A classic of bistro cuisine, french onion soup (Soupe à l’oignon) combines some of the most amazing elements into one warming dish: gooey melted cheese, crisp garlicky bread and softened caramelised onions.
While the earliest written record of a potage of onions comes from Francois Pierre La Varenne’s 1651 tome, The French Cook, onion soups were a well-known staple of plebeian cuisine in antiquity. In fact, the recipe from the famous Roman cookery book compiled in the 4th century, De re coquinaria, sounds awfully similar to that of The French Cook! Both versions discuss using onions as a base, water for the liquid and suggesting the addition of some type of acid to finish – wine in the Roman recipe and vinegar in the French. Even before that, having encountered onions in Egypt where ‘the Hebrews learned to like them,’ Alexander the Great brought them into Greece where they found their way into the barley soups made famous in the comedy of Aristophanes. Even Plautus couldn’t resist making several jokes at soups’ (and the cooks’ who prepared them) expense: ius the latin word for soup or sauce also means law. Contemporary versions celebrate its past as a simple dish – but, as expected, the true essence of this soup comes from the slow cooking of the onions. The soup itself can be made two days ahead of time so it makes the perfect starter for a winter dinner party or lazy weekday meal.
French Onion Soup (Serves 4)
2 lb (1 kg) ea. white onions and shallots, julienne
2 sprigs thyme, finely chopped plus more for garnish
1 bay leaf
32 oz beef stock
a couple pours of white wine
2 tbl brandy or sherry
2 cups/ 200 g gruyere, grated
baguette, cut diagonally into 12 1/2 inch slices
salt and pepper
- In a large pot over low heat melt the butter and add in the julienned onions and shallots. Season with salt and pepper and add the chopped thyme. The idea is to caramelise the onions by cooking them slowly over a gentle flame. This could take anywhere from 45 min to over an hour. Stir frequently with a wooden spoon to avoid burning. When they are ready, they should be the colour shown in the picture above, and a nice caramel should develop on the bottom of the pot. (**chef secret: you can hasten the process by sprinkling some natural sugar on top of the onions – but it won’t taste quite as nice as the real thing!)
- Preheat the oven to 350 F. When the onions are ready, stir in the flour and keep cooking for another 1-2 minutes. Turn up the heat and and deglaze the pot with the white wine. Add in the beef stock, water, bay leaf and brandy or sherry. Let simmer for 45 minutes, adding more water if it becomes too thick.
- Meanwhile, rub the baguette slices with raw garlic and drizzle a bit of olive oil on them. Put them in a baking tray and bake for 15 minutes (turning over half-way through).
- When the bread is ready, pour the soup (remove the bay leaf) into flame-proof bowls and put 1-2 slices of bread on top. Sprinkle the grated gruyere all over the top of the soup (and over some of the left-over bread!) and put under a broiler for 2-3 min until the cheese crisps up. Garnish with a bit of chopped thyme and voilà!