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~ French Onion Soup (Soupe a l'Oignon) a la Mel ~

IMG_9245When it comes to serving soup as a second course to Christmas dinner, I have two favorites: wild mushroom and French onion.  I usually serve a prime rib roast, and, either one of these soups go "oh so swell" with with it.  Both of them date back to Ancient times, and, both, at the time, were seen as "poor peoples food":  mushrooms were free-of-charge and gathered by hand in wooded areas by peasants, and, onions were easy to grow, even in harsh climates.  Both held up quite well in the family "root cellar" too.  As for me, I consider both soups "fit for a king".

French onion soup (and French food in general) became hugely popular in the USA during the 1960's when Jackqueline Bouvier Kennedy hired French chef Rene Verdon to preside over The White House kitchen.  Chef Verdon (formerly of the Hotel Carlyle in NYC) is credited with changing forever the standard of food served at state dinners and official receptions.  Eating at the White House became a "fine art", and, his food began making headlines nationwide.

IMG_9278A bit about French onion soup:  By definition, it is made from a bold-flavored, meat-based stock (traditionally beef) with a wine or spirit of some sort added to it, lots of heavily-caramelized onions (caramelized to the point of almost turning into a dark, brown paste) and topped with a crouton (traditionally 1-2 French baguette slices toasted "hard", so they soften in the stock without turning to mush), and, copious amounts of grated cheese (traditionally French gruyere). The individual servings (traditionally assembled in crocks with handles) are then broiled until the cheese melts.  French onion soup:  It is a labor of love, and, a work of art, not a lot of work.

IMG_9112A bit about French onion soup a la Mel:  At first glance, all of the above may sound like too much work to bother with, but trust me when I tell you:  it is not.  Granted, it will take the better part of an entire day to make it, but, each part of the process is quite easy and you are by no means tied to your stovetop all day.  If you make your beef stock in advance (like me), that saves a few hours "right off the bat".  

Can you prepare this soup with canned broth?  Yes, you can, but (BIG BUT):  a soup is only as good as the stock that goes into it and this is a recipe I never compromise with substitutions. That being said, if you must use canned beef broth (please don't use chicken or vegetable broth), at least season it with the following ingredients and simmer it for 15 minutes:  8 sprigs of parsley, 2 bay leaves, 1-2 cloves of garlic, and, some freshly ground black pepper, to taste.

IMG_8972What makes my French onion soup special?  The way I was taught to pre-caramelize the onions for several hours in an enameled cast-iron Dutch oven, in the oven (which develops their rich flavor), followed by a four-step stovetop deglazing process (which leaves them a beautiful dark brown and lusciously sweet). Who taught me this?  A French saucier named Reme (Reh-mee) back in the 1980's.  He and his partner Roger owned a short-lived French restaurant named The Governor's Table, in Bellefonte, PA, one block from the stately,  elegant and historic Centre County Seat and Courthouse.  I loved it.  

Their food was exceptional, but, sadly, fancy French cuisine was not that town's "cup of tea". However, during this period, Reme and Roger catered 3-4 parties for me, and, they always shared their French tips, tricks and techniques (plus a few classic recipes) with a  foodie like me.

Advice from Mel -- While this soup is easy to make, it is not quick to make:  

Walk away from all amateurish "30-minutes or less" "dumbed down" renditions.

Run away from all recipes that contain flour (to thicken) and/or sugar (to sweeten).

As for "Diet" versions:  Vegan stock?  Gluten-free bread?  Fake-cheese? Not!

(You only live once.  I hope you NEVER have to eat this soup made in any of the above-mentioned ways.)

IMG_8945For the soup:

10  cups beef stock, homemade (Note:  You are going to need 10 total cups of beef stock throughout this recipe.  Eight total cups for the soup itself, and, two total cups for the deglazing process.  You can find my recipe for ~ Mel interrupts Christmas to bring you:  Beef Stock ~ in Categories 15 & 22, or, by clicking on the Related Article link below.)

4  tablespoons salted butter, each tablespoon cut into 4 cubes

5-5 1/2  pounds large, peeled yellow onions, or sweet onions, halved and cut into 1/4"-thick slices, no substitutions (Note:  Many authorities say that modern day "sweet" hybrid onions don't have the "bite" necessary to make a great onion soup.  While I understand why they might think and say that, the fact of the matter is, sweet onions work just fine in this soup.  I've done the side-by-side comparison.

1  teaspoon sea salt

1/2  cup dry sherry

no-stick cooking spray

For the croutons and cheese topping:

1/2  of a French baguette, preferably 1-2 days old, cut into 16, 1/2" thick slices

16  ounces shredded Gruyere cheese, no substitutions (4 cups grated Gruyere)

Part One:  Caramelizing (Roasting) the Onions

IMG_8964~ Step 1.  Position an oven rack in the lower-middle level and preheat to 400 degrees.  Spray inside of a 6-7-quart enameled cast-iron Dutch oven with cooking spray.  Cube and place butter in the bottom of the pot. Slice the onions as directed, placing them in the pot as you work. Sprinkle the sea salt over the onions.  Place the lid on the pot (completely cover) and place in preheated oven for 1 hour.

IMG_8984 IMG_8976~ Step 2. Remove pot from oven and uncover.  Onions will be moist and reduced by half in volume.  Using a wide, nonstick spatula, stir the onions, thoroughly scraping the bottom and sides of the pot.  You'll notice some browning on the sides and some liquid in the bottom.

IMG_8995Step 3.  Partially cover the pot (lid slightly ajar) and continue to roast, until onions are very soft and golden brown, 1 1/2-1 3/4 hours, stirring and scraping down pot after first hour of cooking.  Remove pot from oven and place on stovetop for the following deglazing process:

Kitchen Safety Note:  Before beginning the deglazing process, realize, this pot has emerged from a scorching hot oven:  pot, lid and handles are very hot.  Have oven mitts or pot holders in hand to safely manage the pot during this process.  

IMG_9010 IMG_9012~ Step 4. Remove pot lid and set aside.  

Onions will be sizzling, very fragrant, and, just short of beginning to brown on the bottom of the pot.  

Over medium-high heat, on stovetop, cook/saute onions, stirring frequently, scraping down the IMG_9022bottom and sides of pot, until all liquid evaporates and onions are beginning to brown, about 12-15 minutes, reducing the heat to medium (or lower) if onions are browning too quickly.  Do not scorch. Continue to cook, stirring almost constantly, until bottom of pot is coated with a dark crust, about 6-8 additional minutes, adjusting heat as necessary.

IMG_9029~ Step 5.  Add 1/2  cup of beef stock, scraping pot bottom to loosen crust and cook until stock evaporates and pot bottom has formed another dark crust, about 4-6 minutes.  Repeat this deglazing process 3 more times, using 1/2 cup of beef stock each time and cooking 4-6 additional minutes each time, until the onions are very dark brown and bottom of pot is clean:

IMG_9050Part Two:  Making the French Onion Soup & Croutons

IMG_9070~ Step 1.  Add the remaining 8 cups of beef stock and the 1/2 cup of sherry into the pot of caramelized onions.  Scrape up any final bits of browned crust on the bottom and sides of the pot.  Bring to a simmer over high heat.  

Reduce heat to low, partially cover pot and simmer very gently for 10-15 minutes. Remove from heat, cover and set aside.

Note:  At this point, soup can be covered and refrigerated for 2-3 days prior to serving.  How convenient is that.  Remove from refrigerator, gently reheat and proceed with recipe as directed.

IMG_9100~ Step 2.  Once soup is hot, arrange the baguette slices, side by side, in a single layer, on a 17 1/2" x 12 1/2" baking pan that has been lined with parchment paper.  Bake in 400 degree oven until bread is dry, crisp and golden around the edges, 5-6 minutes.  Remove from oven, flip slices over and return to oven until second side is crisp and golden around edges, 2-3 minutes. Remove from oven, remove croutons from pan and set aside.

Part Three:  Assembling & Broiling the French Onion Soup

IMG_9118 IMG_9114~ Step 1. Adjust oven rack 6" underneath broiler element and preheat for 10 minutes. Place 2-4-6-8, 2-cup size, oven-safe crocks on 1-2 baking pans lined with parchment.

Note:  I'm making 4 crocks of soup today, and, 4 crocks of soup tomorrow, and, today, I'm using the same parchment-lined baking pan the croutons were just baked on.  

IMG_9141~ Step 2.  Ladle 1 1/2 cups of hot soup into each crock (or to within 1/2" of the top of each one).

IMG_9126~ Step 3. Top each portion of soup with 2 baguette slices (do not overlap the slices). Grate the cheese and evenly distribute 1/2 cup over the top of each crock, mounding it slightly towards the centers.

~ Step 4.  Place baking pan in the oven and broil until cheese is melted and bubbly around the edges, 3-4 minutes.  Remove pan from oven and let cool, 1-2 minutes, prior to serving:

IMG_9166Go ahead, dive in, dig around and enjoy! 

IMG_9257French Onion Soup (Soupe a l'Oignon) a la Mel:  Recipe yields about 3-quarts (12 cups) of soup/8 servings.

Special Equipment List:  6-7-quart enameled cast-iron Dutch oven w/tight-fitting lid; cutting board; chef's knife; wide, nonstick spatula; 1-2, 17 1/2" x 12 1/2" baking pan(s); parchment paper; 2-8, 2-cup size oven- broiler-safe crocks or soup bowls (ramekins may be substituted); soup ladle; cheese grater

Shiitake Mushroom Soup #1 (Intro Picture)Cook's Note:  To get my recipe for ~ Shiitake Mushroom Soup w/Homemade Croutons ~, just click into Categories 2, 12, 21 or 22.

Where's the beef?

Prime Rib Roast #9Check into Categories 3, 11 or 21 to find out how to make the ~ Perfect "Prime" Rib Roast (Standing Rib Roast) ~.

"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti

(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2013) 


I have a black cast iron pan. Will it work? Also, we don’t do wine or any alcohol. Do you know of a sherry substitute?

Merci Mademoiselle Gottier. I take this as a great compliment considering your French heritage!

This is a beautiful blog, Mel! The culinary Gods are weeping! :( :)

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