October 6th 2011
French Onion Soup is a classic dish, that’s very simple to make, but requires a great deal of care and attention in order to get it right. It’s believed that onion soup originated in Ancient Rome and the modern version was created in France, at some point during the 18th century. I was highly amused to find in some old recipe books, that although the soup contains beef stock, it’s listed as a vegetable broth because there are no bits of meat in it – that’s my kind of vegetarian dish!
French Onion Soup recipe:
2 large onions (sliced in rings)
1 and 1/2 pints of home made beef stock
1 glass of red wine
1 heaped dessertspoon of flour
1 knob of butter
olive oil as required (if the onions start to look dry)
sea salt and cracked black pepper to taste
grated Gruyère or Emmental cheese (to cover the croutons)
If you want to make an onion soup that has your dinner guests talking about your cooking skills for months afterwards, do it properly. Beef stock cubes won’t do and adding sugar to the onions produces caramelised sugar with onions and not melt in the mouth onions to die for. Making a good beef stock takes time, but doesn’t require much pot watching – it can be done the day before.
Melt some butter with a slug of extra virgin olive oil, in a cast iron casserole and when the butter starts to bubble, add 2 large sliced onions. Don’t chop the onions into little pieces, they should be long and difficult to manage with a soup spoon! This is much easier done in a casserole than a frying pan – the onions stay in the pot while stirring.
Start cooking the onions on a medium heat, stir regularly and after about 10 minutes, turn the heat down low. All the rings will come apart as the onions cook. The secret here is in slowly caramelising the onions, so that they almost melt. Don’t try to cook them quickly, they’ll burn and even cooked slowly they require almost constant stirring. Do not put a lid on the pan! Caramelisation isn’t the same as sweating onions, which keeps water in. With caramelisation you want the water to evaporate and the sugar in the onions to break down and caramelise. If the onions start to stick early on, add some more olive oil. The onions should become so sweet that you could almost make a dessert with them. My onions were perfect when they had taken on a light brown colour and reduced by more than half – it took about 75 minutes.
When the onions are ready, stir in a heaped dessertspoonful of flour, as if you are making a roux. Slowly pour on some beef stock and keep stirring – the stock can be warm or cold, but boiling stock might make the flour go lumpy. The soup will thicken to start with and then become more liquid as the stock is added. Pour in the red wine and simmer for 20 – 30 minutes. I used to use white wine, but one day ran out and used red instead – I decided that the red tasted better and have used it since then.
While the soup is simmering, make some large croutons and grate the cheese. If you are really pushed to find Emmental or Gruyère, you might get away with cheddar. Make little mounds of cheese on top of the croutons.
After 20 – 30 minutes, taste the soup and adjust the seasoning if necessary. Some people add a dash of sherry, port, cognac or red wine vinegar at this point – I have experimented with all of these, but if the onions and beef stock are right, they don’t seem to need anything else, so I say, “Keep It Simple Stupid.”
Float the cheese covered croutons on top of the soup – mine all went into the same casserole with the soup, but it’s fairly normal to use individual oven proof bowls. Put the casserole or dishes under the grill until the cheese bubbles and melts. The tang of the cheese makes a good counter point to the sweetness of the onions.
A good accompaniment to onion soup would be toasted sourdough bread, spread with roasted garlic.