My husband requested French onion soup for dinner last night. It’s one of his favorite things to eat yet I had never made it for him before. Sad, I know. Truthfully, I love French onion soup too but hadn’t had it in years because 99% of the time I see it on a restaurant menu it’s made with either chicken broth or beef broth or both. I started to think that making a vegetarian version would just not be as tasty as the real thing, so I gave up. Until one day I caught a rerun of the Martha Stewart show where she had chef Michael Ruhlman on making traditional French onion soup. Turns out he is an onion soup purist and doesn’t believe in using any broth at all! His theory is that the pure onion flavor really only shines through when the soup is made with…something we all have on hand…water! I was thrilled to hear this and considering even Martha herself approved of his soup you know it had to be superb. Superb it was. My house reeked of onions for a few hours, and my eyes ran out of tears while I was cutting them, but man was it worth it. And easy! Come on, who doesn’t love carmelized onions?
Vegetarian French Onion Soup makes 4 large dinner-sized portions
- 1 tablespoon butter
- 8 large yellow onions, cut in half and thinly sliced crosswise
- 6 cups of water
- 1 tbsp fresh thyme, chopped finely (not in Ruhlman’s recipe, but delicious in this)
- 1/3 cup sherry (optional but tasty addition)
- splash of red wine (also optional)
- 1 baguette
- 1/4 to 1/2 lb (depending on how cheesy you want it) Gruyere cheese, grated (could substitute with swiss cheese or Emmanthaler)
- kosher salt
- freshly ground black pepper
In a rather large pot (I used an enameled cast-iron pot which worked perfectly,) melt the butter over medium heat. Add onions, sprinkle with 2 tsp of salt, cover and cook until onions have heated through and started to steam. Uncover, reduce heat to medium-low, add the thyme and some pepper, and cook, stirring occasionally until onions have completely cooked down and turned a dark amber color. This process took me about 2 1/2 hours, during which I would check the onions every few minutes and scrape the bottom of the pan if any brown bits started to form. The onions will let off quite a bit of water at first, then the water will reduce down allowing the onions to darken and carmelize.
While onions are cooking, prep your baguette. First, preheat oven to 200 degrees. Cut baguette into 1 inch slices on a bias if desired, just make sure the bread will fit into your serving bowls. I fit 2 slices into each of mine. Place bread slices on a cookie sheet and place in oven until they have dried out completely turning them into croutons, about 20 minutes or so. Set aside.
When the liquid has evaporated and the onions are dark and stick together you are ready to add the water. Add the water, raise heat to high and bring soup to a boil. Reduce heat to low, add the sherry and a splash of red wine (if using) and taste soup for seasoning. I added a couple more teaspoons of salt at this time, but taste to see if yours needs more or less. Let soup simmer for about 20 minutes to allow all of the flavors to meld.
Portion the soup into 4 oven-proof serving bowls or crocks, float baguette slices on top and cover bread with as much cheese as you desire. Place under broiler until the cheese bubbles and starts to brown (I could have let mine brown more but I was impatient.) Enjoy immediately!
*Recipe adapted from Michael Ruhlman’s Traditional French Onion Soup recipe.