Wednesday, October 3, 2012

French Onion Soup

It rained all day in north central Kentucky on Monday.  All.  Day.  Dark, dreary, chilly and wet.  Which is fine, because we finished most of the outside chores we had planned for the weekend, and it made for awesome soup weather.  The storage shed was assembled, the grass was cut, the garage was mostly organized.... so we took advantage of a nasty "stay inside and put on comfy clothes" kind of day with french onion soup.  And now, so can you!

I've probably mentioned my love of America's Test Kitchen on this blog before.  If I haven't, here it is: I love that show.  While Marc was on his 2nd deployment to Iraq right after we got married, I bought myself most of the books they've ever published, which happily came with every season of the show on dvd for free.  I watched them ad nauseum.  I still do.  How someone can watch a chicken being roasted about 60 times within a 5 year period is beyond explanation, but here we are.  I know it makes me lame, and I don't give a fig.  I never get tired of the show.  And when a new season's worth of cookbooks and dvds shows up in my mailbox, I'm downright giddy about it.  I honestly believe it is my obsession with this show that has made me a decent home cook.  It's because they teach you the basics and the methods, not just specific recipes.  It's because they explain the science, and not just the ingredients.  When company comes over, I am confident enough in the ATK recipes to choose ones that I've never made before, because I know that as long as I follow the directions, they will come out great.  Pretty much every recipe is a winner....

....but there's an exception to every rule, right?

I can only think of a handful of ATK recipes that I was not impressed with.  And before I attract the negative attention of Christopher Kimball, let me just say, I'm sure it was operator error.  The failures are so rare that they stick out in my mind like cubes of Velveeta on a fancy cheese tray.  Chicken tikka masala-- I had SO much hope for that one, but it was bland, bland, bland.  How something could smell that fragrant and have an ingredient list that long and still have no flavor is beyond me.  Once I tested a recipe for them (yes, I am an ATK recipe tester, that's how big of a dork I am about the show) for crab cakes, and although they tasted fantastic, they totally crumbled apart into a million pieces.  Had I been serving those to guests I would have been really embarrassed.

Another let down was french onion soup.  The method involves cooking the onions in the oven.  It takes for-e-ver.  Every half hour or so you take the giant, burning hot, heavy Dutch oven out of the oven and deglaze the pan and then keep putting it back in until the onions are very dark.  And if you're like me, the fond in the pot is BURNT by the time you are done.  The burning seems to happen within seconds.  You take the pot out to deglaze and everything looks great and then moments later the fond is black.  I can't figure out how to avoid it.  Might as well call it Schrodinger's onions because at any given moment in time it's as if the fond is simultaneously burned and not, but you don't know what state it's going to be in until you take the lid off of the pot and force it to assume a position.  And even with all that long, slow cooking and how lovely and deep and brown and caramel-y those onions look, there is no flavor, except the flavor of carbon from the burnt onion fond.  I have tried their method twice because they made it look so easy on the show, and I really wanted to give it a fair shake.  But it's a LOT of work for no pay off.  That was the conclusion I came to both times.  So I'm going with a simple stove top method using boxed beef broth.  It's probably nothing like how a French cook would make it, so maybe I should call it American onion soup.  Regardless, it's less work and we love it.

As usual, I consulted my old cookbooks and found several recipes for cream of onion soup.  Most of the soups our ancestors made were apparently cream of whatever, and that didn't interest me here.  (However, I will be revisiting cream of tomato soup in the near future.  YUM.)  So I went with a version that is my own adaptation from a Ladies' Home Journal cookbook recipe.  I've been making this recipe in various ways for many years, and I've gotten it just how I like it.  Screw that burnt fond / oven method.

French (American) Onion Soup

It's very important that you use broiler safe bowls for this.  Do not put anything under a broiler that doesn't specifically say broiler safe.  You done been warned.

1/4 cup butter
1 Tbs. oil
3 lb. white or yellow onions, thinly sliced
2 tsp. sugar
1 tsp. salt
2 (32 oz.) boxes low sodium beef broth
1 1/2 cups water
2 bay leaves
1 sprig fresh thyme
18 whole peppercorns
1/2 cup brandy
more salt to taste, as much as a few teaspoons
1 baguette or loaf of french bread
8 oz. gruyere cheese, shredded
8 oz. parmesan cheese, shredded

Heat the butter and oil in a large Dutch oven over medium high heat.  Once the butter has stopped foaming, add the onions, sugar and 1 tsp. salt.  Stir to coat the onions in the butter and oil and cook until beginning to soften.  Turn the heat down to medium low and continue to cook the onions, stirring occasionally until very soft and dark brown.  This will take a while, depending on the output of your stove and even the moisture in the onions.  I've had it take anywhere from 30 minutes to about an hour.  Once a lot of the moisture is gone, the onions will probably begin to stick a little bit to the pot and leave behind tasty browned bits of fond.

After the onions are very soft and dark, pour about half a cup of the broth into the pot and scrape up the browned bits using a wooden spoon.  Once the fond is all scraped up, add the remaining broth, the water, bay leaves, thyme and peppercorns.  If you have cheesecloth handy, this would be a great time to make a little sack for your peppercorns, bay leaves and thyme sprig.  That way they are super easy to fish out when you're done.  Boost the heat to high and bring the soup to a boil.  Once boiling, turn the heat back down to medium low and simmer gently for half an hour to 45 minutes.  Add brandy and simmer for 5 minutes more.   Remove the bay leaves and thyme sprig and either fish out the peppercorns, or warn those partaking not to bite down on them.  I've left them in before and have never bitten down on one.  They are pretty easy to spot as you scoop up spoonfuls of soup.

Preheat your broiler.  Slice enough pieces of bread to cover each bowlful of soup and then toast the bread until golden.  Ladle the soup into each broiler safe bowl, top with toasted bread slices and 2 to 3 Tbs. of each kind of cheese.  Place the bowls on a sheet pan and slide the pan under the broiler.  Broil until the cheese is melted and spotty brown.  It only took about 2 minutes in my broiler, but you'll need to go by eye, not time.  Careful!  It will be HOT when you dig in.


  1. T'was not operator error. I tried a different ATK French onion soup recipe and it was narsty. It was like eating a bowl of vinegar.

    1. Wow, not even nasty but narsty? Them's strong words.