French Onion Soup is one of my absolute wintertime favorites. And I have been thinking about this one since the 4th of July, when a friend and I had a nerdy little chat regarding the finer points of soup. (Yes, this is what my friends and I discuss over wine on our vacations. Yes, I’m a dork. Moving on.) So, this soup recipe has been percolating in the back of my mind, anxiously awaiting cooler weather. I’m dreaming of flavors that explode in my mouth. The savory sweetness of caramelized onions, entwined with salty gooey bites of a very cheesy crouton floating on top, all in a PIPING hot bowl.
But what ingredients would give me exactly what I am after? The basic players are always the same- onions, stock, herbs and a little booze. Note to readers- if there is ever an opportunity for me to put alcohol in the food…..duh. (You can sub extra stock for the wine and brandy in this recipe, but I promise it won’t be as good.)
So what would make the BEST combination? Sweet onions with beef stock and red wine? Yellow onions with white wine and chicken stock? What if I added a little bacon fat? or more thyme? We have been eating a lot of french onion this week (terrible hardship, I tell you) trying to hit upon The. Very. Best. Version. of french onion soup. The very best, you say? I realize this is a bold claim. However, I think it’s the best I’ve had, excepting Thomas Kellers version from Bouchon that my friends Mike and Danielle once served at a pretty fabulous dinner party. But that takes two days and I only have two hours- so this is my BEST VERSION EVER. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. What my friend said in July that stuck was her combination of different onions, including shallots to really get a good depth of flavor. Silly thing to stick in my mind for months, but it did. The combination I finally settled on was 2 sweet vidalia, 2 yellow, one red and 2 shallots.
The idea of adding bacon fat occurred to me and I thought it was genius. Then I second guessed myself and googled it. The first hit was Julia Child’s French Onion Soup with Bacon. Turns out that this is NOT a new idea, but it’s probably a pretty darned good one. She actually put the cooked bacon back in the soup. I do not. But if you like the idea- go ahead! I used Wrights Brand Applewood Smoked Bacon. I think the applewood flavor adds a little something, but any good quality bacon will do the trick. The best part of this is, to get bacon fat, you obviously have to cook bacon. I planned on putting mine in a quiche, but it mysteriously disappeared before I finished the soup…hmmmm.
I have been making this soup for years, but never obtained the real depth of flavor I was after until I took the time to caramelize the onions. It’s time consuming, but certainly not hard. It takes time for those sugars to develop, about 45 minutes, but it’s sooooo worth it. You don’t have to stand over it the entire time either. Just give them a quick stir every 10 minutes or so, scraping up the browned bits on the bottom. Keep the heat at medium, but it you think they are scorching, deglaze with a little wine or chicken stock and lower the heat a bit. And no cheating and turning up the heat to speed this up- you’ll just burn them and have to start over.
This will be coming to my dining table Christmas Eve. It’s a huge crowd pleaser and it’s best the next day, so bonus points to make it ahead. If you have a different version that you think should be a contender for Best French Onion Soup EVER, please leave it in the comments, I would love to try it! And if you are loving these mini cocottes as much as I do, you can find them here. Enjoy!