13 November 2011

Best French Onion Soup

Fall is finally here in Portland. The leaves have changed, but we've had less rain than usual, so we have been enjoying the colors for much longer than usual (no complaints). The rain is starting up again and with that, the need for more comfort food. I made this French onion soup years ago when Cook's Illustrated first published it in January of 2008. We were so blown away, I knew I'd make it again. Why I waited this long? I'm not sure. But fortunately for me, gruyere and baguettes went on sale, so it seemed natural to finally make it again.

It was also date night, so I tried to set a nice table with my grandmother's tablecloth and a nice antipasti
What sets this recipe apart from many is that you deglaze the pot two to three times. I did three, for good measure. The first couple of hours of cooking is left to the oven, so it's not terribly time intensive until you hit the third hour. I integrated two cups of onions I had saved (in the freezer) from my birthday BBQ after the first step of softening the onions, so I used fewer onions than the recipe calls for. Below is a progression from after the onions come out of the oven. By this time, they have been cooking for over two hours. You can see how important the deglazing process is for creating a deep, rich flavor.

I was a little nervous adding in foreign onions that had been simmered in beer and below pork sausages in a previous life, but they managed to cook down pretty well. I added more liquid to account for the extra onions. I figured it couldn't really hurt. Luckily for me, it didn't.

The darkening process from oven through three rounds of deglazing (from left to right)
After the pot is deglazed, the final addition is a half cup of sherry, let that simmer off, then add the liquids and herbs, and let simmer for a half hour until all the flavors have integrated.

In the meantime, you can make your croutons to float on the soup. If you only have regular soup bowls, not lovely broiler safe ones, you add the cheese to your croutons and stick in the broiler until bubbly, then set them afloat on a sea of deeply caramelized onion soup.

Bubbly cheese makes everything better

The soup post-simmer
This is definitely becoming one of my favorite cold weather dishes. It's so simple, but so delicious. All it takes is a little patience and a whole bunch of onions.

It's recommended to splurge on some good Gruyere in this case, otherwise you'll lose out on that nutty, rich flavor

Best French Onion Soup 
Published January 1, 2008. From Cook's Illustrated.
Sweet onions, such as Vidalia or Walla Walla, will make this recipe overly sweet. Be patient when caramelizing the onions in step 2; the entire process takes 45 to 60 minutes. Use broiler-safe crocks and keep the rim of the bowls 4 to 5 inches from the heating element to obtain a proper gratinée of melted, bubbly cheese. If using ordinary soup bowls, sprinkle the toasted bread slices with Gruyère and return them to the broiler until the cheese melts, then float them on top of the soup. We prefer Swanson Certified Organic Free Range Chicken Broth and Pacific Beef Broth. For the best flavor, make the soup a day or 2 in advance. Alternatively, the onions can be prepared through step 1, cooled in the pot, and refrigerated for up to 3 days before proceeding with the recipe.

3 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 3 pieces
6 large yellow onions (about 4 pounds), halved and cut pole to pole into 1/4-inch-thick slices
Table salt
2 cups water, plus extra for deglazing
1/2 cup dry sherry
4 cups low-sodium chicken broth
2 cups beef broth
6 sprigs fresh thyme, tied with kitchen twine
1 bay leaf
Ground black pepper
Cheese Croutons
1 small baguette, cut into 1/2-inch slices
8 ounces shredded Gruyère cheese (about 2 1/2 cups)

1. For the soup: Adjust oven rack to lower-middle position and heat oven to 400 degrees. Generously spray inside of heavy-bottomed large (at least 7-quart) Dutch oven with nonstick cooking spray. Place butter in pot and add onions and 1 teaspoon salt. Cook, covered, 1 hour (onions will be moist and slightly reduced in volume). Remove pot from oven and stir onions, scraping bottom and sides of pot. Return pot to oven with lid slightly ajar and continue to cook until onions are very soft and golden brown, 1 1/2 to 1 3/4 hours longer, stirring onions and scraping bottom and sides of pot after 1 hour.

2. Carefully remove pot from oven and place over medium-high heat. Using oven mitts to handle pot, cook onions, stirring frequently and scraping bottom and sides of pot, until liquid evaporates and onions brown, 15 to 20 minutes, reducing heat to medium if onions are browning too quickly. Continue to cook, stirring frequently, until pot bottom is coated with dark crust, 6 to 8 minutes, adjusting heat as necessary. (Scrape any fond that collects on spoon back into onions.) Stir in 1/4 cup water, scraping pot bottom to loosen crust, and cook until water evaporates and pot bottom has formed another dark crust, 6 to 8 minutes. Repeat process of deglazing 2 or 3 more times, until onions are very dark brown. Stir in sherry and cook, stirring frequently, until sherry evaporates, about 5 minutes.

3. Stir in broths, 2 cups water, thyme, bay leaf, and 1/2 teaspoon salt, scraping up any final bits of browned crust on bottom and sides of pot. Increase heat to high and bring to simmer. Reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer 30 minutes. Remove and discard herbs, then season with salt and pepper.

4. For the croutons: While soup simmers, arrange baguette slices in single layer on baking sheet and bake in 400-degree oven until bread is dry, crisp, and golden at edges, about 10 minutes. Set aside.

5. To serve: Adjust oven rack 6 inches from broiler element and heat broiler. Set individual broiler-safe crocks on baking sheet and fill each with about 1 3/4 cups soup. Top each bowl with 1 or 2 baguette slices (do not overlap slices) and sprinkle evenly with Gruyère. Broil until cheese is melted and bubbly around edges, 3 to 5 minutes. Let cool 5 minutes before serving.


  1. yeah...I really need to make this again too.

  2. Yum, it looks so dark and rich!