Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Cooking for the Long Winter, Part II: French Onion Soup

Do you like French Onion Soup? My sister-in-law loves it, and I have a hunch that most people wouldn't turn up their noses to it on any given day. It stands up in the cannon of soups you find at old-timey supper clubs and sandwich delis alike. However, I find french onion soup to fall into that category of foods that can be either really bad, or really good. Like cantaloupe. Cantaloupe at its worst can be dry, translucent blocks of filler in a bad side of fruit. At its best, cantaloupe can be a fragrant, peachy, dripping-with-juices gem of a fruit devoured in the summer sunshine. 

Although I'm often tempted to order french onion soup at the aforementioned supper clubs and delis, lured by the memory of melty swiss cheese floating in rich beefy broth with velvety slips of onion, I often find it to be a super salty, gloppy mess with weird croutons and clumps of cheese. (I would know - in another life I helped serve it at an old-timey summer resort dining room.) 

The recipe below is one I discovered from Cooks Illustrated, who illuminated the proper method of producing an amazing pot of french onion soup. I made it a long time ago and again on a recent lazy Sunday. The key to this recipe is basically cooking the hell out of the onions. In a dutch oven, in a hot oven, for a LONG TIME. Then on the stove top for a bit. The beauty of this recipe, though, (once you get over the sting of slicing all the onions), is that the oven does most all the work, so you're free to watch marathons of your favorite TV show or get moving on those winter projects on your list. 

French Onion Soup

Adapted from Cook's Illustrated
Serves 4-6


2 Tbsp butter
about 3.5 lbs yellow onions, cut pole to pole and sliced 1/4 in. thick (I used a mandoline)
4 C beef broth
2 C water, divided
1/2 C cooking sherry
2 bay leaves
3 sage leaves
1 baguette, sliced
about 4 oz. swiss cheese, grated


Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.

In a dutch oven, spray cooking spray or add a bit of oil and rub it around. 
Place sliced onions in dutch oven, separating the rings within the slices. Scatter 2 Tbsp of diced cold butter over the onions. 
Place the lid on the dutch oven and place in the oven. 

After 1 hour, remove dutch oven and carefully remove the lid. Stir the onions and scrape down the sides.
Return the lid to the pot but leave it ajar this time. Place in the oven for another hour. 

Remove the dutch oven, stir and scrape down the sides again. The onions should be getting quite brown now. Place in the oven (again, lid ajar) for another 45 minutes. 

Remove the dutch oven and place it on the stove top over medium-high heat. Stir the onions and scrape down the sides again.
Let the onions cook, undisturbed, for 15 minutes. Dark crusty bits will be forming on the bottom of the pot - this is good and what gives the soup amazing flavor. 

Add 1/4 cup of water to the pot and scrape up the crusty bits stuck to the bottom. Repeat this process of letting the onions sit for 15 minutes, then adding 1/4 cup water and deglazing the pot a total of 4 times (so you have added 1 C water total). 

Let the onions sit another 15 minutes, then add the sherry and scrape the bottom of the pot. 
Pour in the beef broth, 1 C water, the bay leaves and sage. 
Adjust the heat so the soup comes to a boil, then reduce to low and simmer the soup for 10-15 minutes. 

Meanwhile, slice the baguette and place slices on a greased baking sheet. Sprinkle cheese on top.  

Remove bay leaves and sage from the soup. Add salt/pepper to taste.

Place the pan of bread and cheese under the broiler and broil for a few minutes, until the cheese is melted and starting to bubble (watch closely!) 

To serve, ladle the soup onto bowls and float cheese baguette slices at the top.* Add additional slices mid-way through your bowl, because you made this at home and you can.

*If you have fancy soup crocks, by all means place toasted bread in the bowl, sprinkle with cheese and place the bowls under the broiler. I do not have such crocks, so made do with this method (which worked well for eating the soup over multiple meals). 

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