Thursday, February 18, 2010

French Onion Soup

In the past I may not have expressed my love for Cooks' Illustrated as much as I should have. 
Those six yearly issues might as well be my bible. I love that they don't just publish a recipe. They test it out over and over using different variables, ingredients and techniques. They walk you through their results and they explain why they did or did not like each variation. Basically, any recipe you find in those glossy pages is pretty much guaranteed to work.

Let's back track to Christmas break for a second. I'm probably the only college student that travels with cooking utensils including, but not limited to, french press, coffee, several cookbooks, candy thermometer, cookie press and other things I obviously need for weeks away from home. (Seriously??). At any rate while I was going through the cabinets and packing up my stuff to go home I noticed 4 little blue crocks for french onion soup. My dad declared he had no idea where they came from and I could have them. I jumped at the thought of making my own french onion soup and eagerly tucked them between layers of clothing in my suitcase.

Flash forward again to my house in Binghamton. I now have these dumb little unnecessary single-use bowls taking up precious cabinet space in my tiny kitchen. The least I could do was use them at least once so I turned to my trusty Soups & Stews issue of Cooks' Illustrated. I read through the article and following recipe, wrote my shopping list, invited some guests, and broke out the dutch oven.

One supermarket trip, a quick run (literally) back for some forgotten thyme, and six hours later and we were enjoying delicious hot crocks of melted, cheesy, onions.

I'm not going to pretend this is quick and easy. It's not. It's a lot of time and work. Yes, I am aware that chicken soup takes almost as long but I really love chicken soup. I think my adversity to making this again has more to do with my indifference to actually consuming it than the effort it takes to make it.
Don't get me wrong, the soup came out fantastic and I'm happy I made it. I just don't often crave french onion soup, so it's not worth all the work. Plus those dumb little crocks really don't fit with my dislike for single-use kitchen gadgets. In fact, I think I'm going to give them back when I move in May. Thanks anyway Dad - and don't worry I know french onion is your favorite. I'll make you some when I dump these things back in your kitchen.

French Onion Soup
As written and published by Cook's Illustrated January 1, 2008. Serves 6.
Sweet onions, such as Vidalia or Walla Walla, will make this recipe overly sweet. Be patient when caramelizing the onions in step 2; the entire process takes 45 to 60 minutes. Use broiler-safe crocks and keep the rim of the bowls 4 to 5 inches from the heating element to obtain a proper gratinée of melted, bubbly cheese. If using ordinary soup bowls, sprinkle the toasted bread slices with Gruyère and return them to the broiler until the cheese melts, then float them on top of the soup. We prefer Swanson Certified Organic Free Range Chicken Broth and Pacific Beef Broth. For the best flavor, make the soup a day or 2 in advance. Alternatively, the onions can be prepared through step 1, cooled in the pot, and refrigerated for up to 3 days before proceeding with the recipe.

3 tablespoons unsalted butter , cut into 3 pieces
6 large yellow onions (about 4 pounds), halved and cut pole to pole into 1/4-inch-thick slices
Table salt
2 cups water , plus extra for deglazing
1/2 cup dry sherry
4 cups low-sodium chicken broth
2 cups beef broth
6 sprigs fresh thyme , tied with kitchen twine
1 bay leaf
Ground black pepper
1 small baguette , cut into 1/2-inch slices
8 ounces shredded Gruyère cheese (about 2 1/2 cups)

1. For the soup: Adjust oven rack to lower-middle position and heat oven to 400 degrees. Generously spray inside of heavy-bottomed large (at least 7-quart) Dutch oven with nonstick cooking spray. Place butter in pot and add onions and 1 teaspoon salt. Cook, covered, 1 hour (onions will be moist and slightly reduced in volume). Remove pot from oven and stir onions, scraping bottom and sides of pot. Return pot to oven with lid slightly ajar and continue to cook until onions are very soft and golden brown, 1 1/2 to 1 3/4 hours longer, stirring onions and scraping bottom and sides of pot after 1 hour.

2. Carefully remove pot from oven and place over medium-high heat. Using oven mitts to handle pot, cook onions, stirring frequently and scraping bottom and sides of pot, until liquid evaporates and onions brown, 15 to 20 minutes, reducing heat to medium if onions are browning too quickly. Continue to cook, stirring frequently, until pot bottom is coated with dark crust, 6 to 8 minutes, adjusting heat as necessary. (Scrape any fond that collects on spoon back into onions.) Stir in 1/4 cup water, scraping pot bottom to loosen crust, and cook until water evaporates and pot bottom has formed another dark crust, 6 to 8 minutes. Repeat process of deglazing 2 or 3 more times, until onions are very dark brown. Stir in sherry and cook, stirring frequently, until sherry evaporates, about 5 minutes.

3. Stir in broths, 2 cups water, thyme, bay leaf, and 1/2 teaspoon salt, scraping up any final bits of browned crust on bottom and sides of pot. Increase heat to high and bring to simmer. Reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer 30 minutes. Remove and discard herbs, then season with salt and pepper.

4. For the croutons: While soup simmers, arrange baguette slices in single layer on baking sheet and bake in 400-degree oven until bread is dry, crisp, and golden at edges, about 10 minutes. Set aside.

5. To serve: Adjust oven rack 6 inches from broiler element and heat broiler. Set individual broiler-safe crocks on baking sheet and fill each with about 1 3/4 cups soup. Top each bowl with 1 or 2 baguette slices (do not overlap slices) and sprinkle evenly with Gruyère. Broil until cheese is melted and bubbly around edges, 3 to 5 minutes. Let cool 5 minutes before serving.


  1. The dutch oven is lovely. I like the blue. And this looks delicious - i've been wanting to have an onion cutting competition (followed by onion soup because what else would you do with that many onions). You don't seem too enthused about the taste though? Soup with bread & cheese on top?? What's not to love! And those little soup bowls - everything is always cuter when its smaller!

  2. haha an onion cutting competition. i think the challenge will really be who sheds fewer tears. it was pretty painful in my kitchen for a bit. Don't get me wrong the soup was REALLY REALLY good and it totally didn't even need the bread and cheese it was even delicious without it (not that i'm giving up the bread or cheese) its just that its so much work that its not something i'd really make very often. Some things I would gladly spend all day in the kitchen for because I love them THAT much. french onion soup in general is not one them.

  3. you made it! and it looks fabulous :) why did you start cooking hardcore once I graduated from Bing?!?! I would have been your happiest taste tester! :-P

  4. i guess you'll just have to come visit me then, em :)

  5.'ve boldly posted a CI recipe. They've been known not to play nice with bloggers who post their recipes. Apparently, it's not OK.

    That being said, even though I am really not a huge onion fan- ok, well I'm on the fence and getting better- this looks pretty amazing. I think my favorite part is the broiled cheesy crouton topping. Ditch what's underneath and you've got me. For good.

    And HOW did I miss those LEMON COOKIES? Rolled in coconut? Have I been blind? Oh the sorrow....

  6. Hmm I didn't know CI gets upset about that. I definitely won't be posting one again :(.

    It's funny that you say that because I could ditch the broiled cheesy crouton (surprisingly) and be happy with just the soup.

    and the lemon cookies were delicious - a little "healthy" tasting but that's ok, cause they are haha

  7. I'm looking forward to that soup Dad


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