Saveur's French Onion Soup

Making French onion soup is really much more about the equipment than cooking skills, and by equipment I mean broiler-proof bowls and a broiler with enough clearance to handle those bowls. I knew this going into it, but also knew that I really wanted French onion soup. It’s one of those dishes you crave on cold winter nights. It’s comforting, hearty to the point of decadence, and since the short ribs filled my meat quota for the month, its almost-vegetarian quality really fit the bill for everything I wanted in a post-Christmas but pre-New Year’s meal—that week where life lets up and minor to major indulgences become justifiable.

Saveur's version:
Photo: Andre Baranowski

our version:
Major letdown, no?

The funny thing is that when I made this recipe, I was in Los Angeles where winter means an average high of 68 and low of 47 and where fires are built mostly for the fun of it and are often put out prematurely following comments like, "Uhm, it's really hot in here." And now as I write this, I’m at home in Pittsburgh where there are no highs and lows as far as I can tell—everything is just super cold, all the time.
On to the recipe, which calls for braising the onions instead of cooking them on the stovetop, which I would recommend simply for the hour and half that your house will smell of butter, onions, wine and sherry. It’s such a particular smell—mildly vinegary but mostly rich and brasserie-like. And this is where I messed up—though you really wouldn’t have known it by the amazing aroma.

I halved the recipe, but failed to half the size of the braising dish, so the melted butter, sherry, and white wine didn’t fully cover the onions. Below are the onions after the first 45 minutes, uncovered—just a little burnt—and then after another hour, covered with foil. I was convinced the recipe was ruined, but after Matt and I sampled one of the burnt onions and it only tasted vaguely burnt, we pushed onward.
Up next was the bouquet garni, which prompted the Google search: what is a bouquet garni? Speaking of Google searches, what’s going on with Google search auto-fill? It’s getting kind of weird.
Anyway, as it turns out, a bouquet garni is a bunch of herbs wrapped in cheesecloth or sometimes leek leaves that is used to flavor a stew or soup. Here is mine sans cheesecloth or leek, neither of which I had on hand. I like to call this the Bon Appetempt loose bouquet garni (patent pending).
To get around the broiler and broiler-proof bowl problem, I decided to mound the gruyere and parmesan on top of the bread and put those in the broiler and then place them on top of the soup.

The results were solidly mediocre.
Unfortunately, the burnt onions flavored the broth much more than my makeshift garni had. Each bite tasted slightly of char. And even more sadly, I have no solutions for the person with a shallow broiler. I mean, would it work if I moved my oven rack up to the highest slot and cooked the bowls like that?

Of course, I really would make it all over again just for the onion and butter aroma to take over our apartment.

RECIPE from Saveur and based on one in Bistro Cooking by Patricia Wells (Workman, 1989):
1 cup white wine
1⁄2 cup plus 3 tbsp. sherry
10 tbsp. butter
1 tsp. sugar
3 large yellow onions, thinly sliced
Kosher salt and black pepper, to taste
6 sprigs flat-leaf parsley
6 sprigs thyme
2 fresh bay leaves
2 qts. Beef Stock
12  1⁄2"-thick slices baguette
2 cloves garlic, smashed
6 cups grated gruyère cheese
2 cups finely grated parmigiano-reggiano

1. Heat oven to 425°. Combine wine, 1⁄2 cup of the sherry, 8 tbsp. of the butter, sugar, onions, and salt and pepper in a 9" × 13" casserole dish and braise, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until the onions just begin to brown, 40–45 minutes. Remove casserole from oven, cover with foil, and continue braising in oven, stirring occasionally, until caramelized, about 1 hour more. Keep the onions warm.

2. Meanwhile, tie parsley, thyme, and bay leaves together with kitchen twine to make a bouquet garni. Put bouquet garni and stock into a pot and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer, partially covered, for 30 minutes. Remove and discard bouquet garni. Stir in remaining sherry and cook for 5 minutes more.

3. While the broth simmers, spread the baguette slices with the remaining butter. Toast in a skillet over medium heat, turning once, until golden, 5–7 minutes. Rub the slices generously with garlic and set aside. Discard any remaining garlic.

4. Heat broiler with rack 6" from element. Arrange 6 heatproof bowls on a foil-lined sheet tray, divide onions and broth between bowls, and stir together. Place 2 baguette slices in each bowl; top each with about 1 cup gruyère and about 1⁄3 cup parmigiano. Broil until cheeses are browned and bubbly, 3–5 minutes. Serve immediately.


penelope said...

Your patent-pending bouquet garni is really special.

Mary Anne said...

sad!! You should try it again sometime. So worth it. When I made this recently I just used regular glass bowls under the broiler and it was fine! They just got SUPER hot.

Matt said...

I also want you to try these again... it was so close to being so good! Cool bouquet garni.

Jessica said...

Yours actually looks decent to me, as I LOVE french Onion soup but hate how much cheese it tends to have... kinda grosses me out. I'm sure if it wasn't for those burnt onions it would have been fantastic.

Anonymous said...

mmmm, still looks good to me!
I have to ask a question...if you have a serious FAIL etempt, what do you do? do you eat it, or do you toss it and order pizza?

bon appetempt said...

We eat everything. Even this one http://www.bonappetempt.com/2009/08/gourmets-cantaloupe-grappa-semifreddo.html.

Bonified said...

Hello! I love your blog. I just made the French onion soup following the recipe as best as I could and I have to say, even cheating my way over the moon by not letting the onions caramelize and using chicken boulillion instead of real beef stock (it was all I had to work with), it still turned out fantastic! A perfect meal on a cold, rainy Sunday evening.

Amelia Morris said...

bonified: soooo glad! it really is hard to go wrong with such a classic.

Heather said...

I LOVE your blog! Great idea!! This response is prolly way to long, sorry. Although your bouquet garni was wonderful, it may be easier to fish out if you tie it with some string first. :) (I only know this from watching Alton Brown)

Thought I would share my second attempt at French Onion soup...it was delish: (I made it a again using an electric fry pan at 350 deg. for caramelizing the onion-also an idea from Alton-which was much easier and tastier)

Soupe à L’oignon Gratinée – French Onion Soup – Julia Child

The key to French Onion soup is the slow cooking of the onions in butter and oil, followed by a long, slow simmering in stock. This helps them to develop the rich flavor this soup is known for.
6-8 servings


5 cups thinly sliced yellow onions (cut pole to pole then sliced – so you don’t have long strings of onion)
3 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon oil
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon sugar
3 tablespoons flour
2 quarts beef stock, boiling
1/2 cup dry white wine
salt and pepper to taste
3 tablespoons cognac (can also use Sherry - I didn’t use either)
4-6 rounds of hard-toasted French bread
1-2 cups grated Swiss or Parmesan cheese (used both Swiss and Asiago – I’ll go with the two cups next time- one cup of each)
*I added 1 bay leaf, about ¼ - ½ tsp. sage and about the same amount of thyme, based on other recipes.

1) Cook the onions slowly in the butter and oil in a covered saucepan for 15 minutes. Uncover, raise heat to medium and stir in the salt and sugar. The sugar will help the onions to brown. Cook for 30-40 minutes, stirring frequently, until the onions have turned a deep golden brown.

2) Sprinkle in the flour and stir over heat for 3 minutes but don’t let the flour burn. Off heat, blend in the stock. Add the wine and season to taste. Simmer partially covered for another 30-40 minutes or more, skimming if needed. Cook until it tastes good (full bodied) Correct seasonings.

3) Just before serving, stir in the cognac (didn’t do). Place rounds of toasted bread in soup bowls or a tureen and pour soup on top. Sprinkle with grated cheese and brown under a hot broiler until golden and bubbly. Serve immediately. I didn't have any problems broiling the bowls.

Bon appetite!

Amelia Morris said...

thanks, HMthelords! Will give a try once it gets cold again! :)

Julia said...

i just discovered this blog tonight, and so far, i love it. i also love french onion soup, another new discovery. i decided i wanted to cook it to freeze as a meal to bring to work.

because i knew i couldn't broil the cheese or do other fancy things, and because i didnt have most of the ingredients called for in my recipe (which is similar to this one), i did this:

1 yellow, 2 sweet onions
~40oz beef broth
2 tbsp white wine
1/2 c. unsalted butter
salt n pepa to taste
crouton and mozzarella

simmered the onions in the butter until they started browning, dumped in the broth, white wine, and salt and pepper, and let it simmer, covered, for about 30 mins. froze it. when it came time to eat it, i'd add the croutons and cheese to the soup for the last minute. not the same, no - but seriously delicious, and much appreciated coming in from the new england winter.

Amelia Morris said...

thanks, julia! that sounds like a great idea.