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What makes a good french onion soup?

I have los of frozen beef and veal stock to use. SInce it's really cold here I thought I might make some FOS this weekend. I've never made it and would like to know what to look for in a recipe.

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  1. Besides a great broth, patience with cooking the onions to the right consistency. I haven't made it in a long time but remember wanting to turn the heat up and cook the onions faster instead of going for that nice caramel. You stir for a long time. I'll bet it would be great if you made that no knead bread to go with it.

    1 Reply
    1. re: chowser

      2nd this. Don't rush the onions.

      Also use great crusty bread for the crouton and make sure it's nice and dry. Then, a nice provolone or havarti cheese on top under the broiler. Yum.

    2. The Balthazar recipe that I use calls for adding port at the end - adds a wonderful richness to the soup. Sherry would probably be good too.

      4 Replies
      1. re: MMRuth

        I use this recipe too - it's the best! I especially like the inclusion of fresh herbs (thyme, if I recall correctly?) I think it calls for gruyere cheese, though, not provolone or havarti (they're a bit mild). The pep of the gruyere can stand up to the rich flavour of the soup.

        1. re: AmandaEd

          Yes - to both the thyme and the gruyere. I do like to mix in a little fontina with the gruyere though.

          1. re: MMRuth

            Ooh! Good call! Will try that next time!

        2. re: MMRuth

          Bourdain's Les Halles onion soup calls for 2 oz. of port too.

        3. Take your time caramelizing the onions. It is worth it. Also, I agree that a little port/red wine adds depth. I like a bit of thyme as well.

          1. My mother swears its brandy added at the end.

            1. Add me to the patience with the onions camp. The combo of the slow drawn out process with the onions (looking at 30ish minutes) and a great stock will make a great soup. Oh, let's not forget the gruyere. You spent all that time and money on the soup, make sure you add a high quality gruyere. Some resto are cheapening the topping with Fontina. Also melts better, the flavor of the fontina just doesn't cut it like gruyere.

              12 Replies
              1. re: jfood

                Gruyere is definitely the way to go with French onion soup.

                I use dark beer (usually porter) in my recipe for depth, and chop up some mushrooms very fine and cook when the onions are almost done.

                There is a diner in Jersey on rte 17 that used to (don't know if they still do) make french onion soup that was a little sweeter and thicker than your average broth, and the croutons would stay crunchy until you were finished. Been trying to replicate that with no luck recently.

                  1. re: theswain

                    A bottle per batch. A batch is probably 1 gal. of soup.

                1. re: jfood

                  I cooked mine for an hour and a half in a cast iron skillet and they never caramelized. I don't know what I did wrong, unless adding olive oil to the butter was a no no. And you're right, there must be gruyere and grated parmesan on top.

                  1. re: Ellen

                    I don't think the addition of olive oil was the problem; I usually us a mix of butter and olive oil. I don't do a lot of cooking in cast iron, but, from what I know, it should have worked just fine. It usually takes 45-60 minutes for my onions to carmelize, and I've used a variety of onions, all with fairly similar results. I usually use a large soup pot because I start out with a couple of pounds of onions, which have lots of volume. Of course, by the time they're finished, they've reduced considerably. I wonder if the skillet you used allowed you to stir them properly from time to time.

                    1. re: Ellen

                      If you add too many onions at once, they don 't caramelize well. They tend to sweat too much and they steam themselves. Unless you really crank up the heat.

                      1. re: Main Line Tracey

                        Maybe I put in too many onions at once. I used a dutch oven, which is pretty big, but the onions started out about 2 inches deep and never got out of the mush stage. I used white wine and organic beef broth but the flavor I was looking for just wasn't there. I ended up throwing the whole batch out.

                        1. re: Ellen

                          Two inches is nothing...I'm thinking you didn't let it go long enough.

                          1. re: Ellen

                            I had a similar problem with my enameled dutch oven...my best carmelization results have come in an All-Clad stock pot...I wonder if the enamled surface doesn't allow the onions to carmelize properly?

                            1. re: Bababooey

                              I've done mine in my enameled dutch oven without a problem.

                              1. re: MMRuth

                                I do mine in an enameled dutch oven too, but I've occasionally had problems with caramelization. I think that sometimes it depends on how much natural sugar the onions contain on their own. When after an hour or so I'm not seeing it I'll add a pinch or two of sugar to start the process and the carmelization will then begin. I've not noticed that the pinch of sugar affects the taste because it's so miniscule an amount. I don't think it has anything to do with my pot being enameled.

                      2. re: jfood

                        30 minutes for the onions and you call that patience. You have no idea what you are talking about. That was fun flaming your own post from 16 months ago.

                        Well jfood made a few bathches of onion soup this past winter after reading many posts on the subject here. And he changed his opinion on the time required for the onions. He now falls into the 2-3 hour camp for a nice sloooooow reduction. He also modified the bread slice to "crouton" sized pieces. He slices some good french bread into cubes and into the oven on one side. Then he takeas a handful on top of the soup and the gruyere on top of that. Mighty good.

                        So thank you for re-energizing this old thread.

                      3. This is sounding redundant, but I also emphasize the importance of the long, slow carmelization of the onions. Also, don't use a non-stick pot because the fond from the onions won't develop as well. Finally, I also prefer a good quality gruyere cheese for melting on top.

                        1. Agree on the slow cooking of the onions. I'd go with gruyere as the cheese, and I usually add a bit of cognac at the end. Pretty decadent, and absolutely wonderful.

                          1 Reply
                          1. The best beef stock you can possibly have. The slow cooking of the onions is very important, but if you have lower quality beef stock, no amount of wonderfully cooked onions is going to help the taste of salty water. It sounds like you are off to a good start with homemade stock. If I don't have homemade I usually use beef base..it has the best flavor without as much sodium as canned broth or boullion.
                            Enjoy...french onion soup sounds wonderful this time of year!

                            1. Another vote for slow cooked onions, a bit of fresh thyme, a high quality brandy, cognac or armagnac and gruyere cheese. I just made some Sunday night for my family...mmmmm

                              1. Slow cook the onions!!! Add a little white wine (riesling, gewurtz) and evaporate until syrupy add beef consommé, some apple cider and broth, finish with sherry (or cognac, or port - I'll have to try the port)...top with crusty thick toasted bread and healthy amount of gruyere (havarti? provolone?)

                                1 Reply
                                1. re: Bababooey

                                  That slow cooker idea is the best damn idea I have heard in a long time!!! thank you : )
                                  sounds like you are really ontop of this soup, but you may like another tip... for extra 'healing powers' against winter nasties I add a heaped tspoon of garlic and a tsp ginger... adds to the flavour but doesn't over power it - just makes it better - yummy!

                                2. Re- the slow cooking of the onions. A slow cooker actually works excellent in this situation. Stick them in on low for about 10 or 11 (or even 12) hours with olive oil, butter, a tiny bit of sugar and salt. Meanwhile, the house smells heavenly all day-- and you don't really have to pay attention except for a stir once or twice, if that. I follow a recipe from Not Your Mother's Slow Cooker Cookbook and it's the best I've ever had.

                                  1 Reply
                                  1. re: wendy8869

                                    I'm with you on the slow cooker (crockpot) approach. You can do a whole pot full in those 10 to 12 hours and freeze leftovers for other uses or the FOS repeat request that will inevitably issue!

                                  2. I use white wine in mine and finish it off with a thick slice of French bread and gruyere.

                                    1. Don't be put off by the pile of onions you're going to use following any decent recipe. It'll look like a ton of onions once you get them all sliced, but if you take the requisite time (as recommended by just about everybody), they'll cook down just fine.

                                      The first time I made FOS, the recipe I used called for a (forgotten) quantity of "medium onions, sliced". Well, I had the right number of onions, but after I'd sliced about half of them, I looked at the size of the pile and convinced myself that "these onions must be larger than 'medium'...so I won't cut all of them." Mistake. I shoulda cut 'em all.

                                      5 Replies
                                      1. re: ricepad

                                        When I "remembered" that I could use my FP to slice them, it made it a much easier job!

                                        1. re: MMRuth

                                          It wasn't the amount of SLICING that messed me up...it was the sheer QUANTITY of onions. I remember thinking, "Holy crud...this pile must be way too much!" It wasn't. Way not enough!

                                          1. re: MMRuth

                                            I am amazed by the number of people who use a FP to chop veggies. I have cooked professionally and we always used a knife and finely tuned skills to make even a few gallons a day of onion soup.
                                            Chopping a onion is very easy, and a great way to improve your knife skills.

                                            BTW, I have found that even a sharp FP blade crushes the onion more than chopping them.

                                            1. re: Kelli2006

                                              That is all certainly true - but I rarely use the FP to chop/slice vegetables - only when needed in large quantities - and in something like onion soup, I really don't see a difference.

                                              1. re: Kelli2006

                                                Unfortunately, not all of us have your knife skills. I try to hold it correctly and all, but I am not fast.
                                                A food processor sometimes helps me get a homecooked meal made in a timely fashion.
                                                A mandolin slicer will work best for the onions in french onion soup.

                                          2. If you go to this site, you can find Alton Brown's ideas on "A Bowl of Onions."


                                            1. A authentic French onion soup recipe usually has too many onions if you haven't made it before. I make the soup for 3 people and I like to use 3-4 large yellow onions and maybe 1 medium red onion. Fresh homemade stock, white wine and a bit of marsala or brandy is also helpful.

                                              Letting the onions cook very slow and get a good caramel color, because this is the base flavor of the dish. I like American Gruyère, but crusty sourdough bread makes a great substitution.

                                              Alton Brown/Good Eats has a good starter recipe for onion soup.

                                              1. All this talk about caramelizing the onions, which I fully agree with BTW, brings up another question for me: how do people cut up the onions, as in are they chopped finely, chopped into random pieces, sliced into rings or half-moons, etc...? I would imagine the cut of the onion will have some impact on the slow-cooking process and, of course, the finished product. Personally, I cut mine into medium-thin slices and then halve those for half-moon shapes.

                                                3 Replies
                                                1. re: adroit_minx

                                                  I do thin slices - using my FP (with the thinner option) - one of the few things for which I use the slicing blades.

                                                  1. re: adroit_minx

                                                    Oh - and are you slicing the whole onion, and then halving those slices for the half-moon shapes? Much faster to slice the onion in half and then slices ....

                                                    1. re: MMRuth

                                                      I should've been more precise... definitely in half first, then the slicing. That's why I still have fingertips. But when making larger batches, say using 8 onions or more, I have no problem whipping out the FP for that.

                                                  2. One of the Julia Child cookbooks has a terrific recipe for french onion soup. If I recall correctly, she used a mixture of swiss, gruyere and emmenthaler and really piled it on. Finished at high heat. Cheese gets really browned and toasty. Yum. Know what I'm fixing this weekend.

                                                    1. Had a decadent bowl of French Onion at a restaurant in Rehoboth Beach, DE recently. They told me the secret was they added DUCK STOCK to the pot. Oh mama!

                                                      1 Reply
                                                      1. re: stacylyn

                                                        I've got some Veal and Beef stock frozen. Maybe I'll use a combo.

                                                      2. Slow cooked onions with butter, and a tad of garlic. Touch of thyme, not too much. Slow cooked until carmelized, I let them break down then add red wine and sherry to the stock with the onions, slow cook. Add gruyere, swiss, mozerella, homemade croutons, and a float of sherry, with a little pitcher to go with for each lovely bite....

                                                        1. I know, I know, it's criminal but... any tips on making a good vegetarian French Onion Soup?

                                                          Useful both for vegetarains and folks who keep kosher.

                                                          2 Replies
                                                          1. re: seattledebs

                                                            i've had great success with replacing the broth with vegetable broth... good cheese and bread then become important...

                                                            1. re: seattledebs

                                                              I've never made it myself but once enjoyed at a restaurant a delicious vegetarian onion soup that was made of a mushroom stock (probably portabello, shitake or similar types of mushroom with stronger/richer flavours.).

                                                            2. At least 20-25 min to carmelize the onions (half moons). I add 1/2 cup good cabernet sauvignon wine, make my own croutons from leftover French bread (rub some garlic on bread). I use a combo of Gouda, Jarlsberg (Swiss) and grated Romano cheese. Bake at 450 (very hot oven a must) for 10-15 min. Comes out crusty, and crunchy croutons.

                                                              1. Cook's Illustrated Jan 2008 magazine has a WONDERFUL easy, French Onion Soup recipe. They have you cook them in a dutch oven in the oven at 400 for 1 hour (mixed with butter & salt)...then stir, leave lid ajar a bit then cook for another 1 1/2 to 1 3/4 hours longer. Then you do triple deglazing using 1/2 cup of water at a time - sherry is used for the 4th deglazing. What's important to develop is the 'fond'...that's what makes the great, rich broth. It also uses 2 cans chicken broth & 1 can beef broth. I made this the other day & it was the best French Onion Soup I've ever had. They also recommend using yellow onions vs sweet since the sweet onions would make the soup way too sweet. Using the yellow onions makes it sweet enough - I can't imagine it being any sweeter. They also have you cut the onions in 1/2" slices pole-to-pole...the onions don't get stringy & they hold up really well. I had to put a little water in my soup to dilute the richness - it is very filling! melaska

                                                                1 Reply
                                                                1. re: melaska

                                                                  I also use that recipe, and it is very good. But it's far, far better if you use homemade stock rather than the canned stuff. I made it the first time using homemade chicken stock and canned beef stock. The second time I used all canned, and it was nowhere near as good. Next time I'm using homemade stock for the whole thing.

                                                                2. i follow julia childs recipe exactly. I also use the FP to slice the onions, they reduce so much and you really need a lot of them. I think another key is a good stock- the OP has some frozen stock so I imagine it is homemade, which adds a lot of depth.

                                                                  1 Reply
                                                                  1. re: cassoulady

                                                                    I've made a vegetarian version that turned out very well. I used an organic low sodium broth, but perked it up with the liquid left over from soaking dried shiitake mushrooms, plus a dash of quality soy sauce. I went with a wide variety of onions (leeks, shallots, yellow, red and Vidalia onion). I may have even thrown a head's worth of garlic in, cloves halved only. It was dynamite. I used fresh thyme, a sprig of rosemary for depth and a couple of fresh, but bruised bay leaves (which I fished out later) and finished with a dash of cognac and a drizzle of truffle oil (since I don't eat cheese). For my SO, I floated a slice of baguette which had gruyere and emmenthal grated on it and broiled until the cheese melted. This way, there was less cheese, quantity-wise, but big flavour from the mix of strong cheeses. It was dee-lish!

                                                                  2. One pound of onions will yield one cup of caramelized onions, in my experience. I've read claims that a combination of chicken and beef stocks makes the best FOS. I am not a big fan of turkey stock - not as gelatinous as chicken - but am too frugal to toss a turkey carcass and discovered that turkey stock plus Better Than Bouillon beef base makes a good FOS.

                                                                    1. The secret to good onion soup is time. Lots and lots of time.

                                                                      You have to caramelize the onions, slowly. Most people say 30 minutes, but I prefer to cook mine for an hour. melt some butter in your pan and then add a bit of garlic and enough onions to fill your pot to the top, they will cook down after a few eye burning minutes to the point where you will be asking "that's all?" Keep stirring for 30 - 60 minutes till the onions are nicely caramelized and then deglaze the pan with your alcohol of choice.

                                                                      Once the onions are done, fill your pot with broth/consume` and add herbs. Then let it simmer for an hour or two. While it simmers, take some bread and toast it in butter and garlic for your croutons.

                                                                      THe thing to remember is that if you rush any step of the process you will end up with an inferior soup so it's best to start it in the mid afternoon (most likely on an off day)