Soupe à l'Oignon is an ancient recipe going back perhaps to Roman times. Onion soups were a simple peasant meal of onions, broth and stale bread. It provided use for stale bread, and onions were plentiful and easy to grow. The modern reecipe originated in 18th century France. It is made from beef stock and caramelized onions, simmered slowly, served in bowls with croutons and broiled with grated and melted cheese on top. Simple, so far.
The key to Soupe à l’Oignon is the slow cooking of the onions, followed by a long, slow simmering in stock. This helps develop the characteristic rich flavor. To help achieve this, naturally, the stock should be as good as possible. The better and more intense the stock, the better the soup is going to be. Buying canned stock is a possibility, but making your own a day before usually yields better results. If you must use canned stock, use flavorful beef consommé such as Campbell's, not simple beef broth. To make your own stock, use a few beef scraps and bones with marrows, carrots, celery stalks, leeks sliced in small pieces, onions peeled and quartered, whole garlic, sprig thyme, bay leaf and peppercorns. Boil together in a pot for 3-4 hours, skim it, strain through a sieve and discard the solids. Store in a jar, covered and refrigerated overnight. Remove the solidified fat on top the next day.
Finally, there is the issue of the cheese. Many mainstream recipes for French onion soup simply call for "swiss cheese". "Swiss cheese" is a misnomer that denies the fact that there are over 450 varieties of cheese in Switzerland, many vastly different from one another. What they mean is a yellowish cheese with holes in it, remotely resembling Emmentaler cheese. Avoid it, and avoid any generic cheese from a mainstream label like Kraft or Nabisco. Short of driving to a valley in southwest Switzerland to pick up homemade cheese at a farm, look for good-quality imported Gruyère. It will not be as good as a homemade unpasteurized cheese bought on the side of the road somewhere between Lausanne and Bern, but it will be the next best thing. Gruyère has a sweet flavor with hint of nuttiness, and for those interested in authenticity in tastes and cooking styles, it is the traditional cheese to use for this recipe.
Gruyère is a hard yellow cheese made from cow's milk, originating in the French-speaking part of Switzerland in the Cantons of Fribourg, Vaud, Neuchâtel, Jura, and Bern, and named after the city of Gruyères in the Canton of Fribourg. Emmental, on the other hand, (or more correctly Emmentaler) is a yellow, medium-hard cheese orginating in the Emme valley near Bern, little farther north from Gruyères. The first clue is that Emmentaler has holes and Gruyère does not. (Emmentaler is what is what people imagine under the name "Swiss Cheese" in North America.) Gruyère has a sharper taste than Emmentaler, thanks in part to an 8-10 month aging period. An even sharper variant called Fribourg (after Gruyère's canton) is aged for at least two years. Gruyère becomes creamy when melted. This characteristic, along with its tangy flavor, makes it popular in the classic Swiss fondue. Beside onion soup and fondues, Gruyère is used in croque monsieur sandwiches, in chicken and veal cordon bleu, grated with salads and pastas, or as a fine table cheese pairing well with riesling. Gruyère is also harder than Emmentaler, therefore for suitable for grating.
Last updated: October 12, 2010