Onion soup, with croutons and melted cheese/Photos by Donna Turner Ruhlman

Funny.  The recipes people are pulled toward, desire, crave, are the most basic. Like Onion soup. Part of why I love people’s hunger for basic food is because there’s so much to learn from the simplest dishes. This recipe is from the new book, Ruhlman’s Twenty.  The new book attempts to distill cooking down to 20 fundamental techniques. Two of the techniques are not verbs but rather nouns: water and onion—two of the most powerful ingredients in your kitchen, rarely given the reverence they deserve.

The soup deserves this high praise not only because it’s delicious and satisfying, but because it was borne out of economy. This is a peasant soup, made from onions, a scrap of old bread, some grated cheese, and water. Season with salt and whatever wine is on hand or some vinegar. Do not be tempted to use stock! Even if it’s really good homemade stock, it will detract from the economy of the dish, which can easily become too heavy and cloying. (And please don’t add the canned stuff. How many onion soups have been ruined by adding store-bought broth?)

Most recipes for onion soup I’ve seen call for stock or broth, and yet this changes the soup completely—it becomes beef-onion soup or chicken-onion soup. I could not find a historical basis for my conviction until I began researching a specific style of bistro in Lyon, France, called a bouchon. There are only about twenty of these restaurants in Lyon, and they serve a distinct, country-style, family-meal menu. At some, you sit at communal tables, and platters are passed from table to table. What I like about bouchons is that they serve elemental, efficient food. It had to be, as a husband and wife usually worked the place. I spoke with a journalist in Lyon, an expert on the subject of la vrai bouchon, “the true bouchon,” who confirmed what I’d always suspected. At a bouchon, and indeed at most peasant households, a time-consuming and costly stock would not be used for onion soup. Onions and a splash of wine for seasoning and a crust of bread with some cheese melted on it—that is all you need to make a fine soup with a pure caramelized onion flavor.

Plan ahead when making the soup because the onions take a long time to cook down, from a few hours to as many as five if you keep the heat very low, though you need to pay attention only at the beginning and the end. Before the onions caramelize, they’ll release copious amounts of water (be sure to taste this liquid!), which must cook off first. You can simmer the onions hard if you want to reduce the cooking time; be sure to tend the pot and stir often, or the onions can stick and burn. You can also caramelize the onions a day or two in advance, and refrigerate them until needed. They freeze great too. If you do this, the soup can be finished in the time it takes to heat the water and melt the cheese on top.

Traditional French Onion Soup

  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 7 or 8 Spanish onions (7 to 8 pounds/3.2 to 3.6 kilograms), thinly sliced
  • Kosher salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 6 to 12 slices of baguette or any country-style bread (it’s best if they cover the width of your serving bowls)
  • 1/3 cup/75 milliliters sherry
  • Red or white wine vinegar (optional)
  • Red wine (optional)
  • 1/2 to 3/4 pound/225 to 340 grams Gruyère or Emmanthaler cheese, grated
  1. Use a large pot, with a capacity of about 7 1/2 quarts/7.1 liters, that will hold all the onions. An enameled cast-iron pot will provide the best surface. 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. 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). Season with several grinds of pepper.
  2. Preheat the oven to 200°F/95°C. Place the bread slices in the oven and let dry completely (you can leave the slices in the oven indefinitely, as the heat is not high enough to burn them).
  3. When the onions have completely cooked down, the water has cooked off, and the onions have turned amber—this will take several hours—add 6 cups/1.4 liters 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 some vinegar. If you would like a little more depth, add a splash of red wine. I like the onion-to-liquid ratio with 6 cups of water. But if you’d prefer a little more delicate soup, add 1 cup/240 milliliters water.
  4. Preheat the broiler/grill. Portion the soup into bowls, float the bread on top, cover with the cheese, and broil/grill until the cheese is melted and nicely browned. Serve immediately.

Serves 4 to 6

If you liked this post on french onion soup, check out these other links:

© 2011 Michael Ruhlman. Photo © 2011 Donna Turner-Ruhlman. All rights reserved.

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55 Wonderful responses to “French Onion Soup”

  • Warner

    I use the recipe from Bouchon and yes it is home made stock. I will give this a try in the near future though, but I like the beef.

    My pot roast, which originally was derived from the back of a Lipton’s soup package, now uses that onion soup instead.

  • Jessica / Green Skies and Sugar Trips

    After reading this, now I must go home and open up my “skills” notes and see if Pardus had us use stock. When we made FO soup for the first time, it WAS indeed the best I had ever had. Now I am curious…..did or didn’t it use stock….? Hmmmmm

    Regardless, this recipe will be on my table next week!

  • ruhlman

    I’m all but certain WE used stock when we made soup. i drew the onion soup for my practical and was chided for over caramelizing the onion. wouldnt have been problem if i’d used water.

  • redpeace

    I made this with brown beef stock and it was extraordinarily rich. Best I’ve had, to be sure. Point taken about economy though. Can you recommend a book or site with info about these sorts of traditional ‘menu’ items — a guide to cookery with this kind of info in it?

  • Roberta

    I love the admonishment to not use stock. As a vegetarian, it’s so frustrating to see delicious veggie soups that I can’t eat because a meat stock has been used.

  • Adam Tracey

    This is interesting as I made soupe a l’oignon two nights ago and was thinking along the same lines. It fascinates me that a peasant dish has taken on such luxury connotations in modern times.

    But I’m not really sure I agree with the contention that a beef stock made with roasted marrow bones and old mirepoix vegetables really detracts from the economy of this dish. Real AOC gruyere is a luxury at $40+/kg, certainly not beef stock. I think they’re both worth springing for if you want to do it right.

  • Aaron

    Just curious what would happen if you made this with out the sherry. Is there something nonalcoholic I could possibly replace it with? We don’t drink at my house and I would hate to have to waste the money on sherry if I could make it without.

      • Emilie

        Thank you for recipe!! I am on a very strict no dairy/no wheat diet. This hit the spot. I loved it, even if I couldn’t have the crouton and cheese. I used olive oil instead of butter.

      • james

        Hello, this is my first post. i tried making the soup despite much protest from my father who thought it was absurd not to use beef stock, but i presented your argument for the economy of the dish. i cooked the onions on low for almost for hours, added the water and it was insanely sweet (i didn’t use sweet onions, just yellow onions). i didn’t have any sherry, so i just used a dash of red wine vinegar but i don’t think it tasted right. certainly not like what i had at bouchon. i want to try again this weekend. any suggestions?? thanks alot! cheers and happy new year.

        • ruhlman

          you either didn’t have enough onions or didn’t cook them enough, didn’t use enough salt, or salt early enough, and you can season higher with acidity. hard to know without being there and tasting with you.

          • james

            Thanks! tried again today and much better. cooked the onions longer (it took like six hours). been anting to make this for a long time. a lot of work but worth it. Thanks again.

  • Zalbar

    Simplicity, economy and frugality at it’s best. I will continue to use beef stock for mine though.

  • tedg

    I use 50 – 50 beef and chicken stock. Makes for a nice, velvety taste. I also add a few tablespoons of sugar to enhance the caramelization, as well as some grated parmesian mixed with the gruyere.

  • Spencer K

    Mr. Ruhlman, sir, please thank your wife for those *amazing* photos. I seriously want to hang the first shot on my wall. :-)

  • Aaron

    An alternative version of the soup is to make a parmesan (or grana, or similar) broth and skip the cheese on the bread. Veggie, less fattening, and very rich.

  • Terrie

    Oh my, this looks soooo good. I may have to change my menu plan for the weekend and try this! I usually use stock, so I’m excited to try your method!

  • nossi @ The Kosher Gastronome

    Growing up I despised onion soup, it was always oily, and slippery…and then when I grew up a little, I decided to try my hand at it, and made my own, and applied the “keep it simple, stupid” rule, and caramelized onions for hours with butter and olive, like 5 hours over a low flame, and used water instead of stock, and it was the best onion soup I’ve ever had…didn’t need cheese to make it palatable (although of course it didn’t hurt ;)

  • DiggingDogFarm

    For what it’s worth, the oldest published, and truly frugal, recipe that I’ve been able to find is in “The French Cook” by Francois Pierre La Varenne published in 1651. There’s no cheese in the recipe.
    “Potage of onion.
    Cut your onions into very thin slices, fry them with butter, and after they are fried put them into a pot with water or with pease broth. After they are well sod, put in it a crust of bread and let it boile a very little; you may put some capers in it. Dry your bread then stove it; take up, and serve with one drop of vinegar.”

    I received “Ruhlman’s Twenty” this past Monday.
    I must say, I’m very impressed…it’s a book of exceptional quality.

    ~Martin : )

  • JW

    Funny. Made this yesterday from your new and excellent book! Terrific job. Using another of your techniques, after the water cooked out, I slow roasted overnight in a 200 degree oven. Worked fabulously. Can’t wait to cook grits this way.

  • Robin

    So glad I read this first thing in the AM – walked the dog, sliced the onions…. it’s quarter to three, and the onions are just starting to color. I’ve always made this with stock, so it’ll be a change (husband is hemming and hawing over the lack of stock. I am standing firm) Thanks for recipe!

  • darren

    Hilarious moment for me. I decided to do onion soup today and Mr. R’s roast cauliflower. I hop on his page to see the specifics of his cauliflower recipe and he’s got a post on onion soup. Karma, kismet, fate, ka (for you Dark Tower fans).

  • Jonathan

    Way to go! Great simple recipe. Very flexible too. In a pinch I have used vermouth, port or brandy instead of sherry. I also like to do this as a stuffing side dish with roast meats. I fill the casserole with chunks of bread, cover with soup and let soak in. Cook in oven then top with cheese and place under broiler. Always a hit a costs next to nothing to make. Clients love it.

  • Kay Ecker

    I too usually use homemade beef stock to make the onion soup, but I’m really loving your recipe! The first time I went to Paris, about 15 years ago, I had the most delicious onion soup. It was a full bodied onion flavor without any beef or chicken, I always wondered how they made the soup, maybe this is the way, can’t wait to try it out!

  • KBCraig

    Color me amazed. I had always assumed it had to have beef stock, but this was a better match for what I enjoyed in Europe, than any of my previous attempts.

    Bravo!

    I only need a butane torch now, to avoid balancing between browned and burned when using the broiler.

  • Victoria

    A long time ago, for one year of my life, I lived in Saint Louis. While there I worked in an office located on a top floor of the Famous Barr Building. The store had a little restaurant section that served nothing but onion soup for lunch. Very often I think of how great it was to ride the escalator to that area and eat the best lunch I could imagine.

    I am making your soup on Sunday.

  • Dave P

    Le Petit Triangle in Ohio City doesn’t use stock either and they have the best French onion soup I’ve ever had. I will have to try this recipe out in the near future.

  • Tucker Keene

    I’m gonna veganize this this weekend with some Daiya cheese, which is unfortunately barely comparable to Gruyere. But it is tasty, so hopefully this comes out pretty well!

  • Leslie

    Got “Twenty” and this was the first recipe I made. Loved it!!!! Family did not miss the beef broth. The only change I made was to add a touch of balsamic vinegar instead of red wine vinegar to round it out. Definitely a make again. Cannot wait to try more recipes.

  • Sherry

    I think it’s an interesting take on Onion soup, but I find your basic premise flawed; stock isn’t a luxury ingredient, in fact it’s a frugal, thrifty, and highly efficient way to use up scraps of meat, bones and vegetables. (Onion skins, too.) Making and using stock was, and remains a common practice in French kitchens, “peasant” and otherwise.

    Pierre Franey and Jaques Pepin (both born in France, both classically trained in France) have recipes for Onion Soup in their respective autobiographies….both recipes call for stock. In “Mastering The Art of French Cooking”, Julia Child’s recipe calls for stock.

    I wonder if the lack of stock in onion soup in Lyon is a regional quirk? No doubt it’s a good soup, but if I have good, essentially free homemade stock handy, (and I always do), I’ll use it in onion soup for the extra depth of flavor.

  • Tucker Keene

    Just made the soup totally vegan…incredible! Used Daiya cheese. I wanted to stop before the onion water disappeared, that by itself would have made a great soup! The vegan cheese is decent, but I think I’ll have to break veganism for at least one night of these with gruyere. Those pictures look too good!

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  • Mitchell Webster

    Michael this looks and sounds wonderful, I have to make it, I just love onions, and am glad NOT to see Vadalia, I don’t like sweet onions, if the onion does not make you cry then it is NOT a good onion! LOL

  • S. Woody

    I’ve always had great success with Julia Child’s recipe (stock based). This sounds like a solid alternative. Although, I’ve lately been altering Julia’s call for white wine by adding maybe a cup of good craft beer (Dogfish Head’s Indian Brown Ale is my cooking beer of choice), which adds an interesting undertone of bitterness from the hops.

  • Michelle

    I tried this out last week. Day One, I don’t think the soup was as good as the version with stock. Day Two though, the soup had melded and became really, really, good. So, I would make it again, but this time wait a day to eat it.

  • Cali

    I really want to combine this with an oxtail broth for some reason. But then, I’ve been seriously craving beefy-oniony slow braises lately.

    • Dawn Singh

      Wow! This soup is a definite 10! The depth of flavor is perfect and it could not be easier to do. Thanks, Ruhlman.

  • Patrick Littel

    Soups, stews and casseroles are my favorite dishes to create. The ingredients are easily changed and modified to create subtle changes in textures and flavors.
    In high school my mother helped me make onion soup for my French class. It was an absolute hit. NO stock. Only fresh ingredients and water.
    I use a bouquet of herbs to add flavor and fragrance to my stocks, and was mentioned earlier, this is great for my veagen friends.

  • CopyKat Recipes

    I love this soup. It is so wonderfully primal. I will have to try adding the vinegar. I really like Alton Brown’s use of apple cider in his, but you know I am always willing to try something new in my French Onion Soup.

  • Shayt

    This recipe looks great, and cannot wait to try it.

    I am not sure where I picked this one up, but I usually finish my onion soup with a shot of bourbon. It seems to add something in the background that amps up the flavor.

  • Stasia

    I made this a couple of weeks ago. The onions were absolutely fantastic, but I was really disappointed in the finished soup. I think the water washed away a lot of the depth of flavor and adding a splash of sherry didn’t improve the soup. I am going to make it again, but I think I am a person that enjoys the stock.

  • Laurie

    Thank you for sharing this research and recipe! I’m quite a bit different from your usual audience, being a previous teacher and now homeschooler. Every nine weeks we choose to “become” someone from our history lessons. I design and sew costumes for the part, we study recitations and I research historic recipes to cook for our presentation. I’m definitely including this french soup recipe. Just have to decide which timeframe in France it would work best for.
    Laurie

  • *susan*

    Made this version of French Onion Soup on Monday for a birthday celebration. I used some cognac since I had no sherry on hand, and also added some apple cider vinegar since the onions were so very sweet. Since the meal also had a cheese course, I used less cheese to top the soup than your pictures indicate. And to be honest, too much Gruyere competes with the soup.

    We both really enjoyed the lightness of this soup. It was all about the onions! I only wish that I had added some fresh thyme to the onions during the last bit of cooking. I love fresh thyme with onions, and missed that other flavor component.

    This is a great first course soup, but for the times that I serve onion soup as a main course, I think I will continue to use the Pepin and/or Child recipes.

  • Jeb

    I made this tonite. With no sherry on hand I just added water and got……onion water, not onion soup. So in a pinch I added some beef broth which gave good flavor. I may have had the Ratio wrong too. Either way I did cut the onions short enough to fit on a spoon….so my wife wasn’t dripping everywhere. The only lesson I can take from this is that Pardus was right on both fronts?

    • ruhlman

      you and a few people feel this way but most love this soup. It sounds like you didn’t cook the onions down far enough. but glad you cut the onions right. i believe it was rudy smith, not pardus who noted this.

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