Making the case for a stock free French onion soup

Lesson 8 of Le Cordon Bleu at Home consists of the following menu:

Soupe à l’Oignon Gratinée

Truite aux Amandes

Pommes à l’Anglaise

Oeufs à la Neige

The introduction to the onion soup recipe reads

When Les Halles, the famous Paris food market, was in the center of the city, late-night merrymakers could be found sitting shoulder to shoulder with butchers eating onion soup from midnight to dawn in busy bistros.  This combination of cheese, bread, and onions was said to restore strength.  Today Les Halles is gone but gratinée lives on, no longer the midnight meal of yore but a popular first course during the winter months in Paris.

The recipe that follows lists the following ingredients:  unsalted butter, onions, flour, white wine, water, bouquet garni, salt, pepper, sliced baguette, and Gruyère.  When I saw that stock (chicken, beef or veal) was not an ingredient, I’ll admit I was a little pissed off with myself.

Two or three years ago ago I read Michael Ruhlman’s onion soup recipe/post from his blog where he makes the case for a water based version.  Ever since I read his recipe I’ve ditched the stock in favor of water and have enjoyed a superior soup since.  And here I’ve owned the Le Cordon Bleu book for at least 15 years now and just the other day noticed that I had the recipe for an improved onion soup in my possession long before I realized how much better it is with water.

Ruhlman makes the case that this is a peasant dish “borne out of economy” and would never have been made with stock.  Historical accuracy aside, onion soup made from water is superior for a few simple reasons: it tastes better, it tastes more like onion, it’s cheaper, and easier to make (easier in the sense that you don’t need a good chicken or beef stock on hand).  An added benefit is that it also allows our vegetarian friends to partake in something utterly delicious.  One does have to marvel at the ability of peasants to turn the quotidian into something transcendental, onion soup being merely one example of our peasant ancestors performing their magic.

All the other onion soup recipes in my cookbook collection call for stock, either chicken or beef, white or brown, sometimes in combination with each other (interestingly enough of all my French cookbooks it’s only Paul Bocuse’s French Cooking that omits an onion soup recipe).  Yet what I have found to be the key to adding body and depth of flavor to the soup is how long you allow the onions to caramelize, which is a process of many hours and cannot be rushed.

In culinary school I recall making it with stock which was most likely brown veal.  I did locate the recipe from my Skills II binder which declares “18 oz as directed by instructor.  Beef stock, chicken stock, water or 1 combination of each for a total of 18 oz. liquid”.  That sounds strangely noncomittal, especially given the instructor definitely would have had a view on the matter seeing as he had a strong view on everything.  Alas the water issue hadn’t revealed itself until a few years after I attended culinary school and the opportunity for clarification unwittingly passed me by.

The first French restaurant I worked at used straight up veal stock  and I can’t help but marvel at the complete stupidity of using the first running from veal bones to be used for a lowly soup.  What’s even more is that we never ran the veal bones again, called remouillage, which would have been a far more appropriate base for the soup.  Rather we just threw them in the trash after having a dishwasher pick any edible meat off the bones for a ravioli filling.  The owner thought he was no doubt being frugal in picking “meat” off of what he saw as spent veal bones, but the better alternative that would have made him more money would have been to make a remouillage and ditch the shitty tasting pickings.

The second French restaurant I worked at only used remouillage as the base for onion soup, from either brown chicken, duck or veal stock  or more likely a combination of all the brown remouillage we might happen to have on hand (depending on how gelatinous the veal bones were we might even “wash” them a third time).   After combining the various remouillages we would add body by reducing it before adding the caramelized onions and a sachet.  When seasoning some sherry vinegar would be added.

If I had to pick between the two I would say that the onion soup at the first restaurant was inferior to the second:  it was too heavy, too rich, and really had failed to be an onion soup.  No doubt it was a good soup, but the onion flavor which I find to be fairly delicate was obscured by the richness of the veal stock.  Add to that some herbes de Provence and you’re left with something only remotely resembling onion soup.

Which gets us to the point:  the predominant flavor of an onion soup ought to be onion.  It should be delicate and mildly sweet with some acidity to balance the sweetness and round out the flavor provided by wine or a splash of vinegar.  Yet we’ve come to seek out the “meatiest” or “earthiest” or broth available.  The onion has become an unfortunate bystander to its own soup.

Here’s how I make my soup, which is really just a slight variation on the Ruhlman version:

  • 6-8 Spanish onions, julienned
  • A healthy amount of butter, maybe half a stick
  • Sliced baguette, drizzled with olive oil, seasoned with salt and pepper and baked at 350ºF until browned and dried completely
  • 1/3 cup sherry
  • Sherry vinegar
  • Red or white wine
  • 1 sprig of thyme
  • 1 bay leaf
  • Grated Gruyère or Emmenthaler (I prefer Emmenthaler)

Melt the butter in a large pot or dutch oven, add the onions and season with a generous amount of salt.  Continue cooking over low heat for several hours until the onions are a deep, rich brown.  Add 6 cups of water and bring to a simmer and reduce heat to low.  Add the sherry, bay leaf, and sprig of thyme.  I also like to add a little splash of wine along with a small amount of sherry vinegar.  Season with salt and pepper.

To assemble, ladle soup into bowls, float one or two croutons on top, sprinkle with some of the cheese and place under a broiler until the cheese is melted, bubbly and a little browned.

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