French Onion Soup is absolutely delicious, and anyone can make it. ‘Soupe à l’oignon‘ in French is a simple bistro staple made with minimal basic ingredients – onion, beef stock, bread and gruyère cheese. Don’t be fooled – simple does not mean quick, and unless you are prepared to put in the effort to achieve an outstanding result, you may as well go ahead and heat up a can of the ready-made stuff. A couple of pale sliced onions floating miserably in stock is a waste of the time and tears spent slicing them. To inflict this ghastly brew on anyone you hold near and dear is nothing short of heinous. If you are going to make it, take the extra care and make something you can be proud of.
Deliciousness is in the details. You can make something passable with a stock cube, but to achieve really good results, you need the best stock you can lay your hands on. Making your own is an excellent option, but I put my foot down here. It’s one thing to have pots of bones brewing away for hours in a restaurant kitchen – at home it’s more than I can bear. I can’t handle the smell of stock bubbling away for the hours and hours it takes to pull out all the flavour. So I cheat, and make French Onion Soup with the best ready-made organic beef stock I can lay my hands on. If you make you own, all I can say is good for you – you are a better person than I am. You can use chicken stock, but you will lose some of the flavour and colour, and if you are a vegetarian, you can of course substitute vegetable stock, or even water (really!) provided you have really done a good job on the onions.
The next critical step to making the perfect French Onion Soup is browning the onions. They need to be very well caramelised, which takes time and patience – lots of both. If you aren’t prepared to lavish this on the dish, home-made French Onion Soup is not for you. Fortunately you can prepare the onions, or better still the whole soup minus the bread and cheese up to 3 days in advance – it definitely improves the flavour to let it sit for a day or so.
French Onion Soup
1 kg onions thinly sliced (sounds like a lot, but they cook down dramatically)
1/2 stick of butter
4 tbs olive oil
1 level tsp brown sugar
1 tsp apple cider vinegar
1.2 litre beef stock (you may substitute chicken if you must, or vegetable for a vegetarian option)
1 bay leaf
2 cups dry white wine (if you wouldn’t drink it, don’t use it. Bad wine does not become better because you cooked it)
2 tbs cognac (0ptional)
Start with the onions. You want to get them very well caramelised – brown and gooey. You do not want to crisp them or incinerate them. You are aiming for dark brown, not black. Browning onionsï¿½is a slow process – you can’t rush it by turning up the heat. Onions burn very, very quickly. You can either take my word for this, or find out the hard way. Put the sliced onions, butter and olive oil into a deep, heavy bottomed pan, and sweat them over a moderate heat until they go limp and transparent (take a look at the photo at the end of the recipe). Then drop the heat to low, and keep for about 30 minutes. You don’t have to keep stirring all the time, but check it often. By the end of this time the onions should be very soft and golden brown (See photo). Keep going for a little longer if necessary to get them to the right point.
When you have reached the soft golden brown stage, increase the heat to moderate. As the onions start to sizzle gently, add the sugar and vinegar and a little salt. The sugar and the vinegar help the onions to caramelise, but you won’t taste them. Keep stirring, and keep scraping the bottom of the pan. I cannot over-emphasize how important it is to the the onions perfectly caramelized – I know it takes time, but it does pay off dramatically when it comes to flavour. Once you get the onions to the dark and gooey point, you have a very fine product without even making French Onion Soup – browned onions like this are delicious with steak, burgers, over mash, in cheese sandwiches and so on.
I digress. To continue with the soup, pour the wine over the onions and deglaze the pan, scraping up up all the brown bits. Keep cooking and stirring until the liquid is almost evaporated, then add the stock and the bayleaf. Bring the mixture up to a simmer, and then turn the heat down low and cook very gently for about 40 minutes. You can cook it for longer, but don’t shorten the cooking time. If too much liquid evaporates, add a little water. Check for seasoning, and add salt and pepper as necessary. At this point you can cool the soup down, and store it for up to 3 days in a closed container in the fridge.
When you are ready to serve it, fire up your grill to the ‘hot as it will get’ setting. Warm some oven-proof soup bowls for individual servings while you reheat the soup. At this point you add the cognac (which is optional) to the soup. Don’t be tempted to add more cognac – you want to add a subtle dimension to the flavour, not produce a savoury alcoholic cocktail! Ladle the hot French Onion Soup into the warmed bowls, top with a slice or two of the baguette (you can toast it before-hand) and scatter generously with the grated cheese. Put the lot under the grill until the cheese melts and bubbles and serve straight away.