Sweet and rich caramelized onions are science meets cooking at its best. Add them to a savory dish and it's a world of happiness for your taste buds. One of the first recipes I wanted to perfect when starting my amateur chefery journey a few years back was French onion soup.
This ooey gooey, not ideal for a first-date dish also happens to be one of Rob's favorites so that has worked out nicely.
Like Luke during his quest for the force, I had to learn patience. If you know me then you recognize the challenge here. Beautifully caramelized onions require patience, stirring, stirring, flame adjustments, patience, stirring, deglazing and some more stirring. I have spent almost 2 hours caramelizing onions for a pot of French onion soup. Crazy you say? Nonsense. What's crazy are these 20-30 minute recipes. You can't reach into the sugary depths of an onion's soul in 20-30 minutes.
In terms of considerations, I'm not sure if this is a characteristic specific to American restaurants, but I'm not a fan of the thick chunks of onions and endlessly stringy cheese. Fortunately, when sliced thin enough the long caramelization process results in onions that are fall-apart perfect. They have enough texture to add something to the final product without being a distraction. With respect to the cheese, many recipes call for slices to be placed on top but this just ends up creating a bubbly blob. I decided to grate the cheese and sure enough this made it much easier to eat. The aesthetic is a little different than sliced cheese, but I'd prefer that our dinner guests not have to battle it out with the fromage.
Most recipes suggest a Swiss/Gruyere family mixture so I use two different kinds of cheese that I buy from Andrew's Cheese Shop in Santa Monica - Beaufort and Scharfe Maxx. If you live in the area I highly recommend checking out his shop. Andrew is super nice and his cheese stinks!
The fashion accessory... Flame red onion goggles make you look like an amateur chefery rock star. Think they're silly? Cut enough onions for French onion soup that serves 8 and then tell me if they're silly. Don't be a hero - wear onion goggles.
Mise En Place - Day 1
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 5-6 medium yellow onions thinly sliced (about 3 lbs sliced)
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1/4 cup dry red wine
- 1-2 small garlic cloves pressed
- 1-2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
- 4 1/2 cups low-sodium chicken broth
- 3 1/2 cups low-sodium beef broth
- 1 bay leaf
- 3 sprigs fresh thyme + 1 teaspoon minced fresh thyme for tweaking
- 2 sprigs fresh parsley
- Fresh ground pepper
- Kosher salt or grey salt
Mise En Place - Day 2
- 1/4 cup dry sherry
- Grated Gruyere/Swiss
- French baguette cut on bias into 1/2-3/4 inch slices. You will use 2 slices per bowl if the baguette is small.
- Chopped fresh parsley for garnish
Instructions - Day 1
- Slice the onions thinly. You should end up with about 3 lbs sliced for this recipe.
- Heat the butter and olive oil over medium heat. Add the onions, 1 teaspoon of salt, and toss to coat.
- Adjust the heat to med-low and cover. Set the timer for 30 minutes and every 10 minutes give the onions a toss. The goal is to create a sweat lodge for your little lovelies. No browning should be happening at this point. Sometimes when I don't feel like the onions are sweating enough (perhaps it's a cold day) I will turn the heat up ever so slightly to move things along.
00:00 After the 30 minute sweat there should be quite a bit of liquid that has accumulated at the bottom of the pot. That's the good stuff. Remove the lid and crank the heat up to med-high. I stir occasionally to ensure that the onions are evenly coated.
00:15 After about 15 minutes the liquid has pretty much dried up and there is a sticky layer forming on the bottom of the pan. Continue to stir frequently.
00:25 After about 25 minutes the browning will commence. I don't stir constantly, but I do stir frequently. The idea is to prevent any scorching. Sometimes adjusting the heat down a bit is necessary.
00:40 After about 40 minutes there is a beautiful golden brown forming on the onions. A lot of this color is the caramelization that the onions pick up off the pan when they get stirred around.
00:45 At 45 minutes I deglaze for the first time with a splash of beef stock. I try to get as much of the sticky goodness up off the pan and on to my onions. This way there a clean space for the process to begin anew.
00:50/00:55 It doesn't take long at this stage for the pot to form another nice coat of caramelization. Once I'm happy with the results I add the garlic, stir until it is fragrant (about a minute), and then deglaze one last time with a splash of balsamic vinegar. The transformation is complete. And for heaven's sake don't rinse the pot or remove the onions! You will want to pick up every last drop of sweet goodness when you add the liquid for the soup.
- With the heat on medium add the red wine and stir everything around taking care to scrape up any brown bits. Then add your beef/chicken broth, thyme, parsley, bay leaf, a few cranks of fresh ground pepper, and a pinch of salt (grey if you have it). Turn the heat down, cover and let all of the yummy flavors marry up for about 20 minutes.
- This part of the process is all about your own personal taste. My suggestion is that you tweak a little, refrigerate the soup overnight, and then finish tweaking the next day. One night in the cooler does wonders for French onion soup and all of its amazing flavors. For this particular pot I added an additional 1/2 teaspoon of fresh minced thyme, some more salt&pepper, and then I popped it in the fridge.
Instructions - Day 2
- The next day slowly bring the soup up to temperature. It's important to keep a lid on the pot since you don't want to reduce the flavors as they will already be quite strong. I usually add about an 1/8th of a cup of dry sherry. After a taste test the soup usually wants the 2nd 1/8th so that goes in as well. A touch more salt and pepper and the French onion soup is ready to get all dolled up.
- Turn the oven on to broil-high and adjust the oven rack to the middle position. Line a rimmed baking sheet with heavy-duty foil. Once the soup has been brought up to a simmer ladle some into your crock (or whatever oven-safe bowl you are using), add 2 bread slices, a very generous pile of cheese, and then slide the baking sheet with the crocks into the oven. Once the cheese is bubbly and brown carefully take the baking sheet and soup out and let it rest for about 5 minutes. Garnish with chopped parsley and voila!!
That is French onion soup, Chez Brown style. Be one with the onion young Jedi.