French Onion Soup
My husband loves French onion soup. I’m not sure if it’s the soup itself that he loves, or if it’s just the cheese that gets melted over the bread that sits atop the soup, that he loves. Either way, most times when we go out to eat, and he sees French onion soup on the menu, he wants to order it. That’s just fine by me, because I happen to love French onion soup as well. The yummy, slightly salty broth mixed with the sweet caramelized onions, and the crusty bread on top with the cheese that’s been melted in a broiler or salamander, is such a yummy combination. Stick your spoon into the soup and you come up with a spoonful of broth, onions, bread and stringy cheese that equals nothing but goodness. Perfect for a cold day.
In looking at the soup itself, it would seem that it’s not all that difficult to make. I mean, what are the ingredients but the broth and the onions, right? One weekend, when my husband and I were coming up with plans for the upcoming week’s dinner meals, my husband decided he wanted to try his hand at making French onion soup. We looked at several recipes online, and then we decided to use the best, and easiest parts, of some of those recipes and create our own French onion soup.
The process for making the soup starts out with several sweet onions peeled, halved and then thinly sliced. On the chopping board, it looks like a whole lot of onions. But once you sweat them and caramelize them, the onions reduce in volume by more than half. And what looked like way too many onions for a big pot of soup actually becomes almost no onions in your big pot of soup. So, don’t be afraid to cut up a bunch of onions and use them! Melt butter into a large Dutch oven. Once the butter is melted, throw in the sliced onions, and stir to coat the onions. Add in some fresh chopped thyme and rosemary. And 2-3 minced garlic cloves. Have the stove on high, and cover the Dutch oven. The process of sweating and caramelizing the onions will take some time. In 8-10 minutes time, come back and stir the onions. Make sure that the onions at the bottom of the Dutch oven aren’t burning. By now, you’ll notice that the onions have reduced by more than half their volume and they have become translucent. Continue to stir them around until they begin to brown, especially on the edges, and most of the liquid from the butter has burned away.
Next, grab a bottle of red wine. The red wine provides minimal flavor to the dish, as well as color to the onions. Since you’re going to be burning almost all the liquid, you can use any cheap bottle of wine you can get your hands on. No need to use the expensive stuff for this. Since we’re not drinkers in our household, we went out and found one of the cheapest bottles of red wine we could locate at the grocery store.
When the onions have caramelized (you probably want to cook it longer than we cooked it in this picture), and the liquid from the butter has pretty much evaporated, you want to add in about a cup or two of the red wine.
You’ve now got a soupy, red wine and onion concoction. The red wine will “color” the onions a deep brown-red color, and your onions will be swimming in the sauce. Not to worry, the majority of the wine will be cooked off, and all of the alcohol will burn away. You won’t even taste it. What you’ll be left with is the sugars in the grapes used to make the wine.
Leave the heat on high on the stove and continue to stir the pot so that the onions don’t burn at the bottom of the Dutch oven. The red wine will start to reduce and burn away. Eventually, what you are left with is a pot of cooked, sliced, red-magenta colored onion. When all of the liquid from the wine has cooked off, you’re ready to move to the next step.
You’ll need 2 tablespoons of all-purpose flour. Into your Dutch oven of cooked, sliced, wine soaked onions, add the flour. This will help to slightly thicken the broth for the French onion soup when you get to that part. The flour also helps to absorb any remaining liquid that may be in the pot that hasn’t burned off yet.
Stir the pot as you add the flour so that the it coats all of the onions and dissolves. You’ll want to continue stirring the onions for another 3-5 minutes to cook off the flour taste.
Now, it’s time to start the broth for the French onion soup. You’ll need another pot, or Dutch oven, preferably a large one that can hold 2 quarts of liquid. You’re going to need 2 quarts of beef broth. Make sure you’re adding in broth and not stock, or else you’ll end up with something incredibly salty and too concentrated.
Into your second pot, add in the beef broth and heat it up. Bring it to a steady boil.
Once the pot with the beef broth in it has started boiling, you can add the caramelized, floured onion from the other pot directly into the pot with the beef broth. Once everything is combined, taste the soup to see if additional salt, pepper or other seasoning is required. Reduce the pot to a lower simmer and allow the flavors of the broth and the caramelized onions to develop.
It’s time to work on the bread and melted cheese topper for the soup. At our house, we don’t have a salamander to easily melt cheese on top of the soup. And while we have a broiler, it’s so hard and inconvenient to access, we basically never use it. So, we devised an alternative, cheaters way of doing the bread and cheese topper for our French onion soup. On our first attempt at making this bread topper, we used Hawaiian dinner rolls since we figured that the sweetness from the Hawaiian dinner rolls would work well with the soup. While the sweet flavors of the dinner roll worked, we discovered that the bread itself wasn’t hearty enough to stand up to the soup and got too soggy too soup because it absorbed all of the broth. Since this time, we’ve learned that crusty French bread works really well for the bread topper on the French onion soup. The bread is dense enough that it absorbs the broth of the soup, but it doesn’t get soggy and fall apart. Back to our first attempt with the Hawaiian dinner rolls, we sliced them in half and laid them slice-side up on a baking sheet to bake in the oven at 450 degrees for several minutes. When using french bread, you’d use the same technique.
Ok, so we over-baked ours a little bit. Not the greatest picture to share. You don’t want to over-bake your bread topper the way I did. Oh well, it still tasted good.
Generally, the cheese that is melted over the top of the bread and soup is either Swiss, fontina or Gruyère, or a combination of those cheeses. We chose Gruyère because we thought that the nutty flavor of the Gruyère would work well with the sweetness of the French onion soup. Swiss cheese also gives off a nutty flavor that works well here. If you don’t have fancy cheese at home, not to worry, we’ve also done this with Monterey jack cheese and that worked just fine as well. Monterey jack is generally easier to find and more affordable. Whatever cheese you choose, shred enough of it so that you can melt it easily on the baked bread topper you’re using.
Normally, you’d ladle the soup into a stoneware bowl that you can then later put into a broiler or salamander, you’d drop your bread topper, which covers the entire surface of the soup on top, and then sprinkle your freshly shredded cheese over the top of the bread to the edges of the bowl before putting it in your broiler or salamander. Your cheese would melt quickly, and be nice and golden brown and bubbly on top. You’d pull it out of the salamander or broiler and serve it piping hot. In our case, without a salamander or broiler, what we did was sprinkle the shredded cheese directly on top of the baked bread that we just pulled out of the oven.
Pop the baking sheet back into the oven and leave it in there for a few minutes while the cheese melts. At this time, ladle your soup into your serving bowl. Once the cheese has melted on top of the bread topper, you can pull the baking sheet back out of the oven. It’s time to put the finishing touches on the French onion soup.
The final step is the best step! Take the bread topper with the melted Gruyère cheese and plop it right into your bowl of piping hot French onion soup. Now the soup is complete. What could be better. Melted, delicious, nutty Gruyère cheese on top of toasted crusty bread with a hot bowl of soup. The soup starts to soften the bread and the combination of the bread and the cheese is just amazing. This is such an easy dish to make. And, as I’ve discovered, French onion soup can be made in large batches in advance and then frozen in perfect serving sizes in ziploc bags in the freezer until you are ready to re-heat and eat. What could be better? A perfect hot bowl of delicious soup on a cold winter’s night that took all of 5 minutes to re-heat and a melted cheese bread topper that takes an additional 5-10 minutes to make. Bring on the delicious goodness!