An overhead shot of two bowls of classic French onion soup.

I have read over the years that good, classic French onion soup can be made with little more than water, onions, bread and cheese.

But before last week, I had never read that good French onion soup should be made with little more than water, onions, bread and cheese, and that using chicken or beef stock in such a peasant dish not only betrays the soup’s economical roots but also muddles the soup’s pure onion flavor.

In his post on making traditional French onion soup, Michael Ruhlman describes the bistros of Lyon, France, also known as bouchons, which serve country-style fare and whose owners, often a husband and wife team, wouldn’t dare make onion soup with a costly and time-consuming stock. A “fine soup with a pure caramelized onion flavor,” he insists, requires nothing more than water, onions and a splash of wine for seasoning.

Skeptical? I was, too. But yesterday, I gave it a go. After slicing six pounds of onions and caramelizing them for four hours, I poured six cups of water into the pot and seasoned the broth with a few cracks of pepper.

I gave it a stir and took a taste. I could have stopped right there. I could have served the soup without taking a single taste more, without adding a pinch more of this or a splash more of that. I could have forgone the broiled bread-and-Gruyère topping altogether.

The broth, unadulterated by any chicken or beef flavor, tasted of pure, sweet onions. Because Ruhlman suggests adding a splash of vinegar to temper the sweetness and a little sherry and wine for more depth of flavor, I did, and the broth may have been the best I have ever made.

Making this soup will test your patience, challenge your instincts, and might leave you with blistered fingers. But I think you’ll find the process rewarding:

During the first half hour, six pounds of onions cook with a single tablespoon of butter in a covered pot. In this period, the onions release pools of juices and shrink by half in volume. Only after the juices cook off do the onions begin their long, slow caramelization ultimately shrinking to a fraction of their initial volume.

When the onions turn amber in color, you’ll have to resist all temptations to thaw the stock in your freezer and trust that water will reconstitute those super-concentrated swirls melting into the bottom of your pot into perhaps the best soup, French onion or otherwise, you ever make. I hope you all find time sometime soon to give it a try.

Since you will be chopping a lot of onions, you need a game plan: 1. Gather two large bowls — one for the onion scraps and one for the onions. A bench scraper is nice to have close by, too. Start by trimming off the ends of each onion, collecting scraps in one of the bowls as you go.

trimmed onions

2. Next, score the outside layer of each onion…
An onion on a board with a knife inserted into the outer layer.

…and use your knife to peel away the skin.
A peeled onion on a board.

onions, peeled, on a board

3. Cut each onion in half next.
An onion with a knife inserted halfway down.

halved onions on a board

4. Slice the onion thinly making cuts perpendicular to the rings.
A sliced onion on a board.

6 pounds of sliced onions on a board.

onions and peels in two separate large bowls

Onions after 30 minutes of cooking covered over low heat:
onions, after 30 minutes of cooking, covered in a large pot

After two hours of stewing uncovered:
Onions, after two hours of stewing slowly in a large pot.

After three and a half hours total:
Onions, after 3.5 hours total of stewing slowly in a large pot.

When the onions look amber in color, add 6 cups of water, 1/3 cup Sherry, a splash of red wine and a splash of vinegar:
An overhead shot of a large pot of French Onion Soup.

Grated Gruyère:
Grated Gruyère cheese on a board.

Day-old bread, sliced and ready to be toasted:
peasant bread, sliced on a board

Two bowls of French onion soup, ready for their bread and cheese topping.

Two bowls of French Onion soup topped with toasted bread.

Ready for the broiler:
Two bowls of French onion soup topped with bread and cheese.

Two bowls of French onion soup, just broiled.

If you’re looking for a little more chopping guidance, this little tutorial might be helpful:

Print
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Classic French Onion Soup (No Stock)


  • Author: Alexandra Stafford
  • Prep Time: 30 minutes
  • Cook Time: 4 hours
  • Total Time: 4 hours 30 minutes
  • Yield: 4 servings

Description

Adapted just barely from Michael Ruhlman’s Traditional French Onion Soup

Note: Plan ahead. Slicing the onions takes time, and cooking the onions takes time, too — 3 to 4 hours.


Ingredients

  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 6 to 8 pounds onions, thinly sliced (see notes below)
  • kosher salt
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • 6 slices of country-style bread — I use peasant bread
  • ⅓ cup sherry
  • 1 tablespoon white balsamic vinegar or white/red wine vinegar (optional)
  • 1 tablespoon red wine (optional)
  • ½ to ¾ pound | 225 to 340 grams Gruyère or Comté cheese, grated

Instructions

  1. Use a large pot (7 to 8 quarts) that will hold all the onions. Place the pot over medium and melt the butter. Add the onions, sprinkle with 2 teaspoons salt, cover, and cook until the onions have heated through and started to steam, about 30 minutes.
  2. Uncover, reduce the heat to low, and cook, stirring occasionally (you should be able to leave the onions alone for an hour at a stretch once they’ve released their water). Cook for about 3 hours at low to medium-low heat. Season with several grinds of pepper.
  3. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 200°F. Place the bread slices in the oven and let dry completely (you can leave the slices in the oven for a few hours, as the heat is not high enough to burn them).
  4. When the onions have completely cooked down, the water has cooked off, and the onions have turned amber (3-4 hours total), add 6 cups of water. Raise the heat to high and bring the soup to a simmer, then reduce the heat to low. Add the sherry. Taste and season with salt and pepper as needed. If the soup is too sweet, add the vinegar. If you would like a little more depth, add a splash of red wine.
  5. Preheat the broiler. Portion the soup into bowls, top with bread, cover with cheese, and broil until the cheese is melted and nicely browned. Serve immediately.

Notes

A game plan for chopping all of those onions:

  1. Gather two large bowls — one for the onion scraps and one for the onions. A bench scraper is nice to have close by, too. Start by trimming off the ends of each onion, collecting scraps in one of the bowls as you go.
  2. Next, score the outside layer of each onion, and use your knife to peel away the skin.
  3. Cut each onion in half next.
  4. Slice the onion thinly making cuts perpendicular to the rings.
  • Category: Soup
  • Method: Stovetop, Broiler
  • Cuisine: French

Keywords: classic, French, onion, soup, vegetarian, no stock, winter