No-Stock French Onion Soup

French Onion Soup

I have read over the years that good French onion soup can be made with little more than water, onions, bread and cheese.

But before last week, I had never read that good French onion soup should be made with little more than water, onions, bread and cheese, and that using chicken or beef stock in such a peasant dish not only betrays the soup’s economical roots but also muddles the soup’s pure onion flavor.

In his post on making traditional French onion soup, Michael Ruhlman describes the bistros of Lyon, France, also known as bouchons, which serve country-style fare and whose owners, often a husband and wife team, wouldn’t dare make onion soup with a costly and time-consuming stock. A “fine soup with a pure caramelized onion flavor,” he insists, requires nothing more than water, onions and a splash of wine for seasoning.

Skeptical? I was, too. But yesterday, I gave it a go. After slicing six pounds of onions and caramelizing them for four hours, I poured six cups of water into the pot and seasoned the broth with a few cracks of pepper.

I gave it a stir and took a taste. I could have stopped right there. I could have served the soup without taking a single taste more, without adding a pinch more of this or a splash more of that. I could have forgone the broiled bread-and-Gruyère topping altogether. The broth, unadulterated by any chicken or beef flavor, tasted of pure, sweet onions. Because Ruhlman suggests adding a splash of vinegar to temper the sweetness and a little sherry and wine for more depth of flavor, I did, and the broth may have been the best I have ever made.

Making this soup will test your patience, challenge your instincts, and might leave you with blistered fingers. But I think you’ll find the process rewarding: During the first half hour, six pounds of onions cook with a single tablespoon of butter in a covered pot. In this period, the onions release pools of juices and shrink by half in volume. Only after the juices cook off do the onions begin their long, slow caramelization ultimately shrinking to a fraction of their initial volume.

When the onions turn amber in color, you’ll have to resist all temptations to thaw the stock in your freezer and trust that water will reconstitute those super-concentrated swirls melting into the bottom of your pot into perhaps the best soup, French onion or otherwise, you ever make. I hope you all find time sometime soon to give it a try. Happy long weekend, Everyone.

 

Since you will be chopping a lot of onions, you need a game plan: 1. Gather two large bowls — one for the onion scraps and one for the onions. A bench scraper is nice to have close by, too. Start by trimming off the ends of each onion, collecting scraps in one of the bowls as you go.

trimmed onions

2. Next, score the outside layer of each onion…
scoring

…and use your knife to peel away the skin.
peeling the onion

onions, peeled

3. Cut each onion in half next.
halving the onions

halved onions

4. Slice the onion thinly making cuts perpendicular to the rings.
slicing the onions

sliced onions

onions and peels

Onions after 30 minutes of cooking covered over low heat:
onions, after 30 minutes covered

After two hours of stewing uncovered:
after two hours of stewing

After three and a half hours total:
onions after 3.5 hours total

When the onions look amber in color, add 6 cups of water, 1/3 cup Sherry, a splash of red wine and a splash of vinegar:
Pot of French Onion Soup

Grated Gruyère:
grated gruyère

Day-old bread, sliced and ready to be toasted:
peasant bread sliced

preparing soup for the broiler

topped with bread

Ready for the broiler:
topped with cheese

French Onion Soup

Michael Ruhlman's No-Stock French Onion Soup

Adapted just barely from Michael Ruhlman's Traditional French Onion Soup

Note: Plan ahead. Slicing the onions takes time, and cooking the onions takes time, too — 3 to 4 hours.

Ingredients

  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 6 to 8 pounds onions, thinly sliced (see notes below)
  • kosher salt
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • 6 slices of country-style bread — I used peasant bread
  • 1/3 cup sherry
  • 1 tablespoon white balsamic vinegar or white/red wine vinegar (optional)
  • 1 tablespoon red wine (optional)
  • 1/2 to 3/4 pound | 225 to 340 grams Gruyère or Comté cheese, grated

Instructions

  1. Use a large pot (7 to 8 quarts) that will hold all the onions. Place the pot over medium and melt the butter. Add the onions, sprinkle with 2 teaspoons salt, cover, and cook until the onions have heated through and started to steam — I cooked mine covered for over 30 minutes.
  2. Uncover, reduce the heat to low, and cook, stirring occasionally (you should be able to leave the onions alone for an hour at a stretch once they’ve released their water). I cooked mine for about 3 hours at low to medium-low heat. Season with several grinds of pepper.
  3. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 200°F. Place the bread slices in the oven and let dry completely (you can leave the slices in the oven for a few hours, as the heat is not high enough to burn them).
  4. When the onions have completely cooked down, the water has cooked off, and the onions have turned amber, add 6 cups of water. Raise the heat to high and bring the soup to a simmer, then reduce the heat to low. Add the sherry. Taste and season with salt and pepper as needed. If the soup is too sweet, add the vinegar. If you would like a little more depth, add a splash of red wine.
  5. Preheat the broiler. Portion the soup into bowls, top with bread, cover with cheese, and broil until the cheese is melted and nicely browned. Serve immediately.

Notes

A game plan for chopping all of those onions:

1. Gather two large bowls — one for the onion scraps and one for the onions. A bench scraper is nice to have close by, too. Start by trimming off the ends of each onion, collecting scraps in one of the bowls as you go.

2. Next, score the outside layer of each onion, and use your knife to peel away the skin.

3. Cut each onion in half next.

4. Slice the onion thinly making cuts perpendicular to the rings.

http://www.alexandracooks.com/2014/01/20/no-stock-french-onion-soup/

If you’re looking for a little more chopping guidance, this little tutorial might be helpful:


20. January 2014 by Alexandra Stafford
Categories: Bread, Chicken, Entrees, Soup, Vegetarian | 41 comments


Comments (41)

  1. Ali this looks Amazing!! I think I was drooling slightly as I looked at those pics of the Carmelized, amber colored onions:) This is probably my very favorite soup but I never actually make it and I am SO looking forward to trying your recipe. I’ll have to do it when the girls are sleeping as Sisi complains anytime onions are being cut neat her…lol…what a nut. Thanks so much for sharing…you and your blog are just incredible!! Xoxo:)

    • Nikki Nikki! I love seeing comments from you! French onion soup I think is my favorite, too, though i’m pretty with happy with any soup this time of year :) Yes, definitely make it — or at least chop the onions — while the kids are asleep. I did that part while Ben had the kids outside in the snow. Miss you!

  2. Yum! If only I didn’t have to work on snow days, I’d make this tomorrow, most definitely! Maybe over the weekend, instead? I am so excited that you don’t call for broth, Ali — it’s been years and years since I’ve had French Onion since it’s almost always made with beef broth. Also, do you think it’d work to slice the onions with a food processor slicer attachment? Could make that step go by quicker?

    • Yes, definitely a weekend dish! Not so easy to whip up after work. I have talked to so many people (not just vegetarians) this past week who have been deterred by the beef broth. I can’t tell you how flavorful the broth is — you will be amazed! And I say go for it with the food processor attachment. I would just try to do it in batches so that they don’t turn to mush. Hope all is well!

  3. Heading to the store . So excited about this!

  4. I am both skeptical and intrigued. Going to give this a try. Thanks for the chopping tutorial!

  5. Beautiful! How many servings does this make? Can’t wait to try it.

  6. Funny, the NY times just ran an article about French onion soup just before the New Year as well because it is a remedy for hangover. They shared Jacques Pepin’s recipe which calls for no stock either and for LOTS of onions as well.
    I should really try this, but the incentive just isn’t there given that I have a few trusty bistros which i can just go to and have it whenever i want…no onion induced crying involved!

    • Mama Poule, hieee, and happy New Year, and thank you! I had been racking my brain trying to remember where I specifically had read about French onion soup being made with water not stock. I was checking all of my cookbooks and maagazines — I swore it was a book — and so I googled “French onion soup without stock” and the Michael Ruhlman recipe came up. I can’t believe the NYTimes recipe didnt?! Anyway, I just re-read the article — loved it! — and I need to find the recipe, which is surprisingly hard to do on my phone. If I were you, I would skip the chopping, the crying, the stewing, the fuss…oh, to live in Paris! I hope you are well!

      • Hi and happy 2014 to you and the family as well! I know, i have been totally MIA–I took a new job in November and we moved to a new place a week later (don’t ever do that!), and then the holidays, and we finally got our new kitchen in last week (awesome!) So it’s all been about survival but all calming down now and the first thing I am going to make is those cinnamon rolls you keep posting about!!!
        Oh and I finally made bagna cauda…such good stuff. Worked really well with fish and veggies, but cannot wait to try it on eggs like you had…so many ideas, so little time! I hope you aren’t freezing in upstate NY!

        • Oh, wow, busy busy. I mean the holidays are stressful enough as it is, I can’t imagine working/moving/renovating…happy to hear things are calming down! The cinnamon rolls are so good, and I have discovered (and I made notes) that you really don’t even need to knead the dough. They are so easy and so good. And yes, bagna cauda…so good. Fish and veggies seem more appropriate, but it is so good with eggs, too. We are staying bundled here in upstate NY — it has been a COLD week. Great to hear from you!

  7. So many onions! The idea of a pure onion soup sounds amazing. I can’t wait to try this at home.

  8. Mind. blown.

    Caramelized onions are such a labor of love, I just can’t stop eating them on everything when I make a batch (like candy!). I can also count on that onion-y aroma settling into my hair, my clothes, my handbag even — and following me around for a few days :) I don’t hate it! This is awesome, thanks for the recipe Ali!

    • Sophie, they truly are a labor of love! It’s kind of painful to see them cook down to nothing, but knowing they are packed with flavor makes a difference. And you are funny…I never mind smelling like Indian food days after we eat out at our favorite place :)

  9. Hi Ali. Timely post. I made French Onion Soup last night using the recipe in The All New Joy of Cooking and beef broth. I love French Onion Soup, but had never considered it without the stock. But, I can see how that would work because the caramelized onions are so flavorful. I have made a Jacques Pepin’s onion soup before, the one in his memoirs, but I don’t remember if it had stock or not. What is the key to keeping the bread from absorbing all the liquid? Last night I toasted the bread, then put it on the hot soup and sprinkled cheese over it. Oven time was eliminated and soak up was minimized. It was OK, but there has to be a better way.

    • Allison, hi! I know, I hadn’t either. I suspect that Pepin’s recipe didn’t use stock based on this New York Time’s article I failed to mention in my post: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/01/dining/what-the-tipsy-peasant-knew.html?_r=0

      I need to read Jacques’ memoir. I love watching him on my PBS Create channel. I never tire of hearing him say: “I have been cooking since I was for-teen.” He is too good.

      OK, I think one key to making the bread not soak up all of the broth is to dry it out the way Michael Ruhlman says: in a 200ºF oven indefinitely. The first night I made this, I did that, and the pieces of bread felt rock hard before I floated them on top of the soup. The next few times, I got lazy and just toasted the bread in the toaster. The rock hard, super dried out bread worked best. Hope that helps!

  10. Would it be unsporting to ask which French Onion Soup recipe you prefer—this or the Boulud recipe?

    • Not unsporting at all — I should really address this in the recipe notes. OK, so, I have to admit that I haven’t made the Boulud recipe in a few years, but I recall loving it and would feel completely confident making it for guests or recommending it to someone. But, while it’s not complicated, it does have a few more ingredients, and if you don’t have homemade stock on hand, that’s another step. The yield is about the same for each soup, so neither has an advantage in that regard, but the Boulud soup probably takes less time to prepare/make — it calls for fewer onions, which means less time chopping/cooking. The Boulud soup doesn’t rely on the onions alone for flavor and so can be made faster; the Ruhlman soup really needs to start with onions that cook for hours if it’s going to have any flavor. Now to answer your question, I think I prefer the Ruhlman soup — seriously, my husband and I kept saying it was the best soup we had ever tasted as we ate it — because the onion flavor is so predominent. If I were pressed for time, I probably would choose the Boulud recipe, but otherwise, I think my vote goes to Ruhlman. There is also something really satisfying about making soup that is so flavorful with just water. Those are my thoughts. Hope they make sense!

  11. Ali, I have never made french onion soup and this looks amazing….I noticed that the Pepin recipe uses red onions…I can’t tell if you are using white or yellow? I always prefer yellow for their sweetness….which did you use? I’m going to make it this coming up week sometime…battle this awful cold weather! :) XO!

    • Very interesting! I used white/yellow, but if Pepin uses red, I am not going to argue with that. I think the key with this recipe is quantity — as long as you start with a lot of onions — and cook them down slowly, you should be golden. I think red will work just fine. Stay warm! It is bitter out there!

  12. Must be that time of year because I actually just made French Onion Soup this week too! I posted about it here if you’d like to check it out: http://ambrosiaandnectar.com/french-onion-soup/

  13. I love this post! So simple yet delicious. I’m wondering if it would be possible to caramelize the onions in a slow cooker, then transfer them to a pot and add the water? I might give it a try. Thanks for another inspired meal!

    • Absolutely! As I said to Katie, I am not so skilled with my crockpot, but if you know how to caramelize onions in a crockpot, go for it because the soup comes together in minutes once the onions are caramelized. Good luck with it! Let me know if you make any discoveries.

  14. Hi,
    I have a bunch of onions that I’ve caramelized in a slow cooker and then froze (a result of a big buy one get one free over buying I did). I was wondering if I could just use these and then add water to make the soup etc.

    • I think definitely! The soup comes together in no time once the onions are caramelized and Ruhlman actually noted in his recipe that the caramelized onions can be made ahead and stored in the fridge or freezer until you are ready to use them.

      While I have you, do you think you could give any guidance re caramelizing onions in slow cooker? Several commenters have asked about doing this.

      • Excellent! I’m going to try this next week. As far as slow cooking the onions. Used my 4 qt (but you can go bigger) slow cooker. I sprayed it wil cooking spray first. Then I sliced the onions until they filled the slow cooker about 3/4 full (maybe a little more). Then I sprinkled on about 1/2 tsp salt and a couple TBSP olive oil. I figured I would start low with the salt and then adjust seasoning later. Stir then turn on low and cook for 10 or so hours. I did stir it every so many hours (did it at night so started around 9 pm, stirred at midnight when I went to bed and then when I got up 6ish, but you can totally leave it alone. I kept them a little saucy instead of opening the lid the last hour or so.

        There are some more info at the kitchn where I first saw this.

        I then froze them in different size containers.

        • Awesome, thanks so much, Heidi, for the instructions. I am going to try this. It would be so nice to be able to put on “a pot” of onions and then be able to leave or sleep or just forget about them for a little bit. Wonderful idea.

  15. Thanks for this – I’m going to give it a go. I tried the Pepin red onion soup recipe and was pretty underwhelmed. The taste was okay, but the appearance of it was really unattractive. (Cooked down red onions made for a pretty muddy looking dish.) So much so, that we didn’t want to eat the leftovers. Also, that recipe didn’t call for a 3 hour caramelization like this one does – which I think is probably huge in building up flavor in a dish that is otherwise so simple.

    • That’s too bad about the Pepin recipe. I have to say, this isn’t the most attractive looking soup either, but the bread-and-cheese raft acts as a nice “face.” I do think the key with this soup is to not skimp on the onions — I think I had almost 5 pounds of trimmed, sliced onions — and to caramelize them slowly and to not forget the salt. I couldn’t believe how flavorful the broth tasted before I added the sherry, the wine and the vinegar. Also, I kept waiting for the onions to turn a deep amber color, but after three + hours, I got impatient and threw in the water — I definitely have made darker caramelized onions in the past — but it didn’t seem to matter. I hope you like this!

      • So I tackled this on Saturday and it came out great! By 3 hours 15 mins, I got a little impatient with the reducing and added the 6 cups of water when there was still about 2-3 tablespoons of water in the onions. Which was my mistake as it made the taste a little diluted. BUT, it was still excellent. I added in some brandy (didn’t have sherry), vinegar, salt & pepper and it was wonderful. Thanks for the recipe!

        • Thanks for reporting back, Kate! I know, I got impatient, too. I think I probably should have let my onions get even browner, but I could not wait a minute longer. Glad to hear that the soup still turned out well for you. Brandy sounds lovely.

  16. I’m 3 hours in to this right now. I’ve always used broth and I’m excited to try water instead. I used white and yellow onions and found half of a large red one in the fridge as well – threw it in, can’t hurt. I’ve heard all red onions causes an unattractive appearance and poor flavour due to the higher sugar content (which, after cooked down in this method, doesn’t add the complexity french onion soup requires). I’ll let you know how it goes. By the way, your peasant bread has been made in this house dozens of times and it led me to much more complex bread recipes over time. Thank you for making this girl a baker! :)

    • Oh Kiara, I am so happy to hear this! I love that the peasant bread recipe has inspired you to tackle more bread recipes.

      I am dying to hear how the soup turns out for you. I was astonished by the flavor of the broth with just the onions and water, and I hope you had the same experience. The sherry, wine and vinegar definitely added flavor, too, but the bulk of the flavor came from those onions. Let me know when you have a moment!

  17. Made this soup yesterday. I had to add the vinegar after 3 hours the onions were very sweet. I cannot emphasis this enough … this soup was amazing! Superior to all other French Onion soups I have ever had. I made the peasant bread too. It was the perfect bread for this recipe. I did use my Cuisinart to slice the onions. However I used the slicer and not the chopping blade. Also I put the onions in the freezer for ~30 minutes before cutting. It does help some with the teary onion eyes.

    This soup reminded me of something they would have served in an old movie about WWII French Resistance. I could imagine the farmer’s wife making this wonderful soup with nothing more than whats on hand …onions, water, crusty bread and a little cheese, for the handsome RAF pilot hiding in the barn.

    • I am so happy to hear all of this Lenora! Great to know that the Cuisinart with slicing attachment can be used for the onions; great tip on the freezer — I will try that!; so happy you made the peasant bread; and most of all I am just so happy you liked the soup! My husband and I felt exactly the same way — it was the best French Onion Soup we had ever tasted. Love the image of the RAF pilot hiding in the barn :)

  18. Made this last night – it was amazing!!!!! Who would have guessed that 4-5 simple ingredients could produce that!!!!! Your recipes NEVER disappoint – thanks! Tonight it’s Canal House Chicken and Rice.

    • Oh, Anne, so wonderful to hear this! I know, I was astonished when I first took a sip of the broth. So happy you approve as well. Looking forward to hearing what you think about Canal House Chicken and Rice — we can’t stop making it!

  19. What a great way to make onion soup. The only change I made was to add 1 tbs. arrow root power to get the broth to thicken slightly.

    • Very interesting! I have never used arrow root, but I have a jar on hand — I may have bought it for homemade angel food cake or some baking other random baking project. I will add some next time I make the soup. I am intrigued!

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