Now we’re through the first working week of the New Year, it looks like things have finally started to turn colder. As I’ve mentioned before, my office is very cold most of the time and I really started to notice how so at the end of last week. Soup has become my choice of lunch for the moment, and as with most things, I typically prefer it to be homemade. Not only can you make a huge vat and freeze individual portions for later, but it’s generally very cheap and you know what it contains in terms of ingredients. Although the soup you can buy from Waitrose etc, is usually very good, I’ve yet to find a shop that can properly replicate the delicious simplicity and richness of a proper hearty French Onion soup.
You know why that is? It’s because there’s a basic but often overlooked component in the making of a really good French Onion Soup. The flavour, consistency and richness all relies on the proper caramelising of onions. Although there are many different recipes of this soup, with various cooks emphasising the necessity of differences in the herbs, wine and stock that are used, they nearly always forget to emphasise that how you cook the onions is the most important part. This is something I learned from one of my Food Technology teachers at school, who was always most aggrieved that this recipe was made a standard in our basic cookery lessons, because we were never able to caramelise the onions properly in the time that we had and all went home with watery onion soup that was usually chucked straight in the bin by out parents.
My recipe has been adapted this from Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Vol. 1 by Julia Childs. Providing that you cook the onions correctly – I’ll be showing you just how to do that in due course – you can tweak this as you like. The Kitchn shows that the most popular differences are in the kind of stock used, the type of wine and the herbs & spices added during cooking. Change them as you like, I’ve added in my own favourites that I think are worth you giving a go.
So, you will need:
3 Large onions (use a mixture of leeks, shallots and red/white onions if you wish)
3 tbsp Olive Oil
75g unsalted butter
1 tsp salt
1tsp sugar (I used Demerara)
1 litre beef stock
1 litre bouillon (you can, if you like, use 2L beef stock instead)
3 tbsp plain flour (use a sprinkle or so of cornflour if you can’t eat gluten)
200ml of dry white wine (some prefer to use red or even sherry or port)
Splash of balsamic vinegar
Splash of Worcester sauce
Couple of sprigs of thyme
Optional for Grûyere toasts:
Sliced French Bread
If we’re not including the cheese, I really believe that most people will have the ingredients to make this soup in their fridge and kitchen cupboards. Of course, it’s always preferable to use things like fresh herbs and stock, but you can make this using ‘made up’ stock cubes and dried herbs and have it still taste fairly good. As I’ve said several times now – and I’ll keep on saying it – the taste is all down to the onions.
Have you got those three onions? Good. Personally, I opted to add in a red onion as there was a lone one floating around in my fridge.
First things first, peel the onions and chop the ends off…
Chop the onions in half, and then again into quarters. Next chop each quarter horizontally into ‘half moon’ like shapes, like so…
To cook the onions properly, you will need a pan that distributes heat evenly and which also has a lid. A Le Creuset casserole dish is perfect for this.
Add the butter and olive oil to the pan. (Note: I added a bit more butter than strictly necessary here, as it needed to be used up)
Over a medium-low heat, melt the butter and oil. When it starts to foam, like this, it’s ready for the onions to be added.
Stir them in, ensuring that they’re all coated.
Next, put the lid on and turn the heat down to low. Allow the onions to reduce down, undisturbed, for twenty minutes.
When you come back, they should look a bit like this. Give them a bit of a stir and ensure that they’ve all softened.
At this point, season your onions: add in the salt, pepper and brown sugar and stir them through. The sugar will help with caramelisation.
Now begins the part which involves effort: the caramelisation. This can take anywhere from 30 to 90 minutes. For me, the process took about an hour.
Turn the heat up to medium. Watching your onions, stir them every few minutes to ensure they do not stick to the pan. If there’s any sign of burning or catching, immediately turn down the heat. Ensure that you stir the bottom of the pan well to prevent any sticking.
After around thirty minutes, your onions should be looking different. This is what mine looked like. As you can see, the colour of the onions is still obvious – they are not done. If the onions look like they are starting to dry out at any point, add in a splash of water.
Caramelised onions should look like this: a rich, dark brown. They should be stickier, the volume should have reduced and you should be able to detect a sort of sweet sugary smell that’s a bit like treacle. They shouldn’t smell distinctly like onions.
At this point, sprinkle in your plain flour and stir it into the onions. Cook for a minute or two. (If you’re using cornflour to thicken, you can add this later when the stock has been added).
Add in your stock, wine, herbs and a splash of balsamic vinegar if you desire.
(As you can see, I opted to use champagne in place of dry white wine. This was because I was making it on New Years Day and we had some leftover that was a bit flat but which I didn’t want to waste. It worked very well!)
Turn the heat down a little and allow the soup to simmer, uncovered, for at least an hour. Add in some cornflour, if you haven’t already added plain flour, and some Worcester sauce if desired.
I personally believe that soup is always better the day after it has been made, but if you are hungry and want to serve it straight away, that’s fine.
Typically, French Onion Soup is served with lots of crusty bread lathered in Grûyere cheese. Ideally, you should serve it in heatproof bowls, add the bread and melt the cheese over the top of it all so that when you go to eat it, great strings of the cheese will be mixed into the soup. Unfortunately, I don’t have any suitable bowls so made do with Gruyere toasts instead.
To make these, slice your crusty bread and lay it on a baking tray.
Using a fine hole, grate the cheese liberally over the slices of bread.
Serve on top of a piping bowl of soup.
(N.B For work lunches, you can grill the Gruyere toasts in advance and wrap them separately. If you have a grill at work you can reheat them, but I found that as long as the soup is hot, the toasts are still very tasty but more like giant croutons.)
Is it any wonder that French Onion Soup is one of my favourites?
What is your favourite soup and why? Let me know in the comments.