French Onion Soup is perhaps the most iconic and well-travelled of all French dishes. Worldwide it has seduced more stomachs than even our beloved New England clam chowder, which incidentally, is another French export. Onion soup is, as author Robert Courtine suggests, “a daughter of the streets… In her presence all castes dissolve. Rich and Poor are equal in appetite.” Her simplicity seduces all.
And from the subtle depths of all past ages the scent of the gratinee is the incense of haves and have-nots together in the dark, together because of the dark. The early to bed know nothing of her. They are the sons of error and is certainty itself.
– Robert Courtine, The Hundred Glories of French Cooking
I once read a legend that onion soup was probably “invented” by Louis the XV and promptly spit up my morning coffee laughing. In this histoire, Louis was out hunting with the boys when they returned to the hunting lodge and found nothing but a couple onions and a bottle of Champagne in the cupboards. What is a poor monarch suppose to do but improvise when confronted with such bare necessities? Laughable at best.
In truth, a version of onion soup has probably been simmering on stove tops in peasant homes since the dawn of time. A recipe that has much more to do with economy and efficiency, than royalty and snacks for hunting parties. Nowadays we have this crazy obsession to want to claim everything as the original recipe or story, like somehow it is scientifically traceable to a single, exact defining moment of the onion soup genesis.
One google search and you will find at least one hundred recipes claiming to be the original or most authentic. Onion soup, at its very essence, is nothing more than onions and water boiled together. Period, done, finished, everything added from that point on is pure opinion.
Caramelizing the onions brings out sugars, and makes a more luxurious silky and sweet soup, adding flour gently thickens and provides body. Some will argue about whether adding water or stock is more authentic, I say who cares, add chicken or beef stock if you are so inclined, or be like your ancestors and simply use water. Some people add white, red or even sherry wine which will add a bit more complexity to the final flavor. I have even seen multiple recipes advising milk and dairy products, even the great Escoffier advises using small amounts of bechamel mixed with pureed onions to spread on the toasts before sprinkling them with grated cheese.
Onion soup exudes my free spirit approach to perfect cooking; deeply rooted in the classics, but without the constraints of rules and boundaries. Allow the moment to embrace you, let passion dictate your next moves, what is already in your cupboard will more than likely decide the final outcome. Who knows, maybe Louis the XV did invent it.
And her soul at peace. She cradles a whole world of bohemianism, of merrymaking, of fatigue and encroaching soberness in her sturdy matron’s arms. She consoles, in those small hours, our sickness of heart and disillusions. – Robert Courtine
Whatever the history, try making onion soup this weekend. To make it properly will require patience, but the reward will be incredible smells that fill your home and the best onion soup you have ever tasted. We love to see your takes on our dishes, please hashtag #pistouandpastis so we can see your masterpiece all over social media.
- 3 tablespoons butter
- 2 strips bacon, diced or sliced
- 4 sweet onions, about 2 - 2.5 pounds
- 4 cloves garlic, mashed
- 1 tablespoon flour, omit if you are gluten intolerant
- 1 cup red wine
- 10 cups chicken stock or water
- 1 sprig thyme
- 1 bay leaf
- 8 croutons, see notes
- 6 ounces Emmental cheese
- 2 ounces mozzarella
- Melt butter in a thick bottomed, heavy pan. The weight of the pan matters greatly; the heavier it is, the less chance of scorching while cooking the onions low and slow for two hours.
- Add bacon, and cook till lightly browned.
- Add onions and garlic and cook on medium heat for 30 minutes stirring often. The onions will get soft and start to brown slightly.
- Turn the heat down, and continue cooking for another 1.5 hours. During this time the onions will get very brown BUT not burnt. The sweetness and richness of flavor comes from this step. Stir quite often.
- Sprinkle flour over and stir into onions, if you do not eat gluten you can omit. This step gives onion soup a bit more depth and body.
- Add red wine, chicken stock or water, thyme and bay leaf and simmer for 30 minutes
- You can cook the soup this far and save for another day. The soup should have a beautiful golden brown hue and taste incredible.
- Use whatever bowls you have. I tried everything from classic French onion soup bowls to regular bowls to a beautiful Lodge cast iron pot I had sitting on my shelf. Put two croutons per bowl.
- Shred the mozzarella and emmental or gruyere or Swiss cheese. I like a ration of three parts Swiss type cheese to one part mozzarella. The mozzarella really adds a beautiful molten cheesy quality to it. Add as much cheese as you want.
- Put the bowls on a cookie sheet and set under your broiler till golden brown, about five minutes.
An easy recipe for chicken stock can be found in my cookbook, Cuisine of the Sun purchased here
My Onion Soup, version two
When the soup is done puree in a blender. The soup will get get a creamy look and taste even sweeter. Float toasted croutons topped with one poached egg and grated cheese.
Tuscan Onion Soup, version three
Substitute pancetta for bacon in original recipe. Half the amount of onions used and add one red onion and one fat leek. When you add the chicken stock and red wine, add a shot of balsamic vinegar. Top with a crouton, sliced Fontina cheese and a dusting of Parmesan.