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What makes great French onion soup?

I across this blog about a guy documenting every French onion soup he's tried.

He explains "The ratings are based on his own opinion of the perfect french onion soup, and do not necessarily have anything to do with yours, the French government, or anyone else's."

Reading through a few of these, it seems the cheesier versions are his preference. I never realized though that cheese other than gruyere was used ... maybe sometimes Swiss. At the top of his list is Artisanal - New York, NY. It uses a blend of emmentaler, beaufort, and hoch ybrig.

At C. I. Shenanigan’s - Tacoma, WA, the soup is served an actual onion

He even reviews Trader Joe's French onion soup ... not recommended.

I've only had one great French onion soup in my life ... and I forgot where it was exactly. I came down with some virus when traveling across Europe and for four days I could not make it out of my hotel that was located near the Paris airport.

The only saving grace to spending four days watching French cable instead of exploring the French countryside was the wonderful French onion soup they served ... just the right amount of lovely browned cheese on top of a deep, flavorful broth with enough melty onions and the right amount of croutons ... nothing was out of balance ... the exact right proportions of eveything ... I can practically still taste that soup today. And each day, room service delivered it piping hot. It was a miracle soup.

The worse FOS are those that are nothing but broth, and weak at that, where you have to troll for onions and topped with cheap cheese.

What makes a wonderful FOS for you?

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  1. Caramelizing the sh*t out of the onions, a great beef stock, definitely Gruyere or Emmenthaler, a hit of Cognac or Brandy to finish. Oh, and a darned fine hunk o'bread to drape the cheese over... Adam

    1. To me, the broth is most important. Sadly, it seems that some will merely use canned beef stock, that is loaded with sodium and MSG. If I want a good FOS, I make my own chicken and beef broth and add salt later. Also, using good bread is important. The best soups tend to use a sturdy country loaf that stands up to the broth. I've had some versions where the bread collapses under the broth, and becomes gummy. YUCK. When I make my own soup, I will also make the bread from scratch. And I agree, the onions must be carmelized low and slow. While FOS might appear easy to make, a good version does require much TLC and effort. I think it's worth the extra effort.

      1 Reply
      1. re: my3cflvi

        I also like to make my broth from scratch, usually starting the day before so it has all night to let the fat congeal. Bread - I have had great success with local baguettes, cut about one inch thick, toasted lightly, and then left out overnight. This gets them dry enough that they can soak up the broth without disintegrating and still hold up the cheese. Lots of onions, done as you suggest. We often serve it with an extra bowl of broth on the table, so that you can adjust the broth/onion mix as you go.

        Adam, I used to throw in a bit of sherry, but the wife and kids don't like the flavour of any alcohol, so we've let that part go. Maybe when they grow up...

      2. After a fresh, clear broth, I look for a crusty bread that does not collapse into a glutenous mass, same for overly dessicated onions--I want some firmness. And the chees should be a delicate infusion of gruyere with a touch of peccorino/parmesan.
        As I travel, I often have soup that I suspect is not made in the local kitchen---can it be a frozen purchase from a food supplier that we are all being 'treated' to that is lowering the standards?

        1. The onions are key! A good sweet onion, like Vidalia, carmelized in the oven really enriches the flavor. No ordinary onion will do for French Onion Soup.

          1 Reply
          1. re: oldbaycupcake

            Actually, I disagree. Love sweet onions raw, but red/yellow storage onions offer much deeper flavor (including, counter-intuitively, sweetness) when cooked long and slow.

          2. Start with twice the amount of onions you think are needed and do a loooooooooong sloooooooow caramalization; add homemade stock; season carefully; good cheese; all under the salamander and good to go.

            1. My mother had a French cookbook with the best FOS recipe and we often enjoyed it on special occassions. Wish I knew which cookbook it was or had her recipe, but alas, I don't and I've had to adapt the recipe for my vegetarian family anyway.

              I agree about slow caramelization of sweet onions, and lots of them! I make a miso broth for our veggie version and vary on wheter or not I add some wine or alcohol for extra body to the broth. Top with golden-browned gruyere melted on a thick slice of baguette. Yum. I've served our veggie version to meat eaters, and they've always been satisfied.

              2 Replies
              1. re: laurachow

                We use a mix of both chicken and beef broth, so much better when we use fresh stock. We also use a variety of cheeses- fresh grated Italian, sliced provolone and shredded mozarella or sliced swiss.

                1. re: laurachow

                  I make a vegetarian version with dark beer (St-Ambroise Oatmeal Stout), simmered for a long time with the onion. It has no boozy taste at all, and no significant alcohol after all that cooking, so no problem serving it to kids.

                  I wouldn't use Vidalias. In France they use ordinary onions for the soup - more delicate ones are more for salads.

                2. Recently I read somewhere to add a small amount of basalmic vinegar to the broth. I tried it and it really adds to the flavor and gives deepth to the taste of the beef broth and onions.

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: TryThis

                    even better is to add the vinegar, or sherry/cognac, or a generous pinch of brown sugar, to the thin-sliced onions at the beginning of cooking, long before adding the broth. it jumpstarts the caramelization process. using a really great broth is also key. i make a mean traditional (beef) FOS, and also a kickass vegan version.

                  2. Could you make a great French onion soup in a crockpot? Somewhere I thought I saw it done as the onions cook for so long on low.

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: Kari

                      I make mine in the crockpot. I start the onions first thing in the morning, and then an hour before serving, I add the rest of the ingredients so the flavors can meld.

                    2. Great French onion soup IS about the cheese, but I find that secondary to the broth. For me, the ultimate is my 3-onion soup, that has both veal and beef stock. The onions are Maui, Vadalia and Bermuda. The Bermuda is done two ways: half is carmalized to almost burnt - gotta' be very careful here, and also use bacon fat to sauté in. The other onions are chopped pretty fine - no onion "strings." We use Gruyere, as Emmentaler is a tad strong and overpowers. My wife does toasted bagette rounds, that we float atop, then place the cheese on top of that. Bake, with a moment of Broil and you're done.

                      Now, the timing on the Mauis and the Vadalias is short, so this is not an everyday dish. We have tried frozen, and otherwise preserved, Mauis and Vidalias, but they are not the same. Good, but not great. Once you've had great, all others pale.


                      1. For me, it must have a very intense broth, really good onion flavor with the beef broth and a splash of cognac. The broth is a dark brown color with a lot of onions but not so much that every spoonful is full of onions. A nice piece of toast to soak up the liquid and melted cheese on top =3!

                        Ugh, the worst one I had was when they put sooooooooo much rosemary in it and even forgot to take it out, and then I found a piece of a bay leaf in it =.=. AND THERE WAS NO CHEESE!

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: AngelSanctuary

                          I happen to use an Olarosa Sherry, but I hear you.

                          One of the best (non-French) that I ever tasted was cream broth with a strong infusion of onion flavor. It surprised me, as it looked nothing like what I had expected - more like a pumpkin/squash. Still, it knocked me out with the flavors.


                        2. I agree that caramelizing the hell out of the onions is key. As a side note, paired with a hoppy English Pale Ale and it's an amazing meal on it's own.

                          2 Replies
                          1. re: Chinon00

                            This is the second (if I counted correctly) reference to an ale/Porter/stout. You folk have gotten me to thinking. I always have a special 'fridge with beers, ales, etc., and maybe I have been missing something. I use many of these in other dishers, plus for the cook. Not sure that I can get my head around a Pale Ale, but maybe a Taddy Porter... I'll give it a try.



                            1. re: Bill Hunt

                              I mentioned a lovely local stout, St-Ambroise oatmeal stout. It is excellent in onion soup, and while I don't usually make the latter vegetarian, I've made very good rich onion soup for vegetarian friends with the addition of the stout.

                          2. Oh, I forgot - I couldn't let this thread pass without mentioning the FOS at Gaston's in Toronto (sadly, no longer with us). Some people thought it was a conceit, but he piled so much cheese on top that he served the soup with scissors on the side, so you could, you should excuse the expression, cut the cheese while enjoying it.

                            1. its a couple of things. good ingredients of course, cook the onions slow, take your time carmelizing them and somewhere in the process, you need some good booze. brandy, cognac, sherry, marsala, whatever, but a bit of good booze makes the soup.

                              1. I get a big bag of huge Spanish onions from Costco. Use 2 or three --they're really large, slice in mandoline. Take 40 minutes to an hour to caramelize. That's the key. The broth can then be veggie, beef, chicken. I use a combo of low, low sodium beef, chicken and 1/3 of that liquid's white wine. The wine is key, as are a couple of robust bay leaves.
                                I think the cheese and bread are gilding the lily--- a great pile of sweet onions and dimensional broth are the backbones of the soup.

                                1. Call me a heretic but on occasion I add in a few thinly sliced stalks of fennel. Not every time but every now and then,

                                  1 Reply
                                  1. to add to all the other good ideas, not just beef broth per se but oxtail broth.

                                    and broiler safe bowls to get the cheese and bread kinda crispy.