acidity to balance the alkaline baking soda.
Once the alcohol has cooked off, strain the stock then add to the onions. Let simmer until the desired thickness. Correct the seasoning with salt and pepper to taste.
Set the oven to broil. Transfer the soup to an oven-safe crock. Top with slices of toasted, stale bread. Rub a clove of garlic on the bread for added flavor. Top the bread with a generous amount of grated cheese such as gruyere, comte, parmesan or Swiss.
Bake in the oven until browned and bubbly, then carefully remove and garnish with chives.
Rachel Baker can be reached at (509) 459-5583 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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