Friday, February 24, 2012

French Fridays with Dorie, et al: A Comparative Study of French Onion Soup

I wanted to love this week's French Fridays with Dorie recipe, Cheese-Topped Onion Soup - I really did. I know I've eaten a bowl or two of French Onion Soup before, but never had the desire to make it at home. Now that I've made it at home, with less than stellar results, I either need to go back to the drawing board, or fly to France, find a bouchon in Lyon, and taste the real deal...just to make sure I'm not missing the boat.

For such a simple, peasant soup, why are there so many variations? Sweet onions, Spanish onions, yellow onions, red onions; chicken broth, beef broth, beef consomme, beef stock, or a combination thereof, canned broth versus homemade stock; red wine, white wine, sherry, apple cider, vinegar; thyme, bay leaves, parsley, sage, garlic; a splash of Cognac; Gruyère, Comte, Emmental, head is spinning.

After reading Dorie's recipe, and comparing it to several other recipes from favorite chefs and reputable sources, I was most intrigued with Michael Ruhlman's version, from Ruhman's Twenty, because it claimed to be a traditional onion soup, like those served at bouchon, a specific style of bistro in Lyon, France. Michael warns against using stock or broth, even homemade, because it changes the soup completely—transforming it into beef-onion soup or chicken-onion soup..."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."

My first homemade French Onion Soup

So, I sloooowly caramelized the onions as directed. FIVE hours to sloooowly caramelize SEVEN onions. You can speed up the process by simmering the onions over higher heat, but you need to tend the pot and stir often. Obviously, I had nothing better to do with my Saturday. I also used Spanish onions and sherry, as recommended. No stock,  just water, and I didn't use any fresh herbs or garlic. After tasting, I did feel the soup was too sweet, and added the optional vinegar. I also desired a little more depth, and added the optional splash of red wine. Michael prefers the onion-to-liquid ratio with 6 cups of water, but I opted for a more delicate soup, and added the additional cup of water.

Beautiful Onions

Beautiful sliced onions, that take FIVE hours to sloooowly caramelize

I used a nice country-style bread, toasted and cut to fit the top of my lion's-head soup bowls (love these bowls), grated Gruyère, and a last-minute rebellious sprinkling of thyme leaves over the top. I was all set to enjoy this fine soup with a pure caramelized onion flavor.

The top half of the soup was fine, but as soon as I ran out of nutty, cheesy bread to accompany the remaining heap of onions soaking in an inadequate amount of caramelized onion-flavored water, I was done. A heap of sweet onions just didn't do it for me.

The next day, I attempted to revitalize the leftover soup (i.e., heap of sweet, caramelized onions remaining in the pan). This time, I sauteed the onions a little longer with garlic, added some chicken broth and white wine, let it simmer, and finished it with a touch of Cognac, following Dorie's recipe.

Sorry, Dorie, I still couldn't get beyond that top half of the bowl. When I ran out of bread and cheese, it was over. Maybe I'm just not a French Onion Soup kind of gal, but I'll reserve judgment until I try Keller's Soupe a L'Oignon from his Bouchon cookbook, because it really does sound amazing the way he describes it. From my reading and comparative research, I tend to think this soup needs the richness of homemade (not canned) beef stock to balance the sweetness of the onions. I'll switch to yellow onions, and use a splash of red wine or vinegar, a few sprigs of thyme, and a bay leaf. Stay tuned. 

Out of the French Onion Soup recipes I compared, Dorie's recipe is the only one with chicken broth, and Michael Ruhlman's is the only one with water (Keller uses homemade beef stock, but says it's okay to use vegetable or chicken stock, or even water, but never canned broth). Here's my comparison table of the key ingredients (all of the chefs use a bit of butter to start caramelizing the onions, salt and pepper, and either a baguette or country-style bread for the crouton).

Chicken broth White wine,
splash of Cognac
Garlic Gruyere
Yellow Beef stock Sherry Parsley,
thyme, bay
leaves, garlic
Gruyere and
Yellow Beef stock Sherry wine
Bay leaves,
(Type not
Beef broth Red wine Garlic, bay
leaves, thyme,
Combo beef
chicken broth,
and apple cider
White wine,
splash of Cognac
Thyme, bay
Fontina or
Water Sherry; optional
red or white
wine vinegar
and/or red wine
None Gruyere or
GOURMET (Type not
Combo Beef
broth and water
White wine Thyme, bay
Gruyere, Comte,
or Emmental and
Combo chicken
broth and beef
White wine Garlic Swiss and
Yellow Combo chicken
and beef broth
Sherry Thyme, bay
(Oven braise 1
hour, 45 min)
Beef stock White wine and
thyme, bay
leaves, garlic
Gruyere and


French Fridays with Dorie is an online cooking group, dedicated to Dorie Greenspan‘s newest book Around My French Table: More Than 300 Recipes from My Home to Yours. As members of the group, we have purchased the cookbook and cook along as much as we can. There is a new recipe each week, and we post about that recipe on Friday. We are asked to refrain from posting the actual recipes on our blog. The book is filled with stunning photography, and personal stories about each recipe, which makes it that much more intriguing. I highly recommend adding it to your cookbook collection if you haven't already!


Cher Rockwell said...

You definitely tried to wrap your arms aroung this one. Ruhlman's recipe is generally the one I make when going for French onion soup, but I like Dorie's higher ratio of broth to onion.
I thing this definitely requires a trip to a French bistro... in France, of course.

Kris' Kitchen said...

Great comparison. I'll go with beef stock next time. Your photos make your version look perfect! I used small bowls...had my grandkiddies for the day to help me eat, and I'm glad I went smaller because I'm with you...the best part is the soup soaked bread with the cheesy top.

Kai said...

Let's a have a 'battle onion soup', that should settle the matter.

Heather said...

Using beef stock next time! Your pictures are gorgeous

Nana said...

I do not like onion soup at all, but I'm willing to go to France just to let hubby indulge himself. Maybe it
wasn't to your liking, but it certainly looks great.
Tricia's family as well as hubby really enjoyed tis one.

Ei said...

Holy moly, you did a lot of research into different recipes. Sorry this wasn't a hit for you. Bummer!

Mary said...

Wow, that chart alone qualifies you for a free trip to France. You could market it! Just sayin'

I liked the chicken stock because we don't eat red meat although we're happy to eat a beef stock-based FOS in restaurants. I am sorry you didn't like this version but at least you gave-it-a-go and "comparison-shopped." Well-done.

Bunkycooks said...

Love your scientific study on this one and the comparison of the recipes. I have been really happy with the recipes I have tried over the years. Some use chicken broth and some beef broth, but never just water. As we discussed, I prefer the beefy flavor with the onions and the cheese and I always make it to the bottom of the bowl! However, just to be sure I am not missing anything either, I think a trip to France for all of us is in order.

Mariceli said...

I agree with you 100%. I made Dorie's version last week and it was very dissapointing. The soup tasted so sweet and the chicken stock (I made it from sratch) just didn't add any depth of flavor I found that it made the soup too bland and flavorless. I will try Thomas Keller's version next.

Christy said...

A trip to France is in order - research must be completed! That chart is really terrific.

Erin said...

I'm usually a fan of traditional versions of dishes, but... water instead of stock? High quality homemade beef stock is vital for a good French onion soup, as far as I'm concerned. I always go with the Julia Childs version.

Teresa said...

Love your comparison chart and your photos are beautiful, as usual. In the past, I'd only had this with beef stock, but I found the chicken stock worked well for me. I think you're in my Dad's camp. He can't understand what people see in onion soup at all.

Anonymous said...

I second Kai! I can't stop remembering a bowl of onion soup I had in Chinon about twenty years ago and have ordered several disappointing bowls here in the states since. Lately, I've been slow cooking batches of onions in my dehydrator to keep them handy for sandwiches, soups and stuffings for mushrooms. Hmmm ... maybe a light beefy mushroom broth would be nice in onion soup? Battle's on! - Carmen

Half Moon Blog said...

I've tried many different recipes for French Onion Soup too and can attest that the Bouchon is so far my favorite. I've made it 2x now, both times using Kemper's recipe for Beef Stock as the base. I'm hoping the 3rd time is the charm; while it has the flavor I'm looking for we felt there weren't enough onions! For me this has been a 3 day affair from start to finish, and the soup does seem to benefit from an overnighter in the fridge. I've also had luck making a double batch and freezing it (without the bread and cheese of course).

I commend your tenacity and attention to detail! Love the comparison table!


Anonymous said...


you put a TON of energy into this weeks assignment!! You might start trying French onion soup around town at little cafes and such, I know in Seattle - where I'm from, there is the Chef in the Hat that is a classic French chef from France that does great French classics, along with other smaller cafes with chefs that are classically trained (or not) and they are really good actually. Even Red Robins does a decent one - although they tend to oversalt at some locations... but I'm sure you could find some places that do it well then ask the chefs what they put in theirs. I did this with eggs benedict until i realized I really liked it but not too many places did it very well at all! ...

Alice @

Frankly Entertaining said...

I love you comparison chart. This was the first time that I've made onion soup with chicken stock. I added some beef to the leftovers, and I think it improved the soup greatly!