This picture of a dark broth with pieces of sodden bread and clumpy cheese floating on top doesn't look like much but, take my word for it, this bowl of French Onion Soup is so, so good. It may well be the best French Onion Soup I have ever made.
The French Onion Soup is my perfect rainy-day soup. I've made it quite a few times and each time, I try a different recipe just out of curiousity. Most recipes are pretty standard (the standard ingredients are onions, stock, cheese and day-old bread) and often it is just the measurements that differ.
The process is always the same: you begin by caramelising of the onions.
I've always thought that I make a pretty decent French Onion Soup. I am generous with my cheese and sprinkle it liberally both inside the soup as well as on the pieces of french bread that lie atop the soup. Because I put quite a lot of cheese, my soup is often thick and where wonderfully chewy.
So, I've been pretty content with my soup .... UNTIL I came upon this article on crookrookery.com about caramelising onions as I was browsing some food sites. The article, titled Caramelising Onions: Three Ways, explains how to caramelise the onions to perfection, thereby getting the best out of them for a truly flavourful French Onion Soup.
The flavour of the soup, says the article (which quotes food writer John Thorne who wrote, among other things, a Treatise on Onion Soup) rests largely on the way the onions have been caramelised. The stock is important too but the onions are more important.
I smelt trouble. I read on and it didn't take long for me to realise that tasty though my French Onion Soups may be, I have not been caramelising my onions as they should be. My soup has been imperfect. Mediocre. Not done properly. Apparently I have not been doing the classic soup any justice! Grrrr....
Actually, I was not bummed out. Rather, I was quite excited. I wanted to rush right home (I was at work) so that I could make the soup as it should be made, according to Thorne. I wanted to taste how different the soup would be if I followed the proper process. I wanted to do it immediately but I I couldn't skive off work. I had to wait.
Later that night, I went at it.
I usually caramelise the onions required for the soup for about 45 minutes to an hour, from start to finish. This article recommends a slow, slow, caramelisation process that takes about two hours: and that's two hours of standing vigilantly by, stirring the onions so that they don't stick to the bottom of the pan or burn. A cast-iron pan or Dutch oven is recommended just so that the heat is distributed evenly and the onions cook down better. I had one. Yay.
So I grabbed my notebook computer and settled myself in the kitchen: I made sure I spent two hours on my onions (I stirred and I played online Scrabble at the same time. It's amazing how time flies when you're losing at Scrabble!).
Watching the onions transform, from white and crunchy to golden and chewy is actually quite magical. The smell of the caramelising onions is intoxicating and the anticipation of the soup that would come out of all this was huge.
The result: absolutely satisfying. The extra cooking time for the onions obviously paid off as the flavour was more intense, sweeter and richer. Who knew onions could have so many layers of flavour?
Here are a few tips from Daniel of cookrookery.com.
1. slice the onions thin.
2. salt them to take out as much moisture as possible before putting them on the heat.
3. Use really low heat. Really low.
4. Be patient. Be vigilant. Don't let the onions burns. A little bit of blackened onions is fine, not a whole pot full of charred onions.
French Onion Soup
350g sliced onions (yellow is good, red is fine too)
11/2 tbsp butter
1 tbsp olive oil
1/4 tsp salt
pinch of sugar
1 litre vegetable stock (a mushroom-based stock is preferable)
1 cup grated cheese (Gruyere is great, parmesan is fine or you could use cheddar too)
1 baguette, cut into slices
1/4 cup chopped parsley
Toss the sliced onions in salt and let them rest for about 15 minutes for the moisture to ooze out. Drain and gently wipe down with a tea towel.
Melt the butter and oil in a dutch oven/cast iron pan. You can use a saucepan too but be careful the onions don't burn.
When the butter has just melted, add the onions into the pan and toss/mix so that they are evenly coated with the fat. Don't let the butter boil/heat up too much. You don't want a sizzle when you put in the onions. Keep the heat low.
Cover and let the onions cook uninterrupted for about 15 mins. Remember: low, low heat.
Remove the cover and stir the onions. The onions will continue to release moisture, keep stirring periodically so that those at the bottom don't burn.
The onions will soon wilt. Add a pinch of salt and sugar to help with the caramelising.
Keep vigilant and stir from time to time. The onions should start to brown. Keep them on a very low heat, stir more frequently now.
Keep this up until they turn reddish and reduce in volume by at least half. The entire process should take about 11/2 to 2 hours.
Once the onions are nicely caramelised, add the stock. The onions should plump up. Let it simmer for about 30 mins (still low heat), season. Add about 1/4 cup of white wine to the soup just before its ready to come off the stove.
While the stock is simmering,lightly toast your bread. Also, lay your soup bowls/ramekins on a baking sheet. Preheat the oven to 170C.
When the soup is ready (after 30 mins), take it off the heat and ladle it into the prepared bowls till it's almost full.
Add some cheese into the soup, stirring gently.
Float three or four slices of the toasted baguette on the soup and pile on the cheese. Let there be a mound, I say.
Transfer the tray to the oven and bake for about 20 mins. Preheat your broiler and place the soup bowls under the broiler for a few minutes for the cheese to brown a little.
Garnish with parsley and eat the soup while its warm.