Totally Authentic French Onion Soup – No matter what French people say.

French Onion Soup (15 of 17)Totally authentic, as long as you ignore what many French people say about the base, that is. The majority of French (and other) chefs will gasp a collective “Mon Dieu” and insist on “de bouillon de bœuf”. Beef stock to you and me. What do they know? I know best. I used chicken stock and my reasoning is pretty sound. 

Firstly, French onion soup is a peasant dish. Given their oppressed past (sadly, peasants are always oppressed), in pre-revolution times, there really could not have been many of them making beef stock. Cattle were hard enough to come by and I doubt they got slaughtered in enough numbers to make a “French classic” possible.

Secondly, those agrarians all had chickens. Lots of chickens. In fact, today, they have too many chickens. At big international games, they love to sneak them into rugby grounds and release them onto the pitch. The rooster has been an unofficial symbol of France since Roman times. The cow doesn’t get a hoof in.

So, I’m pretty sure that the French peasants made their soup using chicken stock. It stands to reason. So, beef fans, popular history and indisputable logic are on my side. My French friend (one of my few French friends) Stéphane Gerbart does not agree. He is a water supporter and not in favour of the chicken stock.

Side note on chicken stock: If you are one of those people who believe that stock is made by putting a cube in a bowl and adding boiling water, read Stéphane’s post above and follow his method. You are wasting your time here. 

Not a lot goes into the preparation of an onion soup.

Not a lot goes into the preparation of an onion soup.

Ingredients

  • 4 large onions
  • 1 litre of real, home made, chicken stock
  • A couple of slices of a nice sourdough bread
  • A generous handful of grated Gruyere cheese
  • Half a tablespoon of flour
  • 1 teaspoon of brown sugar
  • Salt and pepper to season
  • A sprinkle of parsley to get some green into the photo
  • A couple of glasses of Lillet to make the onion stirring bearable.

You could also do with a good book. The onion sweating takes an age. First, slice the onions evenly. Some promote very fine slicing and others swear medium. I cut them roughly, in a peasant like fashion. That must be authentic.

Rough cut onions. Unlike some of the peasants, not too thick, not too thin.

Rough cut onions. Unlike some of the peasants, not too thick, not too thin.

Add a little oil to a very large frying pan and add the onions. Sweat them over a low heat for a long time. Here it is in pictures…

Gentle stirring is required. If the onions stick and burn, throw them out and start again.

Gentle stirring is required. If the onions stick and burn, throw them out and start again.

After about 15 minutes of this tedium, break out a French aperitif and pour it in (to yourself, not the onions).

Lillet. Sip it. Don't knock it back. It's potent stuff!

Lillet. Sip it. Don’t knock it back. It’s potent stuff!

Return to the stirring and go easy on the drink. After another 15 minutes, the drink will be nearly gone and the onions will be just beginning to change colour.

That's my second. Or is it my third? I can't remember...

That’s my second. Or is it my third? I can’t remember…

At this stage, your face will have changed colour too. What with the drink and slaving over a hot stove. After another 15 minutes or so, the onions will start to colour nicely.

Yes, a spoon full of brown sugar makes the difference.

Yes, a spoon full of brown sugar makes the difference.

Another 15 minutes or so and the onions will be a nice brown colour.

That can only be achieved by slow and low cooking.

That can only be achieved by slow and low cooking.

At this stage, add the flour and stir it until it combines with the onions and cooks a bit. allow another 5 to 10 minutes.

It's a good thing you aren't in a hurry. Are you?

It’s a good thing you aren’t in a hurry. Are you?

Next, add in some of the stock and stir.

My homemade stock always turns to a nice jelly. I should post about how to do it.

My homemade stock always turns to a nice jelly. I should post about how to do it.

I added just enough to wet the onions and allow the flour to be properly cooked. Add the remaining stock and simmer for 15 minutes.

A big wobbly bowl of peasant chicken stock. Packed with flavour.

A big wobbly bowl of peasant chicken stock. Packed with flavour.

While the soup is simmering, slice and toast some sourdough bread and grate the cheese.

Lovely sourdough bread. A perfect partner for peasant soup.

Lovely sourdough bread. A perfect partner for peasant soup.

Taste and season the soup.

The soup smells amazing. There is a lot of flavour in there.

The soup smells amazing. There is a lot of flavour in there.

Ladle it into warm bowls, place the sourdough on top, sprinkle on the cheese and place under the grill (broiler) until the cheese melts. Sprinkle with a little parsley and serve with more sourdough toast.

Those peasants had it good. What an amazing soup!

Those peasants had it good. What an amazing soup!

The soup has taken an hour and a half to prepare. It’s very much hands on. It’s well worth it. The chicken stock and onions give a big flavour hit. Next time, I should try it with beef stock, even if it’s less traditional. Or, because it’s more popular? Who knows, who cares? I might even try Stéphane’s water based soup. He might know best, given that he is French. Though, I will take a lot of convincing.

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Latest comments
  • I took a breather from a rather tedious job to read this and you made me laugh out loud. Thank you for cheering me up. I love French (or Irish) onion soup and I’m with you on the chicken stock.

    • Thanks Linda,
      Glad to be of service.
      Best,
      C

  • Rich.

  • I like the new look of your blog. The font is much easier to read. 🙂 Soup sounds good, too. I actually enjoy caramelizing onions for many reasons, so maybe I’ll give this a try!

    Also, have you actually posted about making chicken stock? The stuff I have made in the past had no body whatsoever, and I’d like to know how to get it right.

    • Hi Lisa,
      No, I have to post it yet. I promise to do so. My approach makes lovely stock and is extremely healthy too. (I would say that, wouldn’t I?).

      • I have been reading your blog just long enough to be certain that yes, you would say that. 🙂 Also, false alarm on the new look. When the page refreshed, all was as before.

  • Love French Onion Soup!!!
    Same on the stock, though. Mine, I’m afraid is nearly water – and I have been reduced at times to using the cube (gasp!) as well. Would love to know your method, although I have some reservations about gelatinous substances…

    • Hi Deirdre, I promise to post the stock approach just as soon as I can get my hands on a chicken. The gelatinous substance bit can be fun….

  • I’ve been waiting for this post Conor, and it doesn’t disappoint! This looks beautiful. I am one of those sad people who likes nothing better than stirring onions/risotto as they slowly cook. Its a bit of time to myself while it looks like I’m actually busy doing something 🙂

    • Hi Donna,
      There is something very relaxing about stirring a risotto or these onions, particularly if there is a glass or two of something nice involved.

  • I have been wanting to make a batch of French Onion soup with some venison stock I have in the freezer. Not too sure how traditional that is- I don’t think European peasants had hunting rights.

    • I think it’s OK Amber. Just call it French Royalist Onion Soup and you will be fine.

  • I always use homemade stock for onion soup but it is typically a stock of all sorts… mostly chicken, but whatever else is good for the pot. For making slow-cooked onions, though, (whether as a steak topping, sauce ingredient, or what have you) I often add a few tablespoons of beef stock along with sugar…. it adds a nice depth.

    • John,
      That is an excellent suggestion. If only I had been using beef stock. We are having very typical Irish “four seasons in a day” weather. I have some very good beef stock in the freezer. Perhaps I should go all ‘French’ and try it on beef stock?
      Best,
      Conor

  • I love a good onion soup… Chicken or beef stock works fine for me… And a nice bit of fatty bacon 👍

    • The fatty bacon would have the purists in a spin.
      “I like it!”
      (Quotation marks for emphasis.)

  • I’m sure it’s excellent with chicken stock. I can’t help thinking that horse must have been very popular during the revolution and being a lover of horse steak I bet the soup would be very good 😉

  • Reblogged this on ramzan66's Blog.

  • Who cares what the French say anyway, eh? Looks delicious. I was thinking of doing this myself recently, but now I’ll have to hold off for fear of my embarrassment.

    • Nick, your double bluff designed to protect my embarrassment is very thoughtful. We both know yours would be a coup de gras (that’s French BTW).

  • Love that you used brown sugar in onions… wow!

    • A little bit really helps with the caramelising Debbie. No more than I use or it gets a bit sweet.

      • I used honey on some for my pork tenderloin a couple of weeks ago. That made them like candy. I would image the brown sugar gives them that smoky molasses flavor. I understand about too sweet though…yikes!

        • If I use honey with pork, I tend to balance it with a bit of soy sauce. The saltiness does the trick.

          • Ahh yes! Thanks for the tip, Conor. 🙂

  • I feel oppressed sitting here reading this. I am hungry, its 4.58pm and if I see another spreadsheet or powerpoint presentation I will cry. I have not tried cooking with that particular beverage – but, I’m curious, what would it be like as an accompaniment to stirring that other slow-burner (sic) – risotto?

    • The Lillet works well when preparing anything, except PowerPoint presentations.

  • Yes, please post the stock how-to. I fail at it.
    I can make an onion sweat, however.

    • Hi Yinz,
      I will, I promise. There is a bonus of some delicious Chinese chicken too.

  • Another classic, Conor. Great post. I’m afraid I have to side with Stéphane on what is the most likely authentic every day onion soup, as those peasants certainly didn’t have enough chickens to use them all the time. Yours could be a Sunday version perhaps? I bet though that your version tastes better because you add another layer of flavor.

    • Typical of you mainland Europeans to stick together – even when presented with my evidence. 😉

  • Doesn’t take much to convince me to use chicken stock instead of beef with this incredible looking soup. It’s perfect.

    • Too kind as always. We make our own stock most of the time. Either version is lovely, as long as the stock is top notch.

  • Nothing like a nice wobbly chicken stock. I’m a great fan of that myself…. This soup looks delicious, and probably smells and tastes that way too!

    • You are right on both counts Kate. I now have to post a chicken stock recipe. I hope your travels went well.

      • I had an outstanding and memorable time, thank you, Conor. I’d make this soup for the Husband except that he keeps coming back for either my chicken and veg or ham & pumpkin for his lunchbox, soup being a healthy, hot and easy lunch for a truck driver.

  • One of my all time favorites. Sadly, I have not had it in such a long time. Have a wonderful Easter Conor.

    • I will do my best to enjoy it. If we get a bit of weather, it will be great.

  • Conor, I followed your instructions right up til the aperitif, but I seem to have missed the point of sugar addition. It’s a bit late now, as the aperitifs were particularly lovely, but I might make another attempt tomorrow.

    • If you start out with one or two of the aperitif, there will be no need to cook a soup at all. Do have another go, brave girl…

  • Beef stock? Chicken stock? Just had to go talk to Mr Google as Eha does not use stock!! Water!!!! Whew, I am not the only one 🙂 !! And ‘around, around the world we go’ seems to give a result of 3 beef to 2 chicken! So ‘thank you’ for the recipe which will be followed to the n-th degree come Easter!! Have a good one Milord . . .

    • Excellent Eha. I plan to do a beef version pretty soon. I have the stock and the weather is not as warm as it might be. Perfect for soups! Enjoy Easter.

  • I thought you were supposed to toss a bit of that Lillet (or whatever wine on hand you have) into those caramelized onions? Nonetheless, I’ve made this with both beef and chicken broth. (Homemade of course.) I just adore reading your wit and fabulous recipes. Thanks once again Conor!

    • Happy to oblige. The temptation to throw the Lillet into myself was overpowering. The onions had to make do with the sugar.

  • Brilliant I would have never thought to use chicken broth and carmelizing your onions with a bit of brown sugar is brilliant!!! Sharing if course!!!!

    • Thanks BAM. The bit of sugar just brings them that extra bit along the way. There is no substitute for standing over the low heat and stirring, and stirring, and stirring….

  • Great recipe! It looks delicious.

  • Parfait! And, really, who cares what the French say on the subject? 😉

    • Thanks Michelle. I will care more as my holidays in Bordeaux approach.

  • Hahaha, hilarious… Your posts always make me laugh 🙂 I think you have fairly sound reasoning there for a chicken stock French onion soup, in fact, I’m going to try it myself next time! Looks fantastic (and your photos are stunning!)

    • You are, as ever, too kind in your comments. I look forward to your post.

  • Interesting to add sugar Conor – optional extra or do you find its a requisite?

    • Optional, for sure. I estimate it takes 10 minutes off the stirring time. I only use a small amount. The thought of sweet soup makes me shudder.

      • Yeah, I was wondering about it Conor. I like the cathartic aspect of nurturing onions onions to their own natural sweetness.. Great friggin’ soup 🙂

  • I have been looking forward to this post! And heartily agree on all points – although I can see that the lack of an apertif in my recipe may have to be mended! 🙂 Your stock looks lovely, by the way.

    Very few of the old recipes I have for things like soup and stew call for actual “stock” being added, just water (but not my Mom’s French Onion which calls for making stock out of oxtails, which I don’t use because I can’t imagine all those oxen running around w/o their tails and not being able to swish off the flies. That’s just cruel) but today, many recipes call for canned/boxed stock. I saw a recipe the other day for chicken soup which called for the whole chicken to be cooked in boxed commercial chicken stock. It took me aback. I was like why, why, why…and a vegetable soup that calls for chicken stock. But I digress…

    • Over the past few weeks, we have made pork, beef and chicken stock. Some of it reduced to a thick jelly and frozen in ice cube trays. Commercially produced stock is, as a general rule, salt laden and of little real value in the kitchen.

      • It’s bad, here, in the US, too, the commercial stuff. Even worse, in my area at least, the meats and roasts sold in the store are generally deboned, but for a hefty price you can buy a small bag of bones.

  • Looking good man! How have you been?

    • Good indeed. You have been MIA. I enjoyed this one.

      • Yeh man, I moved to London. This city is intense! Not much time for blogging. 😛 I actually had an idea to run by you. Mind if I got your email? Or just pm my blog?

        • It’s my name at gmail.com. It would be good to hear from you.

          • Will do 🙂

          • Hey man, did you get my email?

          • I did. It’s been hectic. Promise to give it due thought. On first reading, an excellent idea.

  • Your pictures make me drool. As always. 🙂

  • I’m with you about the stock too. And a glass or two of something to break the tedium. But I had to double check the ingredients and wonder where the brandy was?

    • If there is brandy involved, it ends up in the chef. That’s only right and fair.

  • To hell with those French purists!! My kind of soup- thanks for the recipe.

    • At some stage (next winter) I’ll do the purist version. Then we can take it for own.

      • Yes I’m sure they’ll surrender it to you. They’re good at that sort of thing.

  • It’s called onion soup! Not Chicken onion soup! Seriously! Ha ha HA! I’m only kidding (or am I?) It looks delicious conor as does everything you cook. Love, sweat (and tears in this case) are the most important ingredients you can put in any dish! all that being said, please do me a favor and take the word “french” out of the title :0)

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