A steaming bowl of French onion soup topped with melted Gruyere cheese – classic comfort food and a dinner solution for the craziness of this holiday week. Made ahead, it re-heats beautifully after a busy day of shopping, wrapping and getting ready for Christmas.
Peasant Food – Comfort Food
Historically considered peasant food, onion soups have been around since Roman times but it was the French who turned it into a classic dish.
Usually left to play a supporting role in everything from stocks, soups and stews, to salads and sauces, the humble onion becomes the star of the show in this soup. With slow cooking, onions become meltingly tender and sweet. When you start with sweet onions, like the Mayan Sweet or Oso Sweet (my favorites), it’s even better.
The Sweet Onion Source says although there is no official industry standard, it’s generally accepted that an onion should contain at least 6% sugar to be in the “sweet” category. Some sweet onions, like the OsoSweet, have recorded sugar levels of up to 15% whereas standard onions usually range from 3%-5%.
Besides tasting great, an added benefit to cooking with sweet onions is they don’t make you cry. No more bleary, stinging eyes from running tears and stopping to blow your nose.
To make the soup, start with 3 pounds of sweet onions. Cut them in half stem to root and slice crosswise into thin half rounds. For a rich flavor, I use both olive oil and unsalted butter to cook the onions. You can use all olive oil if you prefer.
Cook the sliced onions over low heat in a heavy pot with a little garlic, white wine, thyme sprigs and a bay leaf. After low and slow cooking for about 45-60 minutes, the onions are so tender they almost melt in your mouth. Add chicken broth and heat through.
Just before serving, top with toasted homemade croutons, grated Gruyere (cave-aged is best) and a little Parmesan. Melt under the broiler or use that blowtorch you only get out for Crème Brulee. Sprinkle with fresh chopped chives for garnish and fresh flavor.
A note on ingredients – I prefer using chicken broth versus the traditional beef broth for a lighter, golden soup. If you are a vegetarian, you can also use homemade vegetable stock. Here’s the place where homemade stock or broth really shine, but you can use your favorite canned or boxed brand in a pinch.
If you can’t find Mayan Sweets or OsoSweets, look for Walla Walla, Vidalia, or Maui onions. All are sweet varieties. Their sweetness varies. Find one that you like. What’s available changes with their growing seasons.
Golden French Onion Soup
Yield: about 7 cups or 1 ½ liters
- 3 pounds (1.362 kg) sweet onions, like Mayan Sweet or OsoSweet
- 1 tablespoon (14 grams) unsalted butter
- 1 tablespoon olive oil (15 ml)
- 1 teaspoon kosher or sea salt
- A few grinds of black pepper (or you can use white pepper so it doesn’t show)
- 2 cloves garlic, finely minced
- 1 cup (240 ml) dry white wine
- 2-3 sprigs of fresh thyme
- 1 dried bay leaf
- 4 cups (1 liter) chicken broth (preferably homemade, or low sodium boxed or canned)
- 4 slices of crusty artisan-style bread (or classically, baguette)
- 4 ounces (112 grams) of cave-aged Gruyere cheese, grated
- 2 tablespoons (28 grams) grated Parmesan cheese (optional, to top the Gruyere)
- A splash of dry sherry (optional)
- A sprinkle of chopped chives for color and garnish (optional)
- Cut onions in half through the room and the stem ends. Peel and thinly slice into half moons.
- In a large heavy pan (I use a Le Creuset 5 1/2 quart), melt the butter and olive oil over medium heat. Add the onions salt and pepper. Turn heat to low. Slowly cook onions until soft and translucent, about 45-60 minutes. Partially cover the pan with a lid during cooking. Half of the way through, add garlic, wine, thyme, bay leaf.
- Onions may caramelize and become a golden brown. If not, don’t worry. If they start to brown quickly, turn your heat down. You want a low, slow heat and onions that practically melt.
- When onions are completely tender, discard the bay leaf and what’s left of the thyme sprigs. Little thyme leaves can be left in the soup. Add the broth and heat until the soup is hot and flavors have incorporated, about 15-20 minutes. If you want, add a splash of dry sherry.
- To serve, heat up your broiler. Ready oven safe soup bowls. Cut a piece of bread so that it fits in the soup bowl. Toast the bread brushed with a little olive oil under the broiler (or in a toaster) until golden. Bread can also be cut into large cubes, tossed with olive oil and browned in a fry pan or skillet until golden. Homemade croutons really make this soup extra good.
- Place soup in the bowl, top with toasted bread or bread cubes and grated cheeses. Place the bowls on a rimmed baking sheet and place under the broiler to melt the cheese. Don’t use the top broiler rack. Use the level at least one below and watch carefully so the cheese melts and gets golden but does not burn.
Another way to get the tops browned is to use a blowtorch. Here’s another use for that torch you bought for making Creme Brulee.
Other fun and helpful links:
History of Soup, from Wikipedia
Information on Mayan Sweet onions
Information on OsoSweet onions
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