French onion soup is a traditional dish featuring broth, onions and bread topped with melted cheese (gratinée). It is usually served in a deep individual crock or ramekin dish. The diner must navigate a layer of toasted bread and melted cheesy goodness on the top to get at the mess of sweetly caramelized onions at the bottom.
The most iconic onion soup is undoubtedly French, but it is a variation of many different international versions dating back to the Roman Empire. It is generally considered peasant food made by urban poor and rural people from readily available onions, bread and beef stock. The French onion soup most of us are familiar with dates to the 18th century. Competing, but equally delicious, versions originated around the same time in Paris and in Lyon, which close to the Austrian border. The Lyonnaise version was elevated by renowned chef French Paul Bocuse who made it in the classic manner with onions, butter, a bouquet-garni of herbs and pepper along with egg yolks for thickening and Madeira wine for additional flavour. No stock. The Parisian version typically uses beef or vegetable stock.
What’s unique about French Onion Soup?
This soup is the ultimate comfort food. It was initially used as a hangover cure, served in Paris’ famous market Les Halles between midnight and 5 am. It became a popular dish in North America in the Sixties and still serves as a warming, nourishing starter or entrée, especially in colder months.
Making French onion soup is not difficult, but it can be time-consuming.
There is even an instant pot version for cooks very short on time.
Variations on a theme
The original recipe lends itself to variation based on regional and individual tastes.
Some cooks ignore the purist tradition and add ingredients such as bacon, carrots or garlic to their soup. Or they may use chicken or mushroom stock instead of the more traditional beef stock. Chefs in New Orleans and other parts of Louisiana make a Creole version that includes melted cheese, milk or cream in the stock and is puréed to a thicker consistency than the traditional French version.
Elevated gourmet versions may include more exotic ingredients, wines and spices, or may “deconstruct” the dish by serving the elements separately.
However you make or enjoy French onion soup, serve it with extra baguette bread, a simple green salad and a great red (or white – it goes well with both) wine for a quintessential French bistro meal.