A Week in Paris, Part III of III: Soupe à l’oignon

The Thinker, Musée Rodin

French Onion Soup.  The ultimate peasant food featuring humble ingredients expertly prepared, with a taste that is fit for a king.  It is easy to understand why French cuisine is so revered, when one considers the flavors French cooks have managed to coax from little more than field onions, bones, and stale bread.

Soupe à l’oignon, café in 17th arrondissement

Interestingly, soupe à l’oignon has fallen out of favor with native Parisians who no longer have economic necessity to build a meal around bones instead of meat.  French chefs are happy to prepare this dish for American expatriates, however, given its healthy profit margin.  It’s a win-win situation, really, as Americans accustomed to canned broth know upon their first taste of this authentic dish that their bowl is well worth the price!

Soupe à l’oignon, café in 5th arrondissement

While this dish is absurdly easy to prepare, it does require some time.  I recommend beginning this dish two days before you plan to enjoy it, for best results.  The broth itself freezes well.  Sometimes I double the broth recipe, freeze it in 1 quart containers, and spend 30 minutes or so on the last few steps whenever I have a craving for this fantastic soup.

Ingredients (makes 2 main dish servings or 4 first course servings)

1 1/2 pounds of beef bones

picture3291 cup dry red wine

2 cups tomato-based vegetable juice

2 cups water

1 teaspoon whole peppercorns

2 tablespoons butter

picture3732 large onions, sliced thin

4 thick slices of day-old French bread

2/3 cup grated gruyere cheese


Step 1) Combine bones, wine, juice, water, and peppercorns in a slow cooker.  Set picture374heat to low and simmer, covered, for 24 hours.

Step 2) Strain broth into a large bowl and place in freezer.  As the broth cools, the saturated fat will rise to the top and solidify.  You will be able to “lift” the saturated fat right off of the broth as shown, and discard it.  Your broth will not picture378be completely fat-free, but will be much lower in fat (and have a less oily, more pleasing taste) than if you had skipped this step.

Step 3) 30 minutes before you plan to dine, begin simmering broth in a saucepan over low heat.

Step 4) Caramelize onions in butter by picture380stirring in a sauté pan over low-medium heat for approximately 10 minutes.

Step 5) Divide caramelized onions between 2 large or 4 small oven-safe bowls.

Step 6) Divide bread between bowls and layer on top of onions. Slowly ladle broth over bread to fill bowls within 1/2 inch of picture381top.  (Freeze any extra broth for future recipes!)

Step 7) Sprinkle grated gruyere cheese over top of bread.  Broil (low setting) for 5 minutes or until cheese is melted, bubbly, and beginning to brown.

Step 8) Serve on trivets or other protected picture383surface, as bowls will be hot.

Bon Appetit!

25 replies to “A Week in Paris, Part III of III: Soupe à l’oignon

  1. Question on beef bones: Do you get them from a store as is, or do you save your bones from previous meals of beef? (Sorry, I’m not much of a meat person). I love french onion soup, and this sounds wonderful for a cold night!

    1. That’s a great question (I should have clarified in the recipe)! While it would be perfectly fine – and very economical – to save bones from previous meals if you are able, I almost never cook large portions of bone-in beef. When I make this recipe, I go to a local butcher shop for a small package of beef bones. It is very inexpensive, and well worth the field trip!

  2. Love your broth recipe. I am going to do that one this week! I made the onion soup way back and it was fabulous and you are right time consuming. I especially liked the part you spoke of on how the French accommodate us Americans for this soup. long live France for that gesture:)) Thanks again!!

    1. I think the beef bones are pretty central in making this recipe what it is, but… if I were going to try a vegetarian riff on this recipe, I would replace the beef bones with a few ounces of diced, dried porcini mushrooms and perhaps a bit more wine. If you try it, I’d love to hear how it turns out!

  3. French onion soup is one of my favorite indulgences…. yours looks delicious. I am not partial to beef so I usually make it with my Thanksgiving turkey stock– LOVE it!

  4. I really want to try making French onion soup! Dare I ask, though, if it’s possible to make it with a vegetable broth instead of beef. Is that blasphemy? I guess, the beef is the authentic French way to do it, but for those of us who tend to steer clear of the red meat, I’d really like to try the recipe with a different broth base if possible. Hopefully, it could come out just as good! What do you think?

    1. An excellent question. For a vegetarian spin on this recipe (several people have asked), I would substitute a small bag of diced, dried porcini mushrooms for the beef bones, and perhaps increase the wine a bit. Dried porcini mushrooms added to boiling water create a lovely broth – not exactly the same as beef broth, but hearty and complex in its own way. Enjoy!

  5. What a wonderful recipe. I shall leave out the the tomato paste and substitute white for red wine if i use wine at all (not my bag), as i prefer a lighter broth for more onion flavor. Wonderful that some people use soup bones these days. I use them when i may, but i would love to see my proprietors face if i suggested buying bones rather than kerneled broth (bouillon powder). Oh hoho, Ah haha …

    The Turkish butchers here in Berlin always have ox tail in the meat counter. Just roast the lightly and then cover them with cold water, and simmer for a few hours, salt/pepper, roasted onion with a clove and a bay leaf, bouquet garni and ‘BAM!’ Try that for your standard (hearty) soup base! You will fall over backwards.

    Greazy Greets,

    ol’ Auntie Babewyn

      1. Oh, oxtail is the bee knees. You have the marrow and the bones for good stock, the cartilage for an nice thick glossy texture, and wonderful bits of flavorful meat to add character, and goodness. When i make a stock at the soup kitchen, i always take a small, grisley morsel home for my partner. Like my grandfather he loves to chew the bones clean. Gives me the willies, but he loves it!

      2. I could pass on the bone chewing myself, but I’m sure some would say the same about my own culinary preferences. 🙂 I think it’s awesome how you cook the way you do, based upon the descriptions I’m hearing, at a soup kitchen. I imagine it’s challenging, and a labor of love.

      3. It is funny. I do other things for money. (though i need very little money – praise the more-or-less metaphysical force of your choice for that.) The soup kitchen, is what is closest to what i always wanted to do as a cook. Not only does it give me the freedom to cook real food that nourishes people who actually need nourishment, but it gives me a way to relate to other people in a way we can all understand. Freedom, being needed, and feeling connected is awfully nice. So if anyone is counting, i really get much more out of it than i could ever put in. And it has another real benefit for me. I have seen some awful hardship, and was always the one who, for some reason survived and was never really affected. Though through no doing of my own, it is like i have floated on a big ol’ wad of cotton candy all my life. The soup kitchen is a wonderful way to compensate survivor’s guilt.

        And while we are admiring each other. I got as far as your pear salad business (i immediately though snow-peas, and walnuts or sesame, scrap the chevre [too pricey for this ol’ bird]). Love your stuff. D@mn your busy!


  6. It’s true that the French can turn the simplest ingredients into something gourmet! When travelling in France with my family as a teenager, we stayed over two nights in the same hotel just to have the pommes de terre dauphinois again! The French waiter was a little shocked at these strange, uncultured scalloped-potato loving Canadians….

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this:
close-alt close collapse comment ellipsis expand gallery heart lock menu next pinned previous reply search share star