Monday, October 15, 2012

French Onion Soup

One of my favorite programs on NPR is the Splendid Table. The radio show features a variety of famous and not so famous chefs from around the world and the entire hour is spent discussing food and cooking. On a cold Sunday morning last October, I was listening to the show and Wolfgang Puck happened to be the guest chef of the day.  He had a mountain of information to share and allowed listeners to hear some of his secrets of cooking. At the end of every show the host asks the featured chef what his or her favorite go-to meal is...a recipe he or she cooks at the end of a long day and a recipe using items usually on hand. Much to my surprise, Wolfgang Puck quickly responded, "Oh that's easy, onion soup." I was shocked because I always assumed real onion soup would be quite difficult to create. He explained his reasoning, "All you need are simple, yellow onions, beef stock, white wine, and Cognac. Then you caramelize the onions to death, add the liquids and you have a beautiful soup." He emphasized the caramelizing, reassuring the audience the bottom of the pan should be black. Apparently, this intense caramelizing is the secret to perfect onion soup. Later that evening, I pulled out my Barefoot Contessa cookbook and found her recipe for onion soup, it was surprisingly similar to Wolfgang Puck's version. I halved Ina Garten's recipe, eliminated the veal stock and replaced it with beef stock, and ignored her direction to saute the onions until they turn a rich golden brown color. Instead, I caramelized the heck out of them, just as Wolfgang Puck suggested, and WOW did the soup turn out well. Another time, I didn't caramelize them as much and it was still good, it just didn't have the wow factor at all. A friend ate a leftover bowl of the Wolfgang Puck inspired batch and said it was the best onion soup he has ever tasted. I am not sure about that, but I am sure it is one of the best bowls I have ever tasted. Honestly, caramelize them until they are almost burned. You will be scared, but when the liquids deglaze the pan and all of the black bits combine into the soup, you will be ever so grateful, trust me. And this soup gets better as it sits. It is so easy for me now, I don't even have to open the book. I have a raging cold right now, I can hardly breathe and am coughing non-stop, but this soup always seems to hit the spot...I think it even helped my cold. Enjoy and good luck. Oh and it might seem as if this is a lot of alcohol to purchase, but once you make it the first time, you will want it again and again. I keep the bottles on hand and always seem to use them up during the fall and winter months.

Ina Garten's list of ingredients: (from The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook)
(serves 4-6  *I halve the recipe when I am making it for two people...I always have leftovers. When I serve a larger group I make the entire amount and there is plenty for at least six good sized bowls.)

2 1/2 pounds yellow onions, halved, and sliced 1/4 inch thick (8 cups) *about 4 large onions
1/4 pound unsalted butter
1 bay leaf
1/2 cup medium-dry sherry
1/2 cup brandy or Cognac (I used brandy)
1 1/2 cups good dry white wine
4 cups beef stock
4 cups veal stock (I use more beef stock, I am not a big fan of veal)
1 tablespoon kosher salt *must use KOSHER salt! It truly does make a difference!
1/2 teaspoon pepper

Freshly grated Parmesan and Gruyere
Also, add the Parmesan Croutons from the Tomato Soup Recipe if you like bread in your onion soup.

First, slice the onions. This is really the only major effort. It hardly takes any time either.

Then, put the onions, bay leaf, and butter in a large, heavy-bottomed pot.

Caramelize the onions until they are really brown. This is the part Wolfgang Puck said is so very important. This will take a good amount of time, 20 or 30 minutes. I always do dishes or start to prepare the Parmesan toasts and stir the onions every so often.

This is how dark the onions should be...see the black bottom?

A close up of the finished onions.

Once the onions are really, really caramelized, deglaze the pan with the sherry and brandy and simmer uncovered for 5 minutes. All of the black on the bottom will not come up this time. Some of it will, but do not be alarmed if most of it is still stuck. You should get a nice, dark soup base from this step.

This part looks really scary because of the black stuff, but I promise the darkness is the secret.

Add the white wine and simmer uncovered for 15 more minutes. When you add the wine, scrape even more of the bits from the bottom of the pan and the soup will get richer and darker. The darker the color, the better the soup.

Finally, add the beef stock (scrape the last of the black bits) plus salt (please remember to use kosher salt, my sister used table salt and it was way too salty) and pepper and bring to a boil. Then, simmer uncovered for 20 minutes. Remove the bay leaf, taste for salt and pepper, and serve hot with grated Parmesan and Gruyere cheese. Add the Parmesan toasts if you prefer. When you add the beef stock, it will turn a perfect onion soup brown and you will know you did everything right.

If you caramelized the onions enough, the soup will be this dark in color after you add the beef stock.

Finished product...notice the color of the soup. It tastes every bit as good as it looks, wait until you try it.

I hope you enjoy it as much as I do...I have already made it three times this season.

I am off to bed to rest this snotty head. Have a wonderful evening...or what is left of it.


  1. Oh, this looks awesome! I pinned it, too...hoping other will like the recipe and come read your fantastic blog. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Yummmm makin' it this weekend. I can't wait!! Thanks for sharing.

  3. that looks amazing, I can't wait to make it! : )

  4. I have never had the courage to try French Onion Soup! I didn't know that it was pretty easy to make either. Hmm, I might have to give it a try. My husband is not a fan of alcohol, so I wonder if it would be good without? I know it would burn off, but he can taste it in ANYTHING!

  5. Thanks for the recipe! I tried making French onion soup a few years ago, it was ok, but it was definitely missing the "wow" factor... I will try again, using the caramelisation process... it's on the to-do list for next Saturday, can't wait! Thanks also for so many good clear photos of the process, when I make the soup I will feel like you are there, showing me exactly how to do it :-)

  6. That looks delicious! I will have to try it. Hope your cold goes away soon!

  7. Thanks for the recipe. I am excited to try it. I can't tell you how glad I am to read your blog Sarah!! It has been way too long!
    (jill tierney hudak-aka bridget's sister)


Thank you for commenting. I appreciate all of your words.