I recently ordered a bowl of French onion soup at a favorite local pub that for years has been known for this dish. What I got was a thick layer of melted cheese on a slice of bread that consequently had soaked up most of the weak broth underneath, with a scant serving of onions. Maybe it was just a bad night, but I was left wanting… So, I have been on a quest. A mission: Find the best French onion soup recipe that I can make at home. Not just a good one, but a French onion soup that is authentic and satisfying. The soup should be the star; it should taste like onions and actually have onions in it. I don’t want cheese on toast in a puddle of broth. I want the cheese and toast to compliment the French Onion Soup, not devour it. So, after some trial, error, and disappointment, success is mine. And now it’s yours too.
This recipe comes from America’s Test Kitchen and I should have just gone there first. They do all the research; testing several types of onions as well as coming up with the best cooking methods. I mean, they are the TEST kitchen. The success of this recipe is based on creating a deep, crusty caramelization with the onions, also known as fond. After following this recipe (courtesy of Christopher Kimball’s house guest from France), let me tell you how fond I am of onion-fond! (You knew I had to go there.)
The recipe requires a bit of pre-planning but it’s extremely easy. You do need to start early, and monitor it periodically until the active hands-on portion during step three of the printable recipe.
Start with about six large yellow onions, sliced pole to pole. See note below on crying over your onions. Do not use sweet, white or red onions. They each have less than stellar results. So, nice round yellow onions it is for this recipe. After the onions are sliced (not too thinly), spray a heavy bottomed pot (at least a 7 quart size) with cooking spray (cast iron is what I use), place butter in the bottom and fill it with your onions. You will add a bit of salt here to help sweat the onions. Cover and cook in a 400 degree oven for an hour. Your house will start to smell amazing right about now.
Here they are after the first hour in the oven. Those onions that totally filled your pot have started to sweat down and are beginning to caramelize to the sides of the pan. Give them a good stir, crack the lid about an inch, and put them back in for another 1 1/2 to 1 3/4 hours, stirring again after one hour.
Now there is a heavy crust (the fond I mentioned earlier) that is starting to form and your onions are totally reduced. At this point, you’re going to cook them on the stove top, to draw out more of the moisture and deglaze the fond from the pan.
The deglazing portion was really the only active part of this recipe. Now you need a little bouquet of thyme sprigs and a bay leaf. Add this with your cooking sherry, chicken broth*, beef broth (just a bit) and water. Simmer on the stove top for 30 minutes. Finish off under the broiler with toasted, sliced baguette and shredded Gruyère.
This soup is super hearty and flavorful. My quest is complete. I hope you agree.
*Note: I’ve had people ask me why not just use beef broth here, assuming the beef broth will give deeper flavor. But that is not the case. This is French ONION Soup. Using mostly chicken broth allows for the onions to shine in this soup. Trust me, the soup will have the perfect depth of hearty flavor.
- 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 6 pieces
- 6 large yellow onions (about 4 pounds), halved and cut pole to pole into generous ¼-inch-thick slices (Do not substitute with any other type of onion)
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 2 cups water, plus extra for deglazing
- ½ cup dry sherry or cooking sherry
- 3 cups low-sodium chicken broth
- 3 cups beef broth
- 4-6 sprigs fresh thyme, tied with kitchen twine (Do not overdo it here)
- 1 bay leaf
- ½ teaspoon sea salt
- Ground black pepper
- Cheese Croutons
- 1 small baguette, cut into ½-inch slices (If making gluten free, omit bread or better yet, use a hearty gluten free bread, like Udi's)
- 8 ounces shredded Gruyère cheese (about 2½ cups)
- For the soup:
- Adjust oven rack to lower middle position and heat oven to 400 degrees. Generously spray inside of heavy-bottomed large (at least 5-quart) Dutch oven with nonstick cooking spray. Place butter in pot and add onions and 1 teaspoon salt. Cook, covered, 1 hour (onions will be moist and slightly reduced in volume). Remove pot from oven and stir onions, scraping bottom and sides of pot. Return pot to oven with lid slightly ajar and continue to cook until onions are very soft and golden brown, 1½ to 1¾ hours longer, stirring onions and scraping bottom and sides of pot after 1 hour. Note: I usually use my 7-quart Dutch oven, but when I use my 5-quart, which is the more common size, I only cook for the additional 1½ hour in the oven. The smaller pot browns the onions very deeply during this time and it happens faster.
- Carefully remove pot from oven and place over medium-high heat. Using oven mitts to handle pot, cook onions, stirring frequently and scraping bottom and sides of pot, until liquid evaporates and onions brown, 15 to 20 minutes, reducing heat to medium if onions are browning too quickly. Continue to cook, stirring frequently, until pot bottom is coated with dark crust, 6 to 8 minutes, adjusting heat as necessary. (Scrape any fond that collects on spoon back into onions.) Stir in ¼ cup water, scraping pot bottom to loosen crust, and cook until water evaporates and pot bottom has formed another dark crust, 6 to 8 minutes. Repeat process of deglazing 2 or 3 more times, until onions are very dark brown. Stir in sherry and cook, stirring frequently, until sherry evaporates, about 5 minutes.
- Stir in broths, 2 cups water, thyme, bay leaf, and ½ teaspoon salt, scraping up any final bits of browned crust on bottom and sides of pot. Increase heat to high and barely bring to boil. Reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer 30 minutes. Remove and discard herbs, then season with salt and pepper.
- For the croutons:
- While soup simmers, arrange baguette slices in single layer on baking sheet and bake in 400-degree oven until bread is dry, crisp, and golden at edges, about 10 minutes. Set aside.
- To serve:
- Adjust oven rack 6 inches from broiler element and heat broiler. Set individual broiler-safe crocks on baking sheet and fill each with about 1¾ cups soup. Top each bowl with 1 or 2 baguette slices (do not overlap slices) and sprinkle evenly with Gruyère. Broil until cheese is melted and bubbly around edges, 3 to 5 minutes. Let cool 5 minutes before serving.
A little note on “crying over your onions”. Many of us cry when slicing onions. It just happens. And the reason it happens is there are certain enzymes in onions that, when cut, release a sulphuric acid which irritates your eyes. There are many supposed remedies to prevent crying (light a candle, bite on a wooden spoon, freeze the onions). But the simple method that is tried and true: Protect your eyes. There are actually “onion goggles” out there you could buy, but just put on a pair of safety goggles or even swim goggles if you want ultra protection. Then you’ll look like you really mean business and you’ll stay dry-eyed through all 6 onions! 🙂
Recipe adapted from America’s Test Kitchen.