Nobody doesn’t like Julia Child, and I’m no exception. I like her books, her television shows, her enthusiasm. And her voice! Irresistible. Her recipes taught a generation of Americans about French food, and her approach instilled the confidence to cook it.
Nobody doesn’t like Julia Child, but her onion soup recipe is off. By a lot.
It’s the onion soup recipe from Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and it calls for a pound and a half of onions to two quarts of stock. Perhaps the French have a longstanding tradition of not putting enough onions in their onion soup. For all I know, there’s a picture on the cave wall at Lascaux of two quarts of stock and five onions, so I won’t argue that Julia Child’s recipe isn’t a French classic. But you don’t even have to make it to know that it doesn’t have enough onions.
When you find a recipe that seems wrong, you naturally start looking for another recipe. I happened to have Ruhlman’s Twenty (an excellent book) sitting out, so I consulted it. It does indeed have a recipe for “Traditional” French onion soup. Again, I’m not the world’s leading expert on what’s traditional and French, but I can’t help wondering whether Ruhlman isn’t taking a liberty.
His soup calls for 7-8 pounds of onions to a mere six cups of liquid. That’s a lot of onions in not a lot of liquid, but that’s not what’s weird. What’s weird is that the liquid is – and he insists it has to be – water. Not stock. He explains in the headnotes. “Do not be tempted to use stock!” he insists. “It will detract from the economy of the dish.”
There are many compelling reasons to follow certain recipes to the letter. I’m not sure the risk of detracting from economy makes the list.
As for water’s being “Traditional” in onion soup, he basically had a hunch. And then he started doing research. He was undeterred by the fact that he had “never seen a recipe for onion soup that didn’t use stock or broth,” and kept digging. He even went to Lascaux, but the picture of the onions and the broth didn’t sway him. The definitive support for his “Traditional” soup came, apparently, from a guy in a bar.
Okay, it was a journalist, but I’m a journalist, and can vouch for the fact that ‘journalist’ is, often enough, just another word for ‘a guy in a bar.’ This journalist confirmed what Ruhlman “had always suspected.” In la vrai bouchon, the bistro style of Lyon, the journalist told him, “costly stock would not be used for onion soup.” QED! Buy that man a bière!
What I’m getting at here – and you’ll be happy to know I am getting at something – is that, when it comes to onion soup, the general rule that Julia Child and Michael Ruhlman are more trustworthy authorities than, say, me, does not hold. When it comes to onion soup, I’m your man.
It’s actually not that much of a stretch, given that, with one exception, my recipe is just an adaptation of Julia Child’s, with more onions and a few minor tweaks. The exception is in the first step, and it’s a doozy. To make the best onion soup ever, anywhere, the kind of onion soup that leaves potato leek and split pea and she-crab in the dust, you must first buy a piglet. Then you must raise it to adulthood, slaughter it, and make stock from the bones. It is that stock that makes onion soup so, so … so very uneconomical. Take that, la vrai bouchon!
You can, of course, simply buy bones from a butcher and make the stock from those, but where’s the fun in that?
Onion Soup for the Ages
Adapted, reasonably significantly, from Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking
Makes 6-8 appetizer portions
4 lbs. yellow onions, sliced
2 T. butter
2 T. vegetable oil (I use canola)
3 T. flour
1 cup dry white wine or vermouth
2 quarts high-quality pork stock (Okay, you can use beef or chicken. If you must.)
¼ c. brandy or cognac
ground black pepper
Slices of crusty bread, dried out in a slow oven
Clove of garlic
Swiss, Gruyère, or Comté cheese
In a pot big enough to hold all the onions, heat the butter and oil over medium heat. Add the onions and cook, stirring often, until the onions turn a shade of brown resembling coffee with cream. This will take a long time – up to an hour, or maybe even longer – depending on your heat and your onions. First, the onions will exude liquid, and only after that liquid burns off will they start to caramelize.
When the onions are a beautiful coffee-with-cream brown, sprinkle the flour over them and stir it in. Continue to cook the onions another few minutes.
Add the wine, and cook until the liquid js mostly gone. Then add the stock, bring the soup to a simmer, and simmer for half an hour to forty minutes.
Add the cognac, and taste. Add the salt, pepper, sugar, and balsamic vinegar to taste. I use about 2 t. of salt, ½ t. of pepper, 1-2 t. of sugar, and about a tablespoon of vinegar. But tastes, and onions, are different. Add a little at a time until the balance seems right.
Cut the garlic clove in half and rub it on the dried bread slices. Float one slice in each bowl of onion soup, and top the whole thing with cheese, either sliced thin or grated. Pop under the broiler until the cheese is melted and beginning to brown, 2-3 minutes.