Onions are in season right now, but we don’t squeal for them as we do for the likes of tomatoes and corn. Onions are the stepsisters of the kitchen, perennially improving meals and sending their glamorous siblings to the table with the support of deep, rich flavors. Indispensable to any pantry, onions add their flavor to untold dishes, but few meals are built around the onion. No glory is theirs. French onion soup is a notable exception.
Legend has it King Louis XV invented the soup when he arrived at a hunting cabin and found only onions, wine and butter in the cupboard. But it so happens that the average peasant’s larder would have been stocked with such ingredients as well, and perhaps not much more, on an average winter day. To this day, French onion soup is that rare bird among recipes that probably won’t require a trip to the store. And if you are out of onions, much less butter or wine, then a shopping trip is probably warranted anyway.
French onion soup is a popular dish among chefs, perhaps out of respect to the understated importance of onions. It is a low-key celebration of an esteemed colleague in the kitchen, and every cook has a different way of making it. In this column, I will explore how some of the world’s best cooks prepare it.
French onion soup is reportedly the last meal Julia Child ate before she died. This wasn’t by design. Child had stated more opulent intentions along the lines of foie gras, but it is nonetheless a fitting last meal for the champion of French cuisine, which is largely based in peasant cookery — and you can’t get more bucolic than onion soup. The intense flavor and warmth of onion soup is especially appealing as chilly weather sets in. And autumn is a sad time, when it feels OK to cry.
But excessive crying over French onion soup isn’t necessary, according to Alain Ducasse, who lists among his many restaurants the Louis XV in Monte Carlo. Ducasse says keeping your knife sharp will reduce the number of tears you shed when making French onion soup, because fewer of the onion’s volatile and tear-jerking cellular fluids are released with the clean, smooth cut of a sharp blade.
My friend George, a renaissance man and veteran of many batches of French onion soup of his own, told me that he took Ducasse’s sharp knife principle one step further during a recent session.
“[It’s] equally important to use a thin-bladed knife as well as a very sharp knife. I have a very sharp, large French chef’s knife — but the blade is thick and it tends to squeeze out the onion juices as it makes its way through. After enough tears yesterday, I traded it out for my incredibly sharp, thin-bladed cimeter, which is generally used for cutting large chunks of meat and has a long, upturned blade. That thing went through the onions like butter and produced far less juice and tears.”
Ducasse’s recipe involves thin-slicing the onions, which is probably going to jerk some tears no matter how sharp or thin your blade is. But if you follow the method put forward by the Englishman Nigel Slater in his brilliant recipe, “Onion Soup Without Tears,” (which appeared in his 2005 book The Kitchen Diaries) there won’t be any crying involved. He slices the onions in half, and roasts them in the oven that way.
A related choice the aspiring maker of French onion soup must face is whether to caramelize the onions on the stovetop or in the oven. Many great chefs, including Child and Ducasse, use the stovetop, while Slater and a small minority of like-minded cooks prefer the oven.
The bottom line is that the onion must be cut, at least once, preferably with a sharp and thin knife. And it must be slowly browned in butter, either on the stovetop or in the oven. Then it is cooked in wine and stock.
I lean towards oven-browning, if for no other reason than the onions are less likely to burn if (when) the cook spaces out on the job. Another reason is they turn absurdly delicious, so tasty that you might add an extra onion to the oven pan to account for munching as you go.
Place the halved onions (cut lengthwise, from root to tip) cut-side down in a baking pan, adding three tablespoons of butter per pound of onions, and bake at 400 degrees for about 20 minutes.
Then, reduce the oven temperature to 200 degrees, stirring gently, on occasion, for a good while, until the onions are tender, soft and browned. Deglaze with shots of white wine whenever the pan gets dry.
The onion halves, ready to fall apart into sheets, are as sweet as ripe fruit, awash with umami and soft earthy pungency. Transfer the onions and associated juices to a saucepan, along with a cup of white wine per pound of onions. Bring to a low boil, stirring often so the onions fall apart in the bubbles.
Lower the heat to a simmer and let the wine reduce into a thickening sauce. Before it starts to burn, add a quart and a half of stock per initial pound of onions — either animal bone or mushroom stock. Add more if you want to stretch it, but the rich onion broth can only be stretched so thin before it loses its authority.
Simmer for about 20 minutes. Season with nutmeg, salt and black pepper.
It’s often served under a floating cap of melted cheesy bread. I think this finish, though delicious, makes the soup less about the onion, and more about the cheesy crouton.
Julia liked to serve French onion soup country style, with a poached egg on top. That, to me, is the right kind of decadence and richness that doesn’t distract from the placid, warming vibe of the onion. But if you want to serve it with a cheesy crust, I won’t shed any tears.