It’s been blustery and cold here in Portland, so we’re eating soup by the bowlful to warm up. One of my all-time favorite soups is the classic French Onion: it’s decadent, flavorful, and deceptively simple to make. Its creation is somewhat unknown but dates back to the 18th century. French Onion was originally considered a peasant dish because meat was a luxury and onions were cheap and plentiful. Somewhere along the way, Parisian restaurateurs added a healthy heap of grated cheese, or gratinée, and the soup was rebranded into the dish we’re familiar with today.
YOU’RE SO CHEESY
Any dish that includes cheese and bread gets two big thumbs up from my family. The cheese we're using here is Gruyère, a hard yellow cheese of Swiss origin. You can also use Comté, which is a style of Gruyère hailing from an eastern province of France. Both kinds of cheese are used in a variety of savory recipes as they complement other flavors instead of overpowering them and are particularly good for melting.
As for the bread component, I like to use ciabatta but any crusty bread will do. Many versions of this recipe instruct you to lay slices of bread flat on top of the soup, but I think the bread cubes are a more dynamic look. Plus, this way some of your bread stays nice and crunchy while the bottom layer soaks up the soup. Traditionally this soup is served in a soup crock but any oven safe ramekin will also do the job.
The genius of this dish is the transformation of a relatively simple ingredient into a complex flavor with a little time and patience. Chopping onions is a chore that everyone wants to avoid, and there’s a lot of half-baked hacks out there that claim to minimize tears, but I’ve found that honing my knife skills to get the job done quickly has been my best bet. Invest in a sharp, quality chef’s knife and you’ll never look back. During the caramelizing process, make sure you’re regularly moving your onions around so they get evenly cooked. Brown bits will form in the pan; just integrate them into the onion mixture...this is actually a major part of why they’re so delicious! I’ve found that even self-proclaimed onion haters come around to liking caramelized onions in French Onion soup as the sharp onion flavor is tempered down to a rich sweetness.