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Fall, Winter, Spring – it doesn’t matter, this beautiful French Onion Soup is perfect when ever there is a chill in the air. Deeply satisfying, I forget, until I eat it, how much fun it is to take the first bite, digging into the bread and cutting it with the spoon on the bottom of the bowl – then lifting it, the bubbly, melted cheese forming a string or two…gently blowing so my tongue won’t get burned until I simply can’t wait any longer. And, I, of course, always burn my tongue anyway.

French Onion Soup - bake the onions before making the soup!

French Onion Soup – bake the onions before making the soup!

I just wish I had a bowl of it right now – oh, wait I do! Jealous? No need to be, just make your own.

Like many good recipes, this French Onion Soup relies on little more than simplicity and time, but much of that is “hurry up and wait” time. Cook’s Illustrated came up with an intriguing, mostly hands off method, of baking the onions to the gorgeous caramelized brown color needed to flavor the soup. While it still needs attention and a couple of hours start to finish, this method frees you up, for the most part, from the stove.

This soup really does constitute a meal, especially if paired with a simple salad. I priced the soup originally for around $3.90 in 2011, but this year, it came out at $5.41. Some prices have raised a bit, but the big difference? I did not have any beef stock on hand – I generally pick up canned or boxed stock very cheaply (or free) before the winter holidays like Christmas and Thanksgiving…instead, I had to pay.

I do have to say that this soup is better than ANY soup I’ve ever had in a restaurant – where one serving generally costs more than the six servings here, so it’s hard to quibble about a few pennies. While very good immediately, Cook’s Illustrated noted, and I found it true, that this soup is even better if made the previous day or two. A “time-out” in the refrigerator takes any sharp bite out of the rich onion broth and produces a perfectly balanced soup. That makes it perfect to make on a lazy day and serve it the following evening.

French Onion Soup - just out from under the broiler

French Onion Soup – just out from under the broiler

French Onion Soup, serves 6

  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 6 large yellow onion, about 4 pounds, cut pole to pole
  •  water for deglazing
  • 1/2 cup dry sherry or 1/4 cup brandy
  • 4 cups low sodium chicken broth
  • 2 cups low sodium beef broth
  • 2 cups of water
  • 6 sprigs thyme, or about 1/2 teaspoon dried
  • 1 bay leaf
  • salt and pepper
  • 1/2 inch slices of baguette, 6 total
  • 6 slices Gruyere cheese, Provolone is good, too, or about a cup of grated. A combination of grated Gruyere and grated Parmesan is outstanding.

For the soup:

Adjust oven rack to lower-middle position and heat oven to 400 degrees. Generously spray inside of heavy-bottomed large (at least 7-quart) Dutch oven with nonstick cooking spray. Place butter in pot and add onions and one teaspoon salt. (The salt helps draw out the excess moisture from the onions.) Cook, covered, one hour (onions will be moist and slightly reduced in volume).

Remove pot from oven and stir onions, scraping bottom and sides of pot. Return pot to oven with lid slightly ajar and continue to cook until onions are very soft and golden brown, checking the pan at about 40 minutes. Stir and scrape the bottom and sides of the pan, then check every 15 minutes or so until they are done: soft and brown and nearly dry on the bottom. (See photo, below.) Remove pan if it appears to be in any danger of burning.

Note: The above is a deviation from Cook’s Illustrated – the first time I made this, following their directions my unions were burnt and dry.

Carefully remove pot from oven and place over medium-high heat. Using oven mitts to handle pot, cook onions, stirring frequently and scraping bottom and sides of pot, until liquid evaporates completely and onions turn to a dark brown, 15 to 20 minutes, reducing heat to medium if onions are browning too quickly. Continue to cook, stirring frequently, until pot bottom is coated with dark crust, 6 to 8 minutes, adjusting heat as necessary. (Scrape any gooey fond that collects on spoon back into onions.)

Stir in 1/4 cup water, scraping pot bottom and sides to loosen crust, and cook until water evaporates and pot bottom has formed another dark crust, 6 to 8 minutes. If your onions are not a dark brown, repeat this step. (Look for the color in the bottom photo.)

Stir in sherry and cook, stirring frequently, until sherry evaporates, about 5 minutes.

Stir in broths, 2 cups water, thyme, bay leaf, and 1/2 teaspoon salt, scraping up any final bits of browned crust on bottom and sides of pot. Increase heat to high and bring to simmer. Reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer gently 30 minutes. Remove and discard herbs, then season with salt and pepper.

For the croutons:

While soup simmers, arrange baguette slices in single layer on baking sheet and bake in 400-degree oven until bread is dry, crisp, and golden at edges, about 10 minutes. Set aside.

To serve:

Adjust oven rack 6 inches from broiler element and heat broiler. Set individual broiler-safe crocks on baking sheet and fill each with about 1 3/4 cups soup, leaving enough room at the top for the croutons. Top each bowl with 1 or 2 baguette slices (do not overlap slices) and sprinkle evenly with Gruyère. Broil until cheese is melted and bubbly around edges, 3 to 5 minutes. Let cool 5 minutes before serving.

Notes:

  • Cook’s Illustrated suggests using Swanson Certified Organic Free Range Chicken Broth and Pacific Beef Broth – I’ve had very good results with the Aldi’s brand in a box.
  • If you like a thicker body to your soup, sprinkle a tablespoon of flour over the caramelized onion, cook a minute or two, then add your broth.

Let’s talk about how to save money/time on this recipe:

  • Use a coupon matching site! One of my favorites in my area is Pocket Your Dollars, but every store has a group of enthusiastic Coupon Matchers. Do not discount the savings! I check their site every week, even if I don’t “need” to go to the store and often find bargains I can’t pass up.
  • Follow my Strategies – You’ll see them all explained on the upper left tab of every page and how I apply them, below.
  • Don’t get discouraged if your prices don’t match mine! Keep shopping at the best prices and your fridge/freezer and pantry will be stocked with sales priced ingredients.
  • Read below for additional tips as well as throughout the recipe, for buying at the best prices, saving time and managing food.

Strategies Applied

  • Very easy to double and freeze, but the key is to have a large enough pot to sweat down your onions.
  • This is also a great “make ahead” recipe: Cook’s Illustrated says, ” For the best flavor, make the soup a day or 2 in advance.
  • Alternatively, the onions can be prepared through step 1, cooled in the pot, and refrigerated for up to 3 days before proceeding with the recipe.”
  • This soup freezes beautifully
  • A Kitchen Slicer is a great aid in making this soup.
  • Onions: They keep well, so try to buy on sale. Aldi’s is a good place to find reasonably priced onions. Always less expensive in the fall/winter months, the pricing in my area runs from 33 to 66 cents a pound. Store them in a dark, cool place but not near potatoes. If you’ve bought too many onions, don’t let them go bad.If you use half an onion, consider if you can sauté the rest and put it in a Ziploc in the freezer. If not store in the door where you’ll see it when you’re cooking next. My onions were 56 cents a pound, 4 pounds was $2.24
  • Butter: A bit of a splurge, cost and calorie wise – but for taste and health, I’d rather use real butter than trans fat laden margarine or oils. Yes – they do have trans fat, even if the label says they don’t. Harvard, for instance, says unequivocally: The key to a healthy diet is to substitute good fats for bad fats and to avoid trans fat.” While butter isn’t a healthy fat, many feel that trans fat is worse than saturated.
  • Buy on deep specials, often around the holidays with store coupons. I shoot for $2.50 a pound and freeze, where it stays fine for months. Cost for this recipe: 3 tablespoons, 23 cents.
  • Chicken Stock:  If you read me regularly, I make my own with scraps of vegetables and bones – here’s the basic recipe I use for Best Turkey or Chicken Stock - it’s not particular and though it simmers for a long time, the burner is barely on – I just count it as free.
  • Beef Stock: Beef stock can be bought very cheaply with coupons and sales right before any Holiday, especially Thanksgiving and Christmas. Often it is possible to procure it at no cost. I paid $1.89 at Aldi’s for their 4 cup box and froze two cups for later use. Cost: 95 cents.
  • Cheese:  Cheese is an item that I almost always buy on sale. Often with store specials, coupons and special offers from the producers I can get cheese very cheaply, and sometimes at no cost. I’ll stock up then – if it’s not open, it keeps forever. If I have to freeze, I will sometimes do this – it’s ok when used in a casserole, but not very good for eating. I look for a price of a dollar (or less) for an eight ounce block of store cheese. Cost 50 cents.
  • Sherry: A bottle of basic sherry for cooking is normally quite inexpensive, even more so if bought during a sale. Look for great sales in the fall and early spring. Cost for a bottle, $6.97, for half a cup about 99 cents.
  • Bread: Can be a huge variable; since only a bit is used in this recipe, make sure you have a plan for the rest. Cost for my baguette on sale was $1.00 – used about 1/2. 50 cents.

Nutrition:

Per Serving (excluding unknown items): 623 Calories; 41g Fat (60.8% calories from fat); 45g Protein; 15g Carbohydrate; 4g Dietary Fiber; 134mg Cholesterol; 1145mg Sodium. Exchanges: 0 Grain(Starch); 6 Lean Meat; 1 1/2 Vegetable; 5 Fat.

Put Your Own Spin on It:

  • A lot of recipes call for white or red wine in the body of the soup.
  • You could certainly make your own beef broth, about a six hour process to do well. I have such a hard time finding beef bones in my area – or when I do, at a decent price – that I do like to use the combination beef & chicken broth. I find the chicken broth helps keep the store-bought broth from being too overpowering.
  • A lot of people I know add a touch of Worcestershire to this soup.
  • A combination of Gruyure/Parmesan or Swiss/Parmesan cheese is a wonderful gooey, nutty combination.

My Pay Off:

Truly a budget recipe, especially if you buy your stock at the right time. Its worth noting that the soup, itself, is very low calorie, its the cheese and bread that are not so forgiving.

French Onion soup made November 2011, priced at $3.90. Repriced February 2014 for $5.41.

French Onion Soup - 3 minutes to slice 4 pounds of onions with my slicer

French Onion Soup – 3 minutes to slice 4 pounds of onions with my slicer

Onions when I removed them from the oven

Onions when I removed them from the oven – notice the fond is quite dark, just on the edge of being burnt. Don’t let it get any darker than this.

Onions after cooking on burner - deep brown is perfect, but BLACK will be bitter, so be careful

Onions after cooking on burner – deep brown is perfect, but BLACK will be bitter, so be careful

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