Having spent 6 months making French Onion Soup on a weekly basis during my ski season in Val d'Isere, I am fairly confident that I make a mean rendition of it. Now I know many of you out there make a 'mean' onion soup, but unfortunately I have the job today of telling you that you probably don't.
This is not me being an arse-hole, there will be no doubt in your mind when that is the case, its simply the truth. I have sampled many many attempts from Alpine restaurants and from friends alike, some are good, some are ok and some are shocking.... None have been as good as mine. This is not hubris, but fact.
This soup is a classic, and its a classic because its good. Its good because its simple, but because its so simple people get bored. When people get bored they start to meddle and unfortunately when people start to meddle things go off track. I should know... I have done more than my fair share of meddling over the years!
So the secret, the key, the holy elixir of onion soup greatness is...... the onions! Kicking yourself now for not getting that aren't you! Some people say that the secret lies in the stock that is used, and I would agree that a really well made and flavoursome stock is important, but its not the secret to the dish. The flavour that you know and love is not that of the stock, otherwise you would be ordering a beef consommé and not the onion soup... like I said the secret is in the onions and I'm going to show you what that secret looks like. Literally.
No additives, no preservatives, no balsamic, no sugar, no gravy browning... JUST ONIONS and patience
Before I move on I need to make something clear... I am not going to give you a recipe. Instead I am going to give you something far more dangerous than that hand crafted Japanese Santoku you are wielding, I am going to give you an idea. The idea I want to bestow upon you is the bare-bones of a French onion soup, its the DNA profile that makes it what it is, but it is not the worlds most refined and elaborate version. I am willing to bet that if you try this, do not meddle, and take care and time to do it properly you will be surprised and delighted and maybe even astounded at a soup that is probably better than most you have tried before.
So you will need, white onions, garlic, beef stock as well as some butter/oil and seasoning. Simples. All I will say regarding the quantity of onions you will need is that, you will require triple the amount of onions you think you will before you slice them, and double the amount you have after you have sliced them! Confused? Don't be, it will become very clear when you try it. For now try maybe 5 large onions. Also many recipes use balsamic vinegar, sugar, tomato paste and many other things. I don't necessarily disagree with using these, just not today please, trust me on this. We are going to get a pure flavour, you may tinkle with the recipe afterwards but this once do it my way, see what you would like to add then make it again. Things like sugar and balsamic will make you think your onions are at the right stage when they are not.
Take a look at this great bloggers onion soup he was doing well until he added the balsamic vinegar. Look at the colour of the onions, they have started to caramelise but haven't had a chance to develop serious flavour and the balsamic makes them look like they have. (I do love a little balsamic in my soup, the acid cuts the sweetness nicely, but I add it to onions that have been taken to the limit). His post was the inspiration behind this blog... bookmark his site, it makes for good reading!
The key to developing 'that' flavour is looooong slow controlled cooking. This soup is a labour of love, no answering the phone, now watching your favourite soap, no nothing other than the soup.
So lets do it.
You will melt some fat, a touch of oil and a wedge of butter is my choice , add the onions and some salt and sweat in a covered pan for 5-10mins to soften and start to draw some moisture out of the onions. Once softened remove the lid and allow moisture to start evaporating.
You will soon notice that the huge amount of onions you thought you had is no more as they sweat down and reduce hugely in size. It will get worse... or is that better? Keep stirring and maintain a medium to high heat at this stage until the moisture in the pan from the sweating stage has evaporated then lower it.
After 20 minutes the onions will start to caramelise. This does not mean they brown due to the heat searing the onion, it means as the water in the onion is being removed the natural sugars are concentrating and very slowly caramelising. You may add a whole clove of garlic, un-chopped and un-crushed.... whole.
Make sure you stir the onions every 2-3 mins. As the volume of onions reduces try and make sure the entire base of the pan is always covered in onions. This will speed up channelisation process a little and make for a more uniform colouration and flavour.
Monitor the heat carefully and be vigilant, it only takes a few seconds for the onions to catch and burn turning your soon to be soup acrid. If this happens try and spoon off the onions from the top leaving the burnt ones behind... and start again in a clean pan, using fresh onions if you dont have enough part cooked ones.
Keep going.... be brave, but be careful!
Finally, an hour later we are there! Look at those onions, fudge-like, gooey, deliciously sweet. Just some of the ways that I can think of to describe them. From all those onions we now have maybe two heaped tablespoons of onions... enough for 2 bowls of soup... and if you are me, you will eat them both yourself.
So to finish add you beef stock and simmer very very gently for a couple of minutes, season to taste et voila! You could add a large croûton cut from a baguette, topped with a heart stopping amount of good Gruyère, I'd go for Beaufort personally, but being a very very poor student I couldn't afford the bread let alone the 'King of the Gruyères”... truth be told I couldn't afford the onions, but that's the kind of guy I am, getting into debt to make sure you guys have good soup!
To recap... don't mess with this idea, you only have to do it like this one time so you understand the process and the flavour it develops. You will then understand the heart and soul of this soup and are then free to go wild and add some wine, tomato paste, lychees whatever! Your onions will be the same but you will build a greater depth of flavour around them, hell you may go completely crazy and even add some flour to thicken it slightly... but not this time!
Let me know your opinions in the comments below... I wont bite I promise... oh yeah... HAVE FUN!