Why You Should Make This Version of French Onion Soup

It’s not all about the cheese

Onions in a pan.
Photo: Romulo Yanes

A few things: 1) It’s officially wintry enough in my world that I want to start talking about hot soup. Sorry, Phoenix. 2) Despite the headline, I have nothing against French onion soup, at least in theory.

What I am against is that the majority of restaurants that serve this dish, or used to, when we could go to restaurants, would have you believe that its most important component is a piece of toast blanketed in gooey cheese. If that were the case it should be called “open-face bread nacho with onion sauce” or something equally backward.

There’s nothing wrong with a crisp crouton and melty Gruyère (nothing at all!), but more often than not, the actual soup part of onion soup is kind of an afterthought (too sweet, not flavorful enough, basically a letdown, especially after you’ve dispatched of the cheesy bread part).

So, here’s my version, which prioritizes pulling as much flavor as possible out of the title character: onions. Maybe the reason that meh French onion soup remains viable is that making a good version yourself is a process that can’t be rushed. Properly caramelizing onions takes easily an hour; kind of no way around it. And homemade stock, if you’re going that route, takes time too. Beef stock is classic for this soup, but I often prefer a rich vegetable stock with a few dried mushrooms added to the mix.

Whichever you choose, if your onions are deeply browned and your stock is full of flavor, your soup will be really good. Good enough that you can even get away with skipping the bread and cheese, even if that would be un-American.

French onion soup.
Photo: Lauri Patterson/Getty Images

Onion Soup

Makes: 4 servings. Time: About an hour.

Ingredients

  • 4 large onions, peeled
  • 4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) butter
  • 5 cups vegetable stock or water
  • 2 or 3 sprigs fresh thyme or a pinch dried
  • 2 or 3 sprigs fresh parsley
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 2 tablespoons cognac or other brandy (optional)
  • Salt and pepper
  • 4 My Kind of Croutons, made with bread slices and butter (optional)
  • 1 cup grated Parmesan, Gruyère, or Emmental cheese (optional)

Instructions

1. Halve the onions top to bottom and slice them as thinly as you can manage. Put the butter in a large pot over medium heat. When the butter melts, add the onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until very soft and beginning to brown, 30 to 45 minutes. Adjust the heat so they slowly turn into a melting mass and don’t brown too fast. Don’t rush.

2. Heat the oven to 400°F if you’re using the croutons and cheese. Add the stock, raise the heat to medium-high, and bring to a boil. Adjust the heat so the mixture bubbles gently. Add the thyme, parsley, and bay leaf and the cognac if you’re using it, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the soup thickens a bit, about 15 minutes. Remove the bay leaf and herb sprigs. (At this point, you can refrigerate the soup, covered, for up to 2 days; reheat before proceeding.)

3. If you’re using the croutons and cheese, put 4 ovenproof bowls in a roasting pan or on a sturdy cookie sheet. Put a crouton in each bowl, ladle over the soup, and top with cheese. Bake for 5 to 10 minutes, just long enough to melt the cheese. Serve immediately.

— Recipe from How to Cook Everything: Completely Revised 20th Anniversary Edition

Has published 30 books, including How to Cook Everything and VB6: The Case for Part-Time Veganism. Newsletter at markbittman.com.

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