I’m ditching the old French onion soup recipe in the archive—this version by my daughter, Alex, is simpler with the same fantastic results. No need to cook the onions in the oven. Just a thick-bottomed pot on the stovetop will do. Just keep the heat on low and don’t forget to stir the onions once in a while to prevent scorching.
But what exactly is French onion soup? The version we are familiar with today is the modern take on a soup enjoyed by ancient Romans and Greeks. A peasant dish enjoyed by even the poorest of the poor because onions were always plentiful in the warmer Mediterranean region. “Modern” is a relative term here to differentiate it from the onion soup of ancient times. Modern French onion soup (or it direct antecedent) first made its appearance in the 17th century.
And what is “gratinéed” French onion soup? “Gratinéed” comes from gratin which means topping a dish with a browned crust (made with bread or breadcrumbs), grated cheese and, occasionally, eggs.
Why is French onion soup dark? I used to think this was due to the use of red onions. Wrong. White or yellow onions, sweet ones, are preferred for French onion soup. The dark hue comes the caramelization of the onions and the reduction of liquids (a very French cooking technique) to come up with full-bodied concentrated flavors. It took something like two and half hours to make this soup but the result is really worth it.
- 4 large yellow/white onions, about 400 grams, peeled and thinly sliced
- 3 tablespoons butter
- ¼ cup sweet white wine
- 6 cups chicken bone broth (homemade, preferably)
- freshly ground pepper
- a sprig of fresh tarragon (or about ⅛ teaspoon dried tarragon)
- 2 sprigs fresh thyme (or about ¼ teaspoon dried thyme)
- 4 to 6 slices of crusty bread
- 1 cup grated cheese (gruyère or Emmental are traditional; mozzarella is more popular)
- chopped parsley, to garnish
- On the stove top, melt the butter in a Dutch oven (or any thick-bottomed pan). Add the sliced onions. Stir. Cover the pan, set the heat to low and cook the onions for two hours or longer, stirring them every 15 minutes or so.
- When the onions have browned, pour in the wine. Stir to scrape any browned bits sticking to the bottom of the pan. Cook, uncovered, until most of the wine has evaporated.
- Pour in the chicken broth.
- Add the thyme and tarragon.
- Stir the soup. Taste the broth. Add salt and pepper, as needed. Cover the pot and let the broth heat up slowly to absorb all the flavors in the pot.
- Meanwhile, preheat the broiler to 450F.
- Toast the bread slices (we used a regular bread toaster). Not lightly toast them but toast them until quite dark and dry.
- Ladle the French onion soup into oven-safe bowls. Top the soup with a slice of toast then sprinkle the toast liberally with cheese.
- Set the bowls on a baking tray. Pop into the broiler and leave there for a minute or so, or until the cheese melts and browns in spots (the actual broiling time depends on how near or far the bowls are from the heat source).
- If broiling is too much work, there is a short cut. Use a kitchen torch to melt the cheese until a series of brown spots appear. Same effect.
- Garnish the French onion soup with chopped parsley before serving.