Onion soup, with authority

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. It is very oniony and very uneconomical, and it leaves potato leek and split pea and she-crab in the dust. Take that, la vrai bouchon!

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
balsamic vinegar

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.

22 people are having a conversation about “Onion soup, with authority

  1. The Larousse Gastronomique calls for white consommee unless for a lenten soup in which case water. Of course a soupe gratinee with all that cheese (onion soup as we know it) would not be served in Lent so there you have it, I think; cheap and holy – water; life confirming and luxe – consommee. The iconic Les Halles soup seems always to have stock as a base, by the way.

  2. In the second to last paragraph you write, “I use about 2 t. of salt, ½ t. of pepper, 1-2 t. of salt”

    I’m sure one of those salts was supposed to say sugar. Which one, I’m not sure.

    Sounds delicious, though! I can’t wait to try it!

    • Jacki, thanks for the close read. The second one should have been sugar — and now, thanks to the miracle of online media, it is!

  3. okay, i laughed out loud when i got to the “start with a piglet” part. it reminds me of the line my husband attributes to Giuliano Bugialli, that to make pasta, “first you clear the land”.

  4. So, the non-parents might not get this, but here’s what happens with our garden onions:

    I caramalize the whole damn lot of them. And then freeze them in 3/4 cup amounts.
    I stock the cupboard with tinnned consomme, and the freezer with frozen slices of French bread (I bake a lot, so there’s always something to slice and freeze. If I wasn’t a baker I’d just buy the bread and freeze the slices). We ALWAYS have cheese of some sort in the fridge.

    When my son (and he eats like most boys between 14 and 22!) comes home from school, or is up late at night or just home during the day when I’m at work and he’s hungry he opens a tin of soup, dumps one containter of frozen pre-cooked onions in and microwaves it all. Then he tops it with bread and cheese and broils it. It is – even above cinnamon buns, according to him! – one of his favourite treats.

  5. While that triple negative first sentence had me swimming for awhile, your recipe for onion soup has me feeling much better. We have the homegrown onions, pork and cheese, but cognac and wine will send me back to the grocery! I can’t wait to try this, thank you!!

  6. I found I make my best onion soup when I am cooking beef tongues. I put one or two beef tongues in a 6 quart crock pot and essentially fill with sliced onions, a little salt. You can use water, beer, white wine or a combination of alcohol and water to fill the crock pot up. Simmer it low and slow for several hours. The tongue will be tender and delicious once you skin it and the soup will be rich and beefy. Top it traditionally if your hunger and budget allow. This meal doesn’t take long to set up, you can even start with frozen meat if you increase the cooking time accordingly. I suspect you could use pork tongues or hearts to good effect in this but I have never tried due to a lack of them.

  7. I love Julia’s reciept. Have been making it for years but yes more onions please!!!! Another thing about her recipies be prepaired to to wash every pot, pan, bowl, and utensile you own.. 🙂

  8. So, I’m not the only onion souper out there, I see. KB, I think your strategy is excellent — I never turn up my nose at canned stock. It’ll do fine in a pinch.

    Magpie — I read that one out loud to Kevin, although it hits a little close to home right about now. First you clear the land …

    Carol, I’ll admit to being skeptical of a recipe that doesn’t caramelize the onions first. High heat does things that liquid just can’t match. But onions are excellent lots of ways …

  9. Tamar,

    I love you, but I’m not making pig stock. I am glad that you do, however, and someday I will enjoy it at your table. I will say that IMHO, the key to french onion soup is using a ridiculous amount of onions, and letting that caramelized je ne sais quoi become the lead flavor. I wouldn’t go so far to combine it with water, but I will combine it with a mediocre “broth” or — egads — a bouillon cube. It works and it’s easy.

    I really like KB’s idea. Super smart.

    Now if I were you, I’d be using pig stock all over the place — and I believe it’s as good as you say, but sometimes I like the easy route that is 80% there in terms of flavor. My personal 80/20 rule — 80% of the effort for pretty damn good works better for me giving it all for perfection. Am I horrible? Am I a heathen? A hack? Somewhere in that last 20% I get exhausted, irritated, and give up. In my house, as they say, if mama ain’t happy…ain’t nobody happy (and incorrect double negative to counter your earlier, correct one.)


  10. Damn. I knew there was a reason I should have been more upset when I realised that this year’s onion crop was an abject failure: french onion soup. My mother used to make it when we were children (must have been her hugeonot heritage making an appearance) and even the smell still evokes happy memories. The slightly burny swiss cheese was the best bit.

    But Ja’i sans oignons (insert French sad face emoticon here)

  11. I make my caramelized onions 10 lbs at a time in the crock pot. I slice them with my mandolin and let them cook on low in the crock pot all night, no need to add liquid. Then I removed the greatly reduced mass of onions and finish the browning in the skillet since my crock pot doesn’t have heat on the bottom. I then freeze them and use them until I run out and have to make another batch.

    It works a treat and they add so much to almost anything.

  12. This sounds delicious and I will give it a try, sans Canola oil. Please take a look at the Weston A Price/Mercola websites or google to discover the dangers of Canola oil.

    • Kate — I’m certainly glad we agree on onion soup! We don’t, I’m afraid, on Weston Price. I find that their anti-industrial bias colors their assessment of just about anything — starting with pasteurization. I can’t find credible evidence of any harm from canola oil, and many sources I respect (Robert Wolke, for starters) dismiss the idea that it’s dangerous. That said, there are lots of healthful oils, and any old one will do in this recipe.

  13. Pork bone stock is the bomb! I’ve made the most amazing potato and leek soups this winter. I’m just lazy and boil the bone for a couple of hours before fishing it out and adding my potatoes and onions. Yummo!

  14. EXCELLENT SOUP! YUM! I grow lots of onions each summer and I am always looking for something new. I do love Julia Child’s recipe as well (My copy of Mastering says 3 lbs of onions and I checked on line and that seems to be pretty standard). I am looking for a recipe for french onion relish/chutney that I had a road side stand in Maine, and have been unsuccessful. Anyone seen something like that? Lots of onion marmalades ext, but nothing suspended in reduced beef broth…. and so it goes

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