Thursday, January 13, 2011

French Onion Soup

Homemade French onion soup made with a beef bone enhanced broth, caramelized sweet and yellow onion, and finished with croutons and cheese. Homemade French onion soup made with a beef bone enhanced broth, caramelized sweet and yellow onion, and finished with croutons and cheese.

French Onion Soup

French Onion Soup is a well loved winter favorite, and it's as loved in The South as it is anywhere. But... it does take patience to make. It is so worth every single second of the time. Caramelized onions simmered in a deep, rich beef stock, and topped with crusty bread or croutons and gooey cheese. I wish I could convey to you how delicious this soup is. I truly say it is the best French onion soup I have ever made. Is your mouth watering yet?

I believe it earns the name French onion soup when it has the cheesy topping, traditionally Gruyere, though you can certainly use whatever cheese you prefer. Don't hold me to that name thing, since I've never dipped a single toe in French territory myself, unless you count the area of the Deep South that I'm from.

While it is certainly easiest, and less time consuming, to make this soup with onions stewed down and simply added to a store-bought broth - the way that I've made it myself in the past - if that is the only way you've ever had French onion soup at home, you have been missing out. I learned that while indeed making it at home is a process, and a weekend process for many, but the time you put into it is so very worth the outcome.

I used a commercially prepared broth to save a little of that time, since making a full blown, rich beef stock would only add hours to this process. I just felt this soup deserving of a much richer base than broth alone, so I decided to enhance it. I thought the best way to do that would be to utilize some simple soup bones. The best way to bring out the flavor in those, in my opinion, is oven roasting them. A drizzle of oil and a roast in the oven. Simple, but a remarkable layer of flavor. You can find beef bones at your local market.

I've seen French Onion Soup recipes that use a base of beef stock, or chicken stock, or a combination of the two, and sometimes even vegetable stock. I truly don't know what's proper or what's right, but I liked the idea of a concentrated rich beef stock resulting from commercial broth simmered with those roasted beef bones. If you're having trouble finding beef bones, be sure to ask the butcher if your store still has one. You can, of course, skip that step with the bones and still make this with a good quality beef stock, or even by enhancing commercial beef broth with a good beef base like Better Than Bouillon.

Since we are talking onion soup here, of course, the next important level of flavor comes from the onions. Red onion is a good choice, but they are just too strong for me. Sweet onions are probably a little bit too sweet all on their own for this soup, but I love them. I settled on using a combination of regular yellow onion with sweet onions, and certainly would use Vidalia onions when they are in season. This time of year, my sweet onions came from Peru. You can use a mixture of red, yellow, sweet and even some shallots if you like.

I wouldn't normally give you a tutorial on onion slicing, but wanted to show you how I slice mine so that they aren't awkward and difficult to eat. I first halve the onions lengthwise.

And then I cut off the end, so I can slice them into half moon shapes...

...until I have a mess of onion moons. This is 4 onions, 2 yellow, 2 sweet, for a total of about 16 cups of sliced onion. Whichever onion you use, and however you slice them, put them in the Dutch oven with some butter, cover and let them soften over medium heat. If you want to add a little southern flair, cook four slices of bacon to crisp, remove and set aside to crumble for garnish, and add the butter to the bacon drippings. Once onions are softened, uncover them, crank up the heat to medium high, and let them caramelize with just a bit of salt and sugar, stirring often. Much like making a deep, dark roux, this can take some time, but the process is worth it for the next level of flavor it adds to the soup.

Cook the onions down, stirring regularly, until they look about like the ones below. It can take awhile - I think these went 45 minutes or so, but honestly I forgot to time it. You can also take them darker if you like - just keep cooking and stirring till they reach the color you like, but take care not to burn them or they will be bitter.

You can also use a slow cooker to caramelize onions. Just like most conversions, it's not quite the same, but they make a great substitute. You can start them before you go to bed and they'll be ready to use, refrigerate or increase ingredients and you can freeze the extra.

Some folks like a shot of sherry or brandy in their onion soup so go for it if you like, just use the good stuff that you would drink and not the cooking stuff off the grocery store shelf. If you go that route, you can add it here to deglaze the pan and let it cook down with the onions a bit before adding your stock, or simply add it in with the stock. Use a couple glugs, say somewhere around 2 or 3 tablespoons. If you prefer a thicker soup base, stir in a little bit of flour here and let it cook about 3 or 4 minutes before adding the stock. I didn't use either.

Next is the concentrated stock that is simmer with those roasted bones, added to the onions, along with some pepper, Worcestershire, and thyme and that's pretty much it. I didn't have enough thyme surviving in the garden to use fresh, so I used dried. If you have fresh, absolutely use it. Let everything meld together for about 30 minutes, just long enough for everybody to meet each other and get piping hot.

Most French onion soup crocks seem to hold somewhere around 10 to 16 ounces, so how many servings you get will depend on the size of your dish. I think somewhere buried in the garage in a box long ago forgotten, I actually have a couple of soup crocks, but you know what? This darling little mini casserole Corning Ware dish has been a part of my kitchen since the 70s, called "Spice of Life," holds 2-3/4 cups - just right for a nice bowl of onion soup - and worked just fine for me. My vintage is showing again, isn't it?

From there it's just a matter of building the soup bowl. Pile the steaming hot soup into your choice of bowl, add the traditional baguettes, or croutons like I used here. Some people like to add the bread to the bottom of the bowl and then top it with the soup, but it seems more logical to float the bread on top so that the cheese has something to adhere to, rather than sink to the bottom.

Then add your choice of cheese, as much as you like. I would have used Gruyere but I always have mozzarella in the freezer so that's what I chose to use. Such a rebel. Put your soup crocks on a baking sheet, and run the whole shebang under the broiler. Soon as it comes out, sprinkle a pinch of Parmesan cheese right on top and garnish with a sprig of thyme if ya like.


Dig in and enjoy y'all!

Yes, making a good homemade French Onion Soup does take time. And patience. But if you love a good onion soup, it is so very worth it. The good news is that you can make the soup portion of this (minus the bread and cheese) ahead when you have time, and keep it in the fridge for several days, or even freeze it for a later meal. I'm guessing once you make it and taste it, you won't be able to wait. It really is that good.

Even The Cajun, who doesn't mind onion in something, but would turn his nose up if offered a soup made solely of onion, enjoyed a bowl of this soup and proclaimed it delicious. Now that, is impressive.

Recipe: French Onion Soup

©From the Kitchen of Deep South Dish
Prep time: 1 hour 15 min |Cook time: 40 min | Yield: About 4 to 6 servings

  • 2-3 pounds of beef bones
  • 6 cups of low sodium beef broth*
  • 2 large Vidalia or other sweet onions, halved and sliced thin
  • 2 large yellow onions, halved and sliced thin
  • 4 tablespoons of unsalted butter
  • 1 teaspoon of kosher salt
  • 2 teaspoons of granulated sugar
  • 2-3 tablespoons of sherry, Cognac or brandy, optional
  • 1 tablespoon of all purpose flour, optional
  • Freshly cracked black pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon dried thyme, crushed
  • Couple dashes of Worcestershire sauce
  • Croutons or crusty bread, toasted
  • 1 cup of grated Gruyere, Swiss or Mozzarella cheese, more or less
  • Parmesan cheese

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Put a thin layer of canola oil in the bottom of a baking sheet and roll the bones around in the oil to coat them. Roast, turning every 15 minutes, for about 40 to 45 minutes or until nicely browned. Take care not to burn the bones as they will make the stock bitter. Remove, reserving the drippings, and transfer the bones to a medium sized pot. Pour the broth on top, and bring to a boil; reduce heat and simmer for 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, in a soup pot or Dutch oven, add the butter and the reserved pan drippings from the bones, straining out as much of the browned bits as possible. Cut the onions in half and then slice thin. You should have roughly 16 cups of loosely measured sliced onion. Add to the pot and turn to coat onion. Cover and cook over medium, until onions are softened, stirring and turning several times. Uncover, sprinkle with the salt and sugar, if using, turn the heat up to medium high, and continue cooking until nicely browned, stirring regularly. The process can take upwards of 45 minutes and even longer. Do not let the onions burn however, or they will be too bitter to use.

If you want to add Cognac, brandy or sherry, you can add it here and let it cook with the onion, or you can simply stir it in with the stock. If you prefer a thicker broth, stir in the flour and let it cook for about 3 minutes. Strain the stock from the bones and stir the stock into the onions. There should be about 4 cups of concentrated stock. Add the pepper, thyme and Worcestershire; bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer, covered, for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Taste and adjust seasonings as needed.

Preheat oven to broil. Place oven safe bowls, or soup crocks, onto a rimmed baking sheet and ladle the steaming hot soup into the bowls, distributing evenly. Add toasted baguettes or croutons on top of each bowl and sprinkle choice of cheese generously and evenly over the top of each. Set aside the Parmesan cheese. Place tray under the broiler and leaving the oven door cracked, broil just until the cheese is melted and bubbly. Remove and sprinkle each crock with a pinch of Parmesan cheese. Serve hot but with a caution for the hot bowl!

Serves about 4 to 6, depending on the size of the serving bowls

Cook's Notes: If you want to add a little southern flair, cook four slices of bacon to crisp, remove and set aside to crumble for garnish; add the butter to the bacon drippings. Use a mixture of red, yellow and sweet onions, along with shallots. Can also substitute chicken stock or broth in whole, or in part, or use a combination of beef and chicken stock, or even vegetable stock, if you prefer. If you can't find beef bones at your local grocery store, try a store that still has a butcher, ring the bell and ask for them. If they are still doing any real butchering work, they'll have them. You can skip that step by using a quality commercial beef stock, or adding a bit of a good beef base like Better Than Bouillon, which I love, to a commercial beef broth.

How to Caramelize Onions in the Crockpot: Place the sliced onions in a slow cooker, sprinkle the sugar on the top and drizzle with some olive oil; toss until onions are well coated. Thinly slice 1/4 cup of cold butter (do not substitute margarine) over the top of the onions, cover and cook on low for 9 to 10 hours, or until onions are nicely caramelized, stirring occasionally, if possible. Season to taste.

To Make Baguettes: Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Slice French bread on the diagonal and place in a single layer on a baking sheet and bake for about 10 minutes or until crisped and slightly browned around the edges. Turn and repeat for the other side.


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©Deep South Dish
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Posted by on January 13, 2011
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