As much as most of us would be thrilled for winter to release its icy grip on us, Spring is not here yet. The silver lining (and I am wont to find one in every situation) is that it’s still soup season! Starting with rich, dark, clear homemade beef stock, this traditional French Onion Soup is loaded with beautifully caramelized onions and served two ways, either in a classic onion soup crock or a hollowed bread bowl, topped with a crispy crouton to float the gooey, melted gruyère cheese. This French Onion Soup recipe will warm you from the inside out.
The first time I ever ate French Onion Soup was when I was in college. In Knoxville, there was a fabulous restaurant that was known for its amazing French Onion Soup and it was in that revered establishment that I got my first taste of soup heaven. Sadly, the Regas Restaurant is closed now, after having served the Knoxville area for over nine decades. But my love of French Onion Soup lives on. I owe them a huge debt of gratitude for introducing me to this super-rich, delicious soup the right way.
My adoration of that first experience (and my disappointment with other versions) of French Onion Soup inspired the desire to make my own, and I experimented with different ways to make it for a long time. It was during a conversation with my friend Jack (of Southern-Style Mustard Potato Salad fame), that I learned the importance of the stock and the trick I’ll tell you about in a minute.
Every winter, at least once, I will make up a huge batch of French Onion Soup. I’ll admit it freely, I’m a traditionalist when it comes to French Onion Soup. I always make my own beef stock, so the recipe is one I reserve for a time when I have a full day to devote to the soup. It’s worth the time. Trust me.
Of course, you could buy beef stock and significantly reduce the time it takes to make French Onion soup. And I’m not sure you save all that much money making your own stock, but the rich flavor and dark color you can achieve from making your own stock is priceless. Most of the process is hands-off time, too.
The trick to a really deep, dark, rich stock is to roast the bones first. The roasting of the bones creates a caramelization on the outside of the bones as well as cooking the marrow to a dark brown. That releases both intense flavor and color to the stock.
Near the end of the roasting time, I add my onions, carrots, celery (the combination of which is referred to as mirepoix, pronounced: meer-pwah) as well as some garlic to the roasting pan with the bones. I don’t peel any of these either, since there is also color imparted to the stock from the skins of the onion. By roasting the vegetables, you are also getting the color of the caramelization from the outer layers and the sweet flavor that roasting them will offer.
Here’s what they look like after they are roasted:
Once the bones and vegetables are roasted, I remove them from the roasting pan and into a stockpot. One last step is needed with the roasting pan, though. You will find that it is coated with dark, crispy bits and you want to be able to use those, too. Here’s a peek at what’s left in the roasting pan:
The way you capture all that crispy, caramelized goodness is to “deglaze” the pan. Once you pour off any fat that may be collected in the pan (and I never add oil to my bones for roasting them, by the way), to deglaze you simply add liquid that will enable you to scrape up those bits. Those bits are precious and your stock will thank you for adding them. For the liquid, I use a combination of brandy and water. Then, once the bits are deglazed from the pan, I pour this liquid into the stock pot, too.
Now you’re ready to cook the stock. Starting with cold water, and adding some herbs (I put peppercorns, bay leaf, thyme leaves, parsley stems and a clove into a tea ball or a bundle of cheesecloth and immerse it in the liquid) you bring this to a boil and reduce the heat immediately.
In order to get a clear, beautiful (not cloudy) stock, you need to simmer it slowly, as well as clarify it. To clarify the stock all you do is periodically remove the foam that will rise to the top as the stock is cooking. It’s important to not stir the stock, too. Just let it happily simmer away. I usually let my stock simmer for about 4-6 hours. Here is a shot of the clarified stock. Notice how clear it is, but how dark the color is in the mug:
Once the stock has simmered for the allotted time, you remove the bones and vegetables and strain it through some cheesecloth draped over a fine mesh strainer. That’s it. Using five pounds of bones and five quarts of water, you should get about four quarts of stock. I only use 6 cups of stock for the French onion soup, so after it cools I freeze the rest for later use in other recipes.
Now for the onions: I love a load, I mean a ton of caramelized onions in my French Onion Soup (generally 3 pounds per six cup recipe). And for years I would dread French Onion Soup day because I hand chopped all of the onions. Then one year as I was preparing to make it, I was chatting online with my friend, Sarah. I was preparing a triple batch of soup, so I had nine pounds of onions to chop. When I told her why I needed to go, she asked, “Dude, don’t you own a food processor?” Well, yes. I do. And why I never thought to use it to slice those onions I will never know. But I owe Sarah. Big time.
To caramelize the onions, you really need to do this slowly so the onions don’t burn. It takes some time, but low and slow is the way to go (hee…rhyming). I use a combination of butter and oil, add the onions and allow them to cook for about 10 minutes. Then I add a pinch of salt and a pinch of sugar and start stirring. You don’t continuously stir the onions because you want them to sit in the bottom of the pan long enough to start browning (not burning, just turning golden brown). Once the onions are all golden brown, with some darker brown bits, I add brandy and a splash of balsamic vinegar to finish them.
Then, it’s just a matter of adding six cups of beef stock to them. At this point, the soup is ready to eat. Now, you could just ladle it into any bowl and chow down, but I serve mine in the classic tradition, with a toasted crouton placed on top which is then topped with cheese and put under the broiler to melt. Breaking through that gooey, melted cheese and having it pull off in long, stretchy strands with every bite is part of the fun of French Onion Soup!
I can’t claim to have matched the Regas’ French Onion Soup, I’m sure they had some tricks I haven’t learned yet, but my version is incredible. If I do say so myself. This soup is really, I mean really rich. So it doesn’t take much to fill you up. Six cups of the stock with caramelized onions will feed four as an entree, or six as a soup course.
While this isn’t a quick recipe, I can promise you, it’s not hard. And it’s worth the time. This simple soup is one of the most elegant and delicious soups ever. Do try it!
p.s.: If your local butcher or grocery store doesn’t sell bones, ask them if they will save them for you. I’ve never met one who wouldn’t. The bones I used in this stock were given to me by a friend and were from a grass-fed cow raised on small cattle farm in North Carolina.
- 5 pounds of beef bones
- 1 medium-sized yellow onion, cut in eighths, skin on.
- 1 medium-sized red onion, cut in eighths, skin on.
- 3 medium-sized carrots, not peeled, cut into 2 inch pieces
- 2 ribs of celery, cut into 2 inch pieces
- ½ head garlic, peel on (no need to separate the cloves)
- 5 quarts cold water
- Bundle in cheesecloth (or you can use a large tea ball):
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 handful of parsley stems
- 4 sprigs of fresh thyme leaves (or about 1 teaspoon dry)
- 1 tablespoon whole black peppercorns
- 1 whole clove
- ½ cup brandy
- ½ cup cold water
- Special equipment: cheesecloth, fine mesh strainer
- Preheat the oven to 475°F.
- Place the bones in a large roasting pan. It's best to have one large enough to have a single layer of bones.
- Place the roasting pan in the preheated oven and cook for 1 hour.
- After an hour, place the onion, carrot, celery and garlic pieces into the roasting pan and stir to combine with the bones.
- Continue to cook for another 30 minutes.
- Remove the roasting pan from the oven and transfer the bones and the vegetables to a large stockpot.
- Add the 5 quarts of water and the bundle of herbs into the stockpot with the bones and vegetables.
- Pour off any fat that may have accumulated in the roasting pan.
- Place the roasting pan over medium heat and add the brandy and the remaining ½ cup water.
- Using a wooden spoon, scrape up all of the caramelized bits in the bottom of the roasting pan.
- Pour this liquid, with the bits included, into the stockpot.
- Bring the liquid in the stockpot to a boil. Reduce the heat to simmer.
- Periodically skim the foam from the top of the liquid, being careful not to stir the stock.
- If you're noticing significant evaporation of the liquid, turn the heat down. You want it to reduce, but not much (5 quarts of water will reduce to 4 quarts of stock).
- Continue to cook for 4-6 hours.
- After that time, carefully remove the bones and vegetables. Strain the remaining liquid through cheesecloth draped over a fine mesh strainer.
- Allow to cool if you are going to store to freeze or refrigerate. Frozen stock will keep for 3-5 months, refrigerated for 3-5 days.
- 6 cups beef stock (preferably homemade, but you could use store-bought)
- 3 pounds onions (my preference here...I love a LOT of onions in mine), peeled and sliced
- 6 tablespoons butter
- 2 tablespoons oil
- pinch of salt
- pinch of sugar
- 2 tablespoons brandy
- splash balsamic vinegar
- Using a wide-bottomed pan, so the onions get maximum contact with the bottom, over medium-high heat, add the butter and the oil and heat until the butter melts.
- Add the onions to the pan and stir to coat with the butter.
- Reduce the heat to medium to medium-low (I prefer medium-low when caramelizing a big batch. It may take longer, but you reduce the risk of burning them).
- After 10 minutes, add the salt and the sugar.
- Continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions reach a golden brown color, with bits of darker brown interspersed (approximately 40 minutes to an hour).
- Add the brandy and the vinegar, and cook for another couple of minutes.
- Add the beef stock to the onions and allow to simmer for a couple of minutes.
- To serve, either ladle directly into bowls and eat, or top with a toasted slice of sturdy bread (I use French baguette that I've dried in the oven) topped with a slice of cheese of your choice (I use gruyère, but Provolone, Swiss or Parmesan would work beautifully) and put under the broiler until the cheese melts and is slightly browned and bubbly.