For my vegetarian friends, with love.
“This is a peasant soup, made from onions, a scrap of old bread, some grated cheese, and water. Season with salt and whatever wine is on hand or some vinegar. Do not be tempted to use stock!” — Michael Ruhlman (emphasis mine)
Curious? I know I was. I first read this recipe for a French Onion Soup that doesn’t use beef or chicken stock in Ruhlman’s Twenty. But then I did some research. I dug into old European cookbooks, family cookbooks from gypsies and peasants, and I poured over some food history writings. Yes, I am that geeky, move along.
I even checked for a definitive recipe in the 1907 Gastronomie Pratique. Eight onions, butter, salt, baguette, Emmental cheese, one cup tomato purée. Nope, that’s not quite what I want (though I will need to try it someday). But no stock! We’re onto something.
As Mr. Ruhlman says, most recipes (and I’ve read hundreds of them in the last few days) use broth or stock, beef or chicken, as the liquid in their soups. Occasionally veal or pork too. And I love that. Please, let it be known. Deep, rich, roasted homemade beef stock is my standard operating procedure when it comes to making this soup. I will roast marrow and bone for hours and hours to draw out that nectar.
But that makes beef-onion soup. Or chicken-onion soup, as it were. It “changes the soup completely,” as Mr. Ruhlman asserts. And so many of the recipes caution the quality of the final soup depends on the quality of the stock. And I thought to myself, maybe it should depend on the quality of the onions?
A word between friends. I’ve had this soup made with vegetable stock. To me, and maybe it just wasn’t done well by that particular restaurant, it tasted like a warm onion V-8 without the tomatoes. Just say no.
Soupe à l’Oignon Gratinée
In the Parisian food markets of Les Halles, before they tore it all down in the 1970s to build a mall, the restaurants would start serving onion soup after midnight. Onions were cheap and plentiful with a long shelf-life, meat stocks not as much. And they would slow-cook these onions for hours and hours on a back stove burner, not frying them but rather letting the sugars ooze slowly out and carmelize all the while careful not to burn them.
All right, I thought. I’m in, Mr. Ruhlman.
So I set out for the local farmers market the next weekend, made my way to a stall I knew would have a treasure of good onions waiting, and loaded my bag with eight pounds of fresh onions.
Then I rose with the sun a day later to start the cooking with an eye towards an early supper.
This is not a soup for the impatient. Prepping eight pounds of onions took more than half-an-hour. And I’m no slouch with a knife.
I picked up an onion, picked up my knife, trimmed the top and bottom away, slit the skin, put the knife down, peeled the skin, picked the knife back up and started to slice.
You see, I have this good friend in North Carolina from my tech days who is a six sigma master black belt. (I’m sure you’re supposed to capitalize all that out of respect for the dark arts.) And I could hear him scream at the process I’d chosen. So I optimized. I trimmed the tops and bottoms of all the onions first.
Then, I peeled all of them.
And finally, I sliced all of them.
Much time was saved, little wasted motion, so I am grateful, I suppose.
A tablespoon of butter into a dutch oven. Mr. Ruhlman suggested an enameled cast-iron pot and this is the biggest one I have. Note to self, need to get my hands on a bigger pot. (Where did I put that lottery ticket?)
Let the cooking begin. Covered the pot to bring it up to temperature. The onions began to steam, releasing what eventually was a staggering amount of water over the next few hours. And I did taste it before it all boiled off and it was almost as sweet as syrup.
Uncovered now, gently stirring every now and then.
The onions cooked down and slowly browned for almost three and a half hours before they began to brown the bottom of the pot itself. They were a deep, golden brown, and almost like a jam or jelly. I deglazed the pot with six cups of water and brought it up to a boil. A splash of dry red wine from a local winery and a draw from my Cask of Amontillado dry sherry stash.
Taste. Little too sweet, so some red wine vinegar.
Then I let it cook for an hour and all the flavors melded together nicely. (Otherwise, it would have tasted like water-onion soup, right?.) A bit more salt and pepper along the way.
I dried some French bread slices in the oven.
Grated some imported Swiss Gruyere (I got for a bargain from the Costco or it would have cost more than the soup).
Under the broiler until melted and gooey and served hot to the table.
I can include the ingredients here but for the actual recipe itself I direct you to Mr. Ruhlman’s web site where he was kind enough to publish it separately from his book. (Sorry, reproducing it here would break copyright.)
So, with my thanks, here you go.
Traditional French Onion Soup
Traditional French Onion Soup, made without stock or broth as old-world peasant kitchens often did, sweet from the carmelized onions, rich from a bit of wine and vinegar. Visit suppertimeblues.com to learn more.
- 1 tablespoon butter
- 7-8 pounds onions, thinly sliced
- 1/3 cup dry sherry
- red or white wine vinegar (optional)
- red wine (optional)
- salt and pepper to taste
- 1/2 pound Gruyère or Emmanthaler cheese, grated
- baguette, sliced into bowl-sized croutons
Visit http://ruhlman.com/2011/10/french-onion-soup-recipe/ for the complete recipe.
Was it good? It was incredible! (Just not the soup you’re used to.)