Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The Trick Is To Cook The %#$@ Out Of The Onions

Good evening everyone! Welcome back to Out Of The Culinary! Tonight was my turn in the kitchen, and I had lofty goals. Tonight, I returned to the French culinary well - this time with what can be called a quintessential French recipe - French onion soup. Last week, we touched on the fact that most of our recipes could be duplicated by any working family and still have the meal on the table at a respectable hour. Tonight's recipe is not one of those recipes. In fact, tonight's recipe is easily the longest cooking time we've had to date from any of our recipes. There's a lot to get to tonight, so let's dive right in!

The Recipe: Classic French Onion Soup
Original Recipe Found In: The Complete America's Test Kitchen TV Show Cookbook

What You'll Need:

3 Tablespoons Unsalted Butter, Divided Into 1 Tablespoon Sections
4 Pounds Yellow Onions (Approximately 6 large onions)
2 Cups Of Water (Plus extra when noted)
1/2 Cup Dry Sherry
4 Cups Low Sodium Chicken Broth
2 Cups Beef Broth
6 Sprigs Fresh Thyme (Tied together with kitchen twine)
1 Bay Leaf
1 Small Baguette
8 Ounces Gruyere Cheese

The concept behind this recipe is to make your onions perfectly caramelized - which takes a lot of work. In order to get this meal on the table at a reasonable time, we opted to start cooking this dish the night before. The first few steps can safely be done a day in advance and then stored in the refrigerator until you are ready to finish the dish.

Begin by preheating your oven to 400 degrees. Next, slice your onions pole to pole and then cut them vertically into 1/4 thick sections. If you typically cry when cutting onions, this part of the recipe is as bad as it gets. Slicing six large onions caused our eyes to burn like we've never felt before. By the time we had finished slicing everything it felt as it our eyeballs were on fire! It wasn't until AFTER we had sliced all of these onions that I came across and interesting article regarding your best defenses against the potency of onions. It turns out, there are really two fool proof tricks to not crying while slicing onions. The first is probably the most obvious. Cover your eyes. By simply wearing some form of protective eyewear (such as goggles or contacts) you create a barrier to protect your eyes. Although it may seem silly - there are some goggles on the market just for slicing onions.

The second option is an interesting one that I had never actually heard before. If you choose to slice your onions by an open flame (be it a candle or by your gas stove) the fire will change the compound of the thiopropanal sulfoxide (that's the fancy name for the chemical in onions that makes your eyes water). Without getting overly scientific on a cooking blog - this oxidizes the chemical and keeps your eyes dry.

I wish I would have looked those up before we started slicing all those darn onions!

Maggie sliced up most of the onions...and cried the most 

Generously spray a dutch oven or large stoneware casserole dish with non stick cooking spray. Add your butter, onions and 1 teaspoon of salt to the pot. Place you pot (covered) into the oven and cook for one hour. After an hour, remove the pot from the oven and stir everything well. Leaving the lid slightly askew, return the pot to the oven for another hour and a half. (I told you this part was time consuming!) About half way through the second cook time, remove the pot and stir well. Return to the oven to let it finish cooking fully.

After 1 hour

After a full two and a half hours, you should have some absolutely delicious smelling onions. Believe it or not, this long cooking process to start will actually save you time later. The basic concept behind a perfect French onion soup is to caramelize the onions fully. Now, the full caramelization takes place in the next few steps - however, allowing the onions to slow cook for these two hours greatly reduces the number of times you have to deglaze them to reach that dark caramel color and flavoring.

After 2 hours. The smell here is fantastic! 

If you are breaking this recipe into two days - here is where day one ends. Store you onions in the refrigerator and open a few windows because your house is going to have a very distinct onion scent for a day or two!

Once your ready to finish the soup, place a large pot on high heat and add your onions. (Either out of the refrigerator or right from the oven). Cook the onions until all the liquid has evaporated and they begin to brown. This should take between 15 to 20 minutes. If you notice the onions are browning a little too quickly, reduce the heat to medium. Be sure to stir the onions frequently during this process.

Now, begin to caramelize the onions. To do this, allow them to simmer on medium heat (stirring occasionally) until the bottom of your pot begins to collect a coating of dark crust. This should take about 2 to 5 minutes each time.

That's the dark crust you're looking for

Once this occurs, add 1/4 cup of water and stir until the brown crust comes free from the bottom of the pan. Allow to simmer until the water evaporates and then repeat the process. All in all, you will want to deglaze the onions 2 to 3 times or until they become a very dark brown.

After 2 deglazings 

Once your onions are a deep brown, stir in the sherry (we opted to use 'cooking' sherry for this recipe. Maggie and I are not big fans of red wine and felt that a small bottle for cooking would be better than a large bottle taking up shelf space) and allow to simmer for 5 minutes or until the sherry has evaporated.

Once the sherry has evaporated (mostly evaporated - I found that some moisture still clung to the onions) add in your 2 cups of water, 4 cups of chicken broth, 2 cups of beef broth, bay leaf and your thyme. Bring the heat back to high and bring the pot to a simmer. Once the soup is bubbling nicely, reduce the heat to low and cover. Allow the soup to simmer for 30 minutes.

Onions with sherry - THAT'S the color you're looking for

While the soup is cooking, you can turn your attention to the baguettes. Slice the bread into thin (1/4 - 1/2 inch) section and place them on a rimmed baking sheet. Preheat your oven to 400 degrees and place the bread in for about 10 minutes (or until nice and crunchy). Once finished, set the bread aside until the final step.

This recipe calls for gruyere cheese, which is a harder yellow cheese that originates from Switzerland. Gruyere (pronounced GRU-EAR) is made from cow's milk and smells a lot like mild cheddar. The gruyere we found was made in Wisconsin - so you don't have to pay nearly double the price for the imported version. Gruyere is typically a nuttier cheese with a more subtle flavor and therefore is suited for fondue and stews. Given the intense flavors that this soup already has (super caramelized onions, a blending of beef and chicken broth) you don't want to overpower this dish with a strong cheese. Simpler versions of French onion soup typically call for a stronger cheese to mask the weaker onion flavor (usually swiss and asiago cheese) however, if you chose to use these cheeses on this version of the soup - you would overwhelm the subtle flavors you've worked so hard to create!

After a half hour, your soup is almost complete. (Don't forget to fish out the bay leaf and thyme) All that is left is the final touch that French onion soup is so famous for. Dish out some of the soup into a small broiler safe crock or bowl. Place one of your baguette slices on top of the soup and then sprinkle a little of the shredded gruyere cheese. With your oven rack 6 inches below the broiler element, place the bowls on a baking sheet and broil until the cheese is melted and golden. This should take about 3 to 5 minutes. Allow the soup to cool 5 minutes before serving and enjoy! (Sadly, we found out the hard way that none of our dishes are broiler safe. As an alternative method, I simply placed our bowls on a baking sheet and set them in a 400 degree oven for about 3 minutes. This melted and browned the cheese nicely).

All you need is some bread and cheese.. 

The Results:


Quite delicious! I'll admit, this was my first ever encounter with French onion soup - so I don't really have anything to base my version of the dish off of. (Alternatively, I can say without a doubt that this is the best French onion soup I've ever tasted!) But, according to Maggie (who is an unofficial French onion soup expert) the final dish was fantastic.

The flavor can be described in one word - rich. Well, two words probably does it more justice - rich & deep. The flavors of the caramelized onions, beef broth, bay leaves and chicken broth combined for one fantastic - taste bud pleasing bite.

That being said, I'll take a bowl of my potato soup any day over French onion. It's not that this was a bad dish - far from it. It's just not my favorite flavor combination. I like onions, I don't love them. I enjoy cheese, I don't love cheese. This dish is built for those who love cheese and onions - people like Maggie.

Truth be told, I made this dish for my lovely fiance who lists French onion soup as one of her all time favorite foods. (She is currently working on a second bowl and contemplating a third and just muttered "I just want to dunk my face in the whole thing and eat it! - I'm sure she wont be mad that I just shared that with the internet...right?) So, as long as she found the final product to be delicious, I am happy.

All in all, this was easily our most time consuming recipe to date. With over three hours of cook time and two days of preparation, French onion soup isn't something you can come home, whip up and throw on the table. It is, however, very tasty and worth the lofty undertaking to make it. Remember, it only sounds complicated when your reading the whole thing. Break the recipe down into smaller sections (one paragraph at a time) and you'll find there is nothing to this (seemingly) daunting dish.

That's all we have for you today. Maggie returns to the kitchen tomorrow and she has a whole new flavor combination to debut. It's sure to be interesting so stop by tomorrow night to see what's cooking. Until then,


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