French Onion Soup: A Pinch of Salt and a Little Patience

Made from beef broth and caramelized onions, it’s often ladled into ramekins, topped with croutons, a slice of comté and grilled to bubbly perfection. French Onion Soup originated in France in the 18th century as a poor mans soup because onions were plentiful and readily available.

Modern day versions of this soup can be sophisticated concoctions simmered with brandy and dressed with gourmet cheeses, but no matter how you embellish it, French Onion Soup is, “all about the stock and onions. Do them right, and you have a masterpiece on your hands. Do them wrong, and it’s all lost,” explains Chef Jean White of Three Sisters Restaurant in the Seneca Niagara Resort & Casino. The chef who is mad about French Onion Soup declares, “there’s no good reason why so much bad French Onion Soup exists in the world.” To her credit, Chef White is constantly bombarded for the recipe for her signature dish.

“Sure, there are things we can do to elevate the soup, but they are no substitute for a good base,” says Jean. I asked Chef White to share the most important ingredient in her French Onion Soup and without hesitation she replies, “patience.”

Generally speaking onion soup is about onions cooked slowly, becoming caramelized. Jean explains there is a theory floating out there that onions must be cooked to a deep, deep, dark mahogany brown but Jean warns, “the risk of going very dark is that the onions become bitter and the soup is ruined.”

Really good French onion soup can be made with more lightly caramelized onions. The deep, sweet flavor that you want to achieve, Jean calls it “the sweet spot”, comes long before the onions turn the color of dark chocolate. Jean recommends “cooking the onions in butter until they are incredibly soft, with a deep, sweet flavor and a color that’s a rich golden brown.”

While most French Onion Soup recipes on the internet will advise you to cook the onions for 15 minutes, I asked Jean how long you have to cook onions to get to the “sweet spot”. She replies, “you’ll be lucky if they’re done in 45 minutes – like I said, patience.”

Yes, over high heat, onions can brown on the surface very quickly, especially in a pan that’s not crowded. But the goal of caramelizing onions isn’t just to brown the surface, it’s to transform the onions so that they are soft and sweet to the core. Try to rush it and all you’ll end up doing is burning them.

Sugar is commonly added to onions to help speed up the caramelization of onions but chef Jean warns, “it adds a candy-like sweetness to the soup that you really don’t want. I think people should use sugar only when it’s necessary to correct a batch of onions that aren’t sweet enough, rather than think of it as an ingredient.”

Aside from butter, salt and a few herbs, Jean puts nothing else in the pot of onions. And yet, despite such a bare-bones version, her soup tastes like one of the best French onion soups I’d ever had.

Jean interjects a quick word about onion varieties. She’s made onion soup with all types of onions, Vidalia, red, yellow and shallots and in the end it is the most inexpensive onion, the yellow that gives the best flavor. Having said that, she admits her secret is to add a few shallots to the pile of sweet, yellow onions. “They add the elegant touch that the sweeter common yellow onion lack.”

When the onions are caramelized, the next step is to add the liquid and simmer it all together. First Jean simmers in the onions in a bit of sherry so they soak up all the nutty, oxidized flavors. Then it’s time for the broth.

This is where Jean says most people fail. “You have to make your own broth or buy a good home made version from a specialty store.” She warns against commercially made cubes, dried broth dust or commercial liquid broths because they’re terrible and if used, “you can’t really expect anything more from your soup.”

“If you want to make good soup, it starts with good broth,” she repeats. Buy enough beef bones to fill a stock pot half way. But first, lay them on baking sheets and roast them at a moderately high heat (400F) and the length of time is, “it takes as long as it takes,” she says. “You’re looking for a deep brown color with no burnt bones.” Once the beef bones are dark, put them in the stock pot. If they fill the pot half way up, then put enough water to fill the pot three-quarters of the way. “Now simmer the bones and you can actually smell how the flavor of the roasted bones seep into the broth.” Jean warns against stirring the broth as it cooks, “skim the top scum away but don’t stir it or you’ll get a cloudy broth.” A little bay leaf and a bit of black pepper is all she adds, the rest of the seasoning takes place in the soup.

Historically speaking, the broth for a classic French Onion Soup has always been beef, but it’s time-consuming to make good beef broth at home so Jean recommends chicken stock. “Home made chicken stock is easier to make and is your best option.”

With beautifully caramelized onions and a good home made broth your soup will be so fantastic you won’t even need the melted cheese on top for it to be delicious. But not to worry, Jean does add cheese. The cheese is a blend of Swiss and Provolone. The Swiss adds a savoury depth of flavor while the Provolone melts better, is stretchier and crisps under the broiler better.

Under the cheese are butter-dried large croutons that don’t cave to the broth, they just add textural contrast to the liquid and melted cheese. The soup is broiled to form a nice bubbly crust on top.

Jean is passionate about French Onion Soup because it changed her life. As a little girl, she went out to lunch with her aunt and grandmother. Someone ordered French Onion Soup and it make Jean’s eyes pop. “I’d never seen a cheese crown on soup before,” she exclaims. She hated onions so was hesitant to try it but when she did, “I was amazed at how velvety, silky, beefy and delicious it was – didn’t taste like onions at all!”

Bacon and chipotle will go in and out of style, but French Onion Soup is timeless. “Here we are 30 years later and it’s the most popular dish on our menu. We serve it at all times of the day and night and yea, some even want it for breakfast!” Then she laughs, “but we don’t serve it with a package of Club soda crackers on the side. That’s the way they served it the day I first tasted it!”

The Three Sisters French Onion Soup Recipe

  • 2 lb onions, peeled and very thinly sliced
  • 3 sprigs fresh thyme
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1/2 stick (1/4 cup) unsalted butter
  • 2 tsp all-purpose flour
  • 3/4 cup dry sherry
  • 6 cups beef broth
  • 6 slices of French baguette, 1/2-inch-thick
  • ½ cup each of shredded Swiss and Provolone
  • 2 tbsp Parmigiano-Reggiano, finely grated

Cook onions, thyme, bay leaf in butter in a heavy pot over moderate heat. Season well with salt and freshly cracked black pepper. Continue cooking, uncovered, stirring frequently, until onions are very soft and deep golden brown, about 45 minutes. Add flour and cook, stirring, 1 minute more. Stir in sherry and cook for 2 minutes. Stir in broth and season to taste. Simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally for 30 minutes.

While soup simmers, put oven rack in middle position and preheat oven to 350°F. Arrange baguette slices in a single layer on a large baking sheet and toast, turning over once, until completely dry, about 15 minutes. Remove from oven and preheat broiler.

Place six French onion soup bowls in a shallow baking pan. Discard bay leaves and thyme from soup and divide soup among bowls. Float a baguette slice in each. Divide shredded Swiss and Provolone cheese among six soup bowls. Ensure the cheese covers the tops of each bowl, allowing ends of cheese to hang over rims of crocks, then sprinkle with Parmigiano-Reggiano.

Broil 4 to 5 inches from heat until cheese is melted, bubbly and is golden on top, about 1 to 2 minutes. Serve hot. Serves 6.


By Lynn Ogryzlo

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