Something mesmerizes about soupe a l’oignon gratinée. If properly done, there’s the cheese – thick, oozing, bubbling and likely a bit browned and toughened around the edges. Next, the slices of baguette, perhaps acting as a raft for the cheese or a lazy guard of the hot, fragrant stock. Then, the onions, soft, sweet and submissive.
Many Frenchmen (and woman) hold that French onion soup restores not only one’s soul, but brings back that je ne sais quoi that’s lost following a night of drinking too much vin rouge. A hot onion broth soup has thought to be have a hangover cure going back to the days of the Romans. It’s certainly been considered that since at least the late 1800s in Paris, when it became vogue for those partying throughout the night in Paris to stop in for an early morning bowl of the stuff at one of the 24-hour restaurants lining Les Halles, the famed wholesale market that once resided in the city’s right bank. Although the actual market itself picked up stakes and moved to Rungis back in the 1960s, a couple of restaurants form the era still exists. One of them is Au Pied de Cochon is a classic Parisian brasserie that has been opened 24/7 since its first days in 1947. Mike and I lived in Paris while I studied at Le Cordon Bleu there, and we made finding the perfect bowl of French onion soup one of our goals. As it happened, we spent most of our time living in the Les Halles area, so even though we slurped soup all over the city, the best we ever found was at Au Pied de Cochon.
It had all those marvelous elements: the generous layer of thick, bubbling cheese to the deeply flavored beef broth. I acknowledge, too, that we once had a bowl of it at 7:30 a.m. after a particularly rough night and I can vouch for its medicinal qualities.
French onion soup is not a difficult recipe, but you can’t cut corners. In a recipe with few ingredients such as this soup, it’s essentially that all must be of the best possible quality. For best results, follow three key steps. First, give the onions a careful, slow cooking to properly caramelize. Second, steep and simmer them in a beef or chicken stock that itself is rich with flavor. The best option: Make your own stock. Below you’ll find a terrific video lesson from John at FoodWishes.com on making stock.
If you used store-bought store, be sure to check the sodium content – your mileage will vary. Avoid bouillon cubes; the result can be unpleasantly salty. In a pinch, I’ve used Better than Bouillon Au Jus with good results.
Lastly, top it off with a quality cheese. Classically, that’s Swiss gruyere or French comté. If neither are available or both too pricey, try a sweet but slightly salty yellow cheese, such as Fontina, Jarlsberg or Provolone. For an even gratin, arrange a rack about six inches from the top broiler in your oven. Be sure to use bowls that can stand up under a broiler or the whole exercise may end in tears.
Recipe: French Onion Soup
- 1 lb. large yellow onions sliced thin
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter or olive oil
- 2 tablespoons flour
- 1 bouquet garni thyme, parsley sprigs tied together
- 1 bay leaf
- 1/2 cup dry white wine dry vermouth or champagne
- 1 tablespoon Cognac optional
- Two quarts brown stock or best quality packaged broth boiled
- ¼ French baguette sliced thin
- 6 oz swiss cheese grated
- 1 oz Parmesan cheese grated
- Preheat the oven to 350˚F. In a heavy saucepan over high heat, melt the butter or oil. Add the onions and stir to coat with the butter or oil, then cover for about five minutes. This will help to draw some of the moisture out from the onions. Then, uncover, add the salt and turn the heat to low. Continue to cook the onions, stirring occasionally, until the onions are medium-brown and caramelized, about 30 minutes.Sprinkle the top of the onions with the flour and stir thoroughly to coat. Add the wine and Cognac. Once the alcohol has evaporated slightly, add the hot stock. Reduce heat, add bouquet garni and simmer for one hour uncovered.
- Meanwhile, toast the baguette slices. Just before serving, top one side of the bread slices with cheese and broil lightly until cheese slightly melts. Remove bouquet garni and ladle soup into four broiler-safe bowls, such as heavy crockware.
- Taste the soup, adding more salt if needed. Put the toasts into the soup, cheese side down. Top the soup and bread with a layer of gruyere, topping off with a bit of Parmesan. Bake for 15 minutes, and then put under a broiler for a couple of minutes until the cheese bubbles and browns.