Friday, June 7, 2019

Parisian French Onion Soup

I have made French onion soup loads of times since my teenage years, and I've even shared my usual, go-to recipe on the blog in the past. During a recent trip to Paris I tasted the best French onion soup I've ever had in my life at Au Père Louis! It had a stronger, more complex flavor, and a better, easier-to-eat crouton topping than I typically have with my baguette slices. I spoke with who I'm guessing is the owner, and he explained the basic steps to their French onion soup. I had no measurements or specifics, but took copious notes and decided to attempt this Parisian-inspired French onion soup recipe upon my return to the States. Gotta put those culinary school skills to work!

There are so many variables in a seemingly simple French onion soup. There are those who use only beef broth, and those that use a combination of beef and chicken. Some recipes include red or white wine, although others feature a bit of sweet port wine instead. Many recipes use sweet onions while there are yet others that use standard brown or yellow ones. Flour acts as a slight thickener in some cases while it's sometimes omitted. For the record, Julia Child's recipe uses plain yellow onions, a bit of sugar to help them caramelize, flour, and a touch of white wine and cognac.

In that past I have used shortcuts in the form of canned beef broth. That's the first step that is changing. The owner mentioned that they also add white wine to their stock, though it's not a typical ingredient. He also said to reduce, reduce, reduce, both the stock and the soup.

Making stock: before roasting

Making stock: after roasting

Finished stock, before straining

Cooled stock is very gelatinous

The loosely explained recipe I was given in Paris actually breaks one of the cardinal rules in French onion soup making. Essentially every recipe stipulates caramelizing the onions, sometimes for a full hour, and occasionally even with the addition of a little sugar. I was told to cook the onions in oil until they are nice and soft, but not until they are caramelized. He was pretty adamant about that. I also noticed that the onions were not only plentiful but also sliced thicker than I usually slice mine, which almost disintegrate into the broth. So a greater onion to broth ratio, slicing the onions thicker, and NOT caramelizing them. Got it.

Onions just added to the pot, tossed with the oil

Onions after sweating for 15 minutes, covered

Onions after another 15 minutes, uncovered

He also said they add port wine, which is significantly sweeter than the run of the mill red wine I usually use. This could explain a bit of why they don't caramelize the onions. It would likely yield an overly sweet soup if they use sweet onions, caramelize them, and also add a sweet fortified wine like port. I didn't have port wine, but did snag some Madeira wine, which is also a sweet fortified Portuguese red wine, so I think it's a fine stand-in in this case.

After adding garlic, bay leaves, flour, and Madeira wine

I've always added a dusting of flour to my onions, and the staff at Au Père Louis does too. I've seen some mixed reviews on flour versus no flour. I have always felt that adding flour gives the soup a bit more body, so I'm sticking with team flour for now but I may change it up next time and see how I feel.

Following my conversation, here are the main takeaways: 1) homemade stock/broth 2) reduce, reduce, reduce 3) slice the onions thicker, soften in oil, but don't caramelize 4) sliced garlic, bay leaf, flour dusting, port wine, then stock 5) reduce, reduce, reduce 6) season generously, especially black pepper! 7) use smaller croutons.

Finished soup after 45 minutes of simmering, partially covered

The final result after spending about 8 hours over the span of 2 days making the stock and the soup from scratch is very close to the soup I enjoyed in Paris, albeit maybe slightly sweeter than I remember. I made this soup twice, using merely 1/4 cup of Madeira wine in place of the recommended port wine the first time, and found the finished soup to be perhaps a tad sweeter than my usual preference, not to say it was excessively sweet, but simply sweeter. The second time I cut it down to 2 tablespoons, and although it had a sweet note, it was more moderate, and better fit the flavor profile I was looking to achieve.

I am also sold on using more onions and slicing them a tad thicker than my usual ultra thin half-moons. It felt heartier and more robust, the perfect consistency to make an actual meal of this soup. All in all, I'm very pleased with this culinary experiment. It was nearly identical to the soup of my memory! It's très magnifique! Bon appetit!

Parisian French Onion Soup
Makes 4 servings
(Inspired by my visit to Au Père Louis in Paris)

2 to 4 tablespoons vegetable oil (I’ve made it both ways, and it’s just as good “lightened” up by using less oil)
3 pounds yellow onions, peeled and sliced into 1/4-inch thick half-moons
1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more as needed
4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced lengthwise
2 bay leaves
1 tablespoon flour (can omit entirely if you prefer a thinner broth, or increase to 2 tablespoons if you'd like a thicker broth)
2 to 4 tablespoons port or Madeira wine (adjust to your preference; I have made it with both 2 and 4 tablespoons, and prefer the lesser amount, but both were delicious!)
6 cups beef broth or stock, preferably homemade, heated
Freshly ground black pepper
4 cups (about 3 1/4 to 3 3/4 ounces or about 1/3 baguette) cubed crusty bread (1-inch cubes)
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
8 to 12 ounces Gruyère cheese, grated

Heat oil in a large pot over medium-high heat. Add the onions and salt and toss to coat evenly with the oil. Lower the heat to medium-low, cover and cook, stirring occasionally, sweating the onions until they are softened, about 15 minutes.

Remove the lid and continue to cook uncovered, stirring occasionally another 15 to 20 minutes until most of the residual moisture has evaporated, but don't cook long enough to caramelize. Add the garlic and bay leaves and cook for another 3 minutes until fragrant. Stir in the flour and then the port wine. Add the hot beef broth and stir to combine. Season with more salt and pepper. Partially cover with a lid and simmer on low for about 45 minutes, stirring occasionally, skimming impurities, and adjusting seasoning as needed (don't be stingy on the pepper!).

Meanwhile preheat the oven or toaster oven to 400 degrees F. Toss the bread cubes with the olive oil, and toast in the oven for about 8 minutes until golden and crusty. Set aside.

Turn on the broiler. Divide the soup into 4 oven-proof bowls, top with the croutons (about 1 cup per serving), and then finish with 2 to 3 ounces of grated Gruyère per serving. Broil until cheese is melted, bubbly, and golden.

*Note* The second time I made this soup, I experimented by using beef broth concentrate instead of making my own stock, since it can be very time consuming. I obviously felt better about making the soup with my homemade stock, however the soup was still excellent and flavorful with the beef broth concentrate. In a pinch I think it would be fine, but for a truly authentic experience aim to make your own stock :-) My recipe follows.

Homemade Beef Stock
Makes about 6 cups (give or take depending on how long you reduce it)

5 1/2 to 6 pounds beef bones
1 large onion, peeled and cut into 6 large chunks
2 large carrots, peeled and roughly chopped
3 celery stalks, washed and roughly chopped
1/2 cup white wine
4 quarts (16 cups) water
4 cloves garlic, lightly crush with the side of a knife
2 bay leaves
2 parsley stems
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon peppercorns

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F. Add the beef bones, onion, carrots, and celery to a sheet pan. Roast in the oven for 1 hour, stirring once or twice during that time to ensure even roasting.

Remove from the oven, and carefully transfer the roasted bones and vegetables to a large stockpot. Drain the fat from the sheet pan (an old jar or disposable plastic container is good for this, and hang onto it for skimming fat throughout the process).

Deglaze the sheet pan with the white wine and 1 cup of water, scraping up any dried bits with a spatula. Pour the deglazed mixture into the pot with the bones. Add the remaining 15 cups water, and the rest of the ingredients. Heat over high heat until it just starts to bubble, but don't boil. Immediately lower the heat to low, cover and simmer for about 2 hours. Do not stir the stock, just occasionally skim off any impurities or fat off the surface (use the jar you've set aside).

Reduce the stock uncovered for at least another hour or longer (I reduced it for 3 additional hours, so a total of 5 hours). Continue to skim off the impurities and fat.

When you've reduced it long enough to your liking, take it off the heat and carefully remove the bones and vegetables using a spider skimmer or small strainer. Line a sieve with a double layer of cheesecloth and set it over another pot or large bowl. Ladle the stock into the cheesecloth-lined sieve.

Stock can be stored in jars or plastic containers in the refrigerator or freezer (leave room for it to expand once frozen). Once the stock has cooled in the fridge you can scrape off additional fat on the surface, which will solidify. Now you discard your jar of skimmed fat. Definitely NEVER dump fat down the drain, as it will harden and clog your pipes.


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