Monday, March 14, 2011

French Onion Soup

A few days ago, I tweeted that I felt a batch of French Onion Soup (hereafter referred to as FOS) coming on. And the more I thought about it, the more I wanted it. By the time I left work it was pretty much a foregone conclusion: There! Would! Be! Soup! I only make it two or three times a year, and it's always a big hit in Husbandville when I do. Okay, I like it a lot too, but wouldn't bother making it just for myself.

This is one of the many meals for which I do not follow a specific recipe. When I first started making it I used a recipe that, if I recall correctly, involved a dark beer. It's been over a decade since then; I no longer remember the recipe or where it came from, and I've modified my approach to better suit my own cooking style. This time I kept track of what I did as I cooked, so as to share my "recipe". As with most things I cook, it's a little bit different every time, depending on what I have on hand (cartons of broth versus bullion, for example), but the end result is usually more or less the same.

Before I list out the ingredients, let me give you the following caveat: I made a gigantic batch of soup. The recipe below fed three hungry adults and two children, with enough left over to serve leftover dinner for four the next day (and even lunch the day after that!). What I'm saying is: LOTS of soup. If you're making this for, say, two people, you may want to halve it (and still plan for leftovers).

French Onion Soup
  • 10lbs Frenched onions (sweet or white. I personally believe Walla Wallas to be the gold standard, here)
  • 1/2 stick butter
  • Bread for toasting (I like Food Lion's take'n'bake, but any baguette will do)
  • 4 cans Campbell's Beef Consomme
  • Beef base (I used Superior Touch Better Than Bullion), bullion, or broth in cans/cartons
  • 1T Cornstarch
  • White wine (or whatever liquid)
  • Kosher salt
  • Pepper
  • Granulated Garlic (I did not have minced garlic on hand or I would have used it instead)
  • Pam spray (butter or olive oil)
  • Cheese (I used two bags of shredded Swiss. Gruyere is great on FOS, if you can find it).
First things first: Prep your onions. I cut off the root and stem, slice in half from stem to root, and then peel each half. When they are all cut and peeled, French cut them. Onion prep (the slicing and the caramelizing) is the most time-intensive part of this recipe - it will take a good hour+, but it's pretty fast moving after that. This is what ten pounds of Frenched onions looked like in my big soup pot:

There are many schools of thought on how to caramelize onions. Some people do it in a crock pot, some do it on the stove over super low heat, and so on. I do it on the stove top, over high heat. (Sidebar: This is not for the faint of heart. Searing, burning, and sticking are all real risks of doing it like I do, and if you're new to cooking or unsure of your ability to manage this, use a lower heat and more time until you're more familiar with the high heat method.)

Melt the butter, add all the onions, crank the heat, and stir constantly. Once the onions start to soften, add a big pinch of salt. Continue stirring. Should the bottom of your pot start to get uncomfortably dark and crusty, deglaze with wine (or broth/water/whatever), and continue cooking, but don't let it get so dark that it's close to burning.

What you're looking for here is a rich dark reddish brown color, but you don't want seared crispy edges. The softening and collapsing of the onions takes the bulk of the time, and once the color starts appearing, reduce the heat just a bit (keep stirring!) and watch closely.Burning can happen quickly here if you're not careful.

The darker your caramelizing the better for FOS, really, but I was hungry and thus gave up about here:

See how the volume of onion has reduced? Switch to medium heat; add a pinch of salt, a few grinds of pepper, and a liberal sprinkle of granulated garlic. Ordinarily I would add a couple of tablespoons of minced garlic from a jar, but I had run out. Stir to combine, cook for a minute or two.

Add all the cans of Consomme. At this point I added hot water about to the level the onions were pre-cooking, and two big scoops of beef base (even if I were making half of this recipe, I would still use all four cans - I would just use less broth.) Then, because I like a little bit of body to my soup, I mixed the cornstarch with some wine and added it in, too. When the soup comes to a boil the cornstarch thickens it just a bit.

So let's pause here to taste what we've got. Adjust for any seasoning you think you may need. More beef base? More garlic? Maybe more salt or wine? Add it in now, and taste until you've got what you want. Let the soup simmer over low heat, and while that's happening, turn your attention to the bread. Slice it, lay the slices out on a cookie sheet, spray with Pam. A sprinkle of garlic, salt, and Parmesan won't hurt, but aren't necessary. Stick them under the broiler (watch carefully!), remove, flip, repeat. Like so:

Most FOS soup recipes are going to instruct you to ladle the soup into individual oven-safe bowls at this point. I'm not, and I'll tell you why: Because it is a bitch to deal with. It just is. Moving multiple bowls full of molten liquid on to a cookie sheet, into the oven, out of the oven... I did that all of once, and never will again. The burns did heal nicely, though, thanks for asking. Anyway.

Turn off the burner under your soup, and set an oven rack to a position which will accommodate your pot. Gently drop slices of toasted bread on to the surface of the soup, being careful not to submerge. When the surface is covered with bread, proceed to cover the bread with cheese. No big clumps at a time or you risk it sinking, but the surface of bread can really handle a truly startling amount of cheese, if you add it evenly. Carefully move your pot into the oven, and broil until the cheese is brown and bubbly, and then ladle it into individual serving bowls. Here is the finished product:

Hooray! Soup! This took me 1.5 hours, from start to finish. You guys, it was really good (if I do say so myself).

For leftovers: I refrigerate the soup in this same pot. To serve I return it to the stove to heat through, then repeat the bread/cheese/oven step.