It was 1973 and La Bonne Soupe on West 55th Street had recently opened. Schuldenfrei, wanted to expose my class to “le vrai cuisine de la France.” I had recently forced my mother to "bake" frozen croissants, which I liked to stuff with jam. My buddy Jay had threatened to bring maple syrup to pour on his crêpes and was told he'd be in big trouble if he did.
Flash forward to 2015 — same place, same décor, and still serving their classic onion soup, one that’s on par with my subsequent New York City go-tos for this dish, Balthazar and Artisanal (neither of which are really French!). I have to smile as I remember Mrs. Schuldenfrei attempt, too late, to stop Jay from pulling out a little plastic pill bottle he snuck into his coat pocket. The container was filled with maple syrup, of course, which he did indeed pour all over his pancakes — er, crêpes.Just as the availability and quality of croissants and soupe à l'oignon gratinée have improved immeasurably in New York City (and America) since 1973, there has been a recent paradigm shift in onion soup in New York City that should make the French as nervous as the 1976 Judgment of Paris...
But just as the availability and quality of croissants and soupe à l'oignon gratinée have improved immeasurably in New York City (and America) since 1973, there has been a recent paradigm shift in onion soup in New York City that should make the French as nervous as the 1976 Judgment of Paris, when California wines thrashed French wines across the board in a blind tasting — by French judges, no less!
First up, M. Wells Steakhouse in Long Island City, where Montreal’s Au Pied de Cochon alum Hugue Dufour wields a sense of humor similar to that of his former boss, Martin Picard. Dufour serves his French onion soup in a giant casserole dish with what appears to be an entire cow femur sticking out of it. It looks like the most horrific sports injury imaginable. Of course, the femur has been conveniently split in half lengthwise, the better to scoop out the unctuous bone marrow so as to mix back into the incredibly beefy (and porky) broth. It really seems like a bottomless dish of melted Gruyère and an entire loaf of bread.
By contrast, Hunt & Fish Club on West 44th Street is outwardly about as far from M. Wells Steakhouse's converted Long Island City auto-body repair shop as you could imagine. Sparing no expense with mirrors, chandeliers, and 55,000 pounds of imported marble, chef Jeff Kreisel, formerly of Porter House, is paying homage to old New York City steakhouses and places like La Bonne Soupe. But along with the décor, he also beefs up his rendition of the bistro classic. Like Dufour, Kreisel uses bone marrow — though sans actual bone — to deepen the broth’s taste and color. And Kreisel goes one step further: He shreds oxtail into the soup! Every spoon is meaty and cheesy — it’s downright soulful.
Come to think of it, the onion soups at M. Wells and Hunt & Fish Club make all others taste like the equivalent of my mom's Sara Lee frozen croissants.
Recipe: French Onion Soup Casserole
If you’ve got leftover caramelized onions, or you are about to make a recipe that uses them, double up. And while you’re at it, grab that loaf of leftover bread because you are about to embark on a trip to France in one delicious vegetarian casserole based on the famous soupe à l’oignon gratinée.
Caramelized Onions Are a Leftover Rockstar
Caramelized onions are a result of that magical mixture of onions and time, cooked slow and on a low heat, so the onion’s natural sugars come forward and the onions become jammy. This recipe includes making caramelized onions for the base of the casserole, but I do my best to have some on hand almost all the time. Caramelized onions also keep, refrigerated, for about three days in a covered container, and can even be frozen.
A Mini Guide to Caramelized Onions
Stock: The Foundation Flavor in a Vegetarian Casserole
To stock or not to stock? That is the question raised by so many chefs and cooks when it comes to French onion soup’s base. Most onion soups are made with a beef stock, made from browned bones and plenty of vegetables and cooked ad infinitum. This recipe creates its own vegetable stock as you cook the ingredients. It takes less than half an hour and works as a wonderful, supportive base for the incredible caramelized onions. If you start the onions from scratch, assume it’s about an hour of cooking time.
The Joys of Day-Old Bread
Second-day bread is a kitchen wonder. This recipe puts that loaf of bread to full use — creating a mini-grilled cheese sandwich — all right on top of the casserole to soak into the deliciousness below.
What you’ll need to make French Onion Soup
To begin, in a large Dutch oven or soup pot, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the oil, onions, salt, pepper, and sugar.
Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are deep golden brown and caramelized, 45 to 55 minutes.
In the beginning, you will only need to stir the onions only occasionally. As they start to brown midway through cooking, you’ll need to stir them more frequently. Also be sure to scrape the fond (or brown particles) from the bottom of the pan.
Add the wine and raise the heat to high.
Cook, stirring with a wooden spoon to scrape any fond from the bottom of the pan, until almost all of the liquid has evaporated and the onions are jammy, 8 to 10 minutes.
Add the flour.
Cook for about one minute to dissolve the flour.
Add the broth, Worcestershire sauce, thyme, and bay leaves to the pot.
Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to a simmer, and cook, covered, for about 30 minutes. Add the sherry, then taste and adjust seasoning if necessary. If the soup needs a deeper flavor, try a few shakes of Worcestershire sauce. If it’s not quite sweet enough, add 1/4 teaspoon sugar.
While the soup simmers, preheat the oven to 400°F and set an oven rack in the middle position. Arrange the baguette slices in a single layer on a baking sheet.
Bake until the bread is dry, crisp, and golden at edges, about 10 minutes. Set aside.
Adjust an oven rack 6 inches from broiler element and heat broiler. Set individual broiler-safe crocks on a baking sheet and divide the hot soup among the crocks. Be sure the soup is very hot as it won’t warm up much in the oven. Top each crock with 1 or 2 baguette slices (do not overlap slices).
Sprinkle evenly with Gruyère and then Parmigiano Reggiano.
Slide the crocks into the oven and broil until the cheese is melted and bubbly around edges, 3 to 5 minutes. (Alternatively, if using regular soup bowls: Top each toast slice with some cheese and return to broiler to melt, about 2 minutes more. Divide the soup among bowls and top each serving with two cheese toasts.)
Let the French onion soup crocks cool for a few minutes before serving.
CARAMELISED ONIONS – STOVE OR SLOW COOKER
The caramelised onions are the star of the soup (well, on par with the cheesy toast). Making caramelised onions the classic way on the stove takes upwards of 45 minutes for a giant mound like we use for French Onion Soup.
It’s not high-stress or high-energy effort. For most of the time, the onions are cooked over low heat so you just need to stir them every now and then.
It’s the sort of thing that’s good to make while pottering around the kitchen doing other things. My cast iron pot is 24 cm / 10″ wide and it was full to the brim with raw onions and took almost an hour to caramelise. If you have a wider base pot, it will be faster – probably closer to 45 minutes.
Though of course, if this all seems like too much effort for you…… introducing….
Onion Tart inspired by New York City's Lutèce restaurant
I think it was the first time I was in George Webb's. My dad and I were sitting at the counter and my eyes were riveted to the grill. It was loaded with ultra-thin patties of griddling beef with large mounds of sliced onions that slowly shrank as they were tossed and browned.
From my first taste I was hooked on fried onions. It was the slightly sharp caramelized sweetness that elevated that patty to greatness, in my limited experience.
I've become a lifelong aficionado of those deep golden strings. So this past October as we pulled into the small towns that dotted the German Rhine River, I was immediately drawn to one of the few German words I knew: Zweibelkuchen.
This is a yeasted bread dough base covered with onions and/or bacon with just enough custard to hold it together. It varied from town to town, but the best had a nicely browned thick oniony-creamy topping and a rich crispy-bottomed crust.
After consuming my fifth or sixth Zweibelkuchen, I started thinking about the ultimate onion dishes I've had in my life. From the simplest large basket of hand-breaded rings to my first taste of rich, complex onion soup draped in a mantle of golden crispy Gruyere, the one dish that really stood out was the Tarte à l'Oignon, from Lutèce in New York City.
In the '70s, Andre Soltner's Lutèce was the premier French restaurant, not only in New York City, but arguably the entire United States. From my first days in the city, my dream was to accumulate enough extra dollars to eat there.
After months of saving, I secured a lunch reservation on my day off. Entering the smart townhouse on 50th St., we were greeted at the door by Mrs. Soltner, who led us upstairs to a lovely window table overlooking the tree-lined street. For our entrée, we had a salmon trout, deep pink and poached to the point of creamy translucence, it was skillfully deboned tableside, then plated, and an ethereal tart elixir of emulsified shallots, white wine, vinegar and butter slowly pooled around its edges.
As memorable as the fish was, the appetizer was even better. It was elegant simplicity: just onions barely held together by quivering custard and encased in an ultra-thin crisp pastry that evaporated into caramelized butter shards upon touching the tongue.
Chef Soltner was a master craftsman, and his food was technical French perfection elevated even higher with his personal Alsatian imprint. Today's recipe is inspired by that Alsatian classic.
And it doesn't matter if you are a George Webb's or Lutèce fan, this is one onion dish worth crying over.
Onion Tart Makes 8 to 10 servings
2 tablespoons grape seed oil
2 pounds yellow onions (3 large) peeled, cored and thinly sliced from tip to tip
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
6 tablespoons heavy whipping cream
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
Prepare tart shell. Set aside. (This can be done a day in advance.)
For filling: Place a large nonstick pan over medium-high heat. When hot, add oil. When oil is hot, add onions, season lightly with salt and pepper and sauté, stirring regularly, 25 minutes or until evenly golden. Season again to taste with salt and pepper and place on a plate.
In a large bowl, whisk sour cream until smooth. While whisking, add the whole eggs and egg yolk and continue to whisk until smooth. Add whipping cream, milk, the ½ teaspoon kosher salt, 1/8 teaspoon pepper and the nutmeg and whisk together.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Spread onions evenly into prepared tart shell and fluff up with your fingers. Do not press down. With a ladle, pour custard mixture evenly over onions.
Place tart on baking sheet and bake in preheated oven 20 to 30 minutes until just set and light golden on top. Serve warm or at room temperature.
8 ounces (about 1 ¾ cups) flour
½ cup plus 2 tablespoons (1 ¼ sticks) cold unsalted butter, cut into small dice
½ whole egg (beat 1 large egg and measure half)
6 tablespoons chilled water
1 egg white, lightly beaten
You will need a tart pan with a removable bottom (10 or 11 inches in diameter by 1 ½ inches high) for this recipe.
To the bowl of a food processor, add flour and butter and pulse 10 to 15 times until butter is pea size.
In a small bowl, mix egg, water and salt together. Turn processor on and pour mixture in quickly. When ball just starts to form, stop processor. Do not overmix.
Remove dough from processor, dust lightly with flour and form into disc 5 inches in diameter and 2 inches thick. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 1 hour or overnight.
When dough is properly chilled, roll out with a light dusting of flour into a circle about 15 inches in diameter. Dough should be about ¼ inch thick and make sure there are no holes in the dough. Dust off excess flour and place in tart pan making sure dough is in all of the corners. Refrigerate shell for at least 30 to 40 minutes.
Remove shell from refrigerator. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Trim excess dough from edges and cover shell with a piece of aluminum foil (lightly pressed into the corners) and fill with dried beans or rice on top to weight it down.
Bake shell in preheated oven 10 to 12 minutes until sides are set and just starting to color. Remove foil with beans or rice inside, reduce oven temperature to 350 degrees and bake another 8 to 10 minutes. If dough starts to puff, press down lightly with a clean cloth every 3 minutes until lightly golden and cooked, but not too brown. Before last two minutes of cooking, brush inside of tart shell with beaten egg white. You do not have to use all of the egg white. Reserve at room temperature until ready to use.
The Best Homemade French Onion Soup
This is the best Homemade French Onion Soup! It has a generous portion of caramelized onions in a rich, flavorful beef broth made from scratch. Three types of cheese are broiled on top of croutons to melty, toasty perfection.
Everyone knows that the three key ingredients in French cuisine are butter, butter, and butter, but I would argue that there is a fourth. That secret is high quality ingredients. Real cream, quality cheese, fresh, in-season produce, and, of course, butter.
French Onion Soup, at its core, is a very simple soup. It is here that quality ingredients matter.
If you want to turn a good soup into a tantalizing culinary experience, you need to start with homemade beef broth. I’m talkin’ roasted veal and beef bones simmering for hours. Try it. Then you’ll understand.
You will want to make sure that your onions are deliciously caramelized. Almost more than you think is right. Even darker than the pictures in my initial post. They will smell sweet with a note of caramel, and should be a rich caramel brown.
My secret in this recipe? Cognac. There are only 2 tablespoons in 4 servings but this is the flavor that pulls the onions and broth and cheese together and makes a symphony of taste. It is the flavor that your guests won’t quite be able to pinpoint, but they will know there is something truly delightful and different about your French Onion Soup. Cognac.
Gruyere cheese is traditional and you would not be remiss using all gruyere, but I used a medley of gruyere, Swiss, and fontina and it was delicious.
Dig through the cheese and the bread with your spoon and scoop up some of the broth and onions into one complete bite. Marvel as your eyes close and you sigh in pleasure. It is seriously that delicious. Simple done right.
That is what home cooking is all about, right?
I didn’t need an excessive amount of salt in this soup, and that is how I wrote it below. Sometimes salt is a flavor enhancer and sometimes it is compensating for a lack of flavor development. Many a restaurant French onion soup is suffering from this disorder. Sad but true.
Homemade French Onion Soup Recipe
5 medium yellow onions (I sometimes throw one red onion in if I have it)
1 tablespoon of butter
1 tablespoon of olive oil
1 quart of low sodium beef stock
½ cup of your favorite red wine (purists will stick with sherry but I tend to use whatever red is on hand)
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme
Fresh black pepper
For serving the Onion Soup:
Gruyere or Provolone or Swiss cheese
Directions for French Onion Soup Recipe:
Cut each onion in half and then thinly slice each half. Add all of the sliced onion to a large pot with the tablespoon of butter and olive oil. Sprinkle a pinch of salt over the top of the onions. Keep the pot over medium low to low heat, covered and stirring every few minutes. When the onions are fully translucent, about 15 minutes, reduce heat to as low as it will go on your range.
Continue stirring onions on low heat every few minutes. Once onions are fully caramelized raise heat to medium and add in the balsamic and the wine to deglaze the pan. Use a wooden spoon to make sure all of the stuck on parts to the pan get released into the liquid. Let the liquid reduce until there is about half of the liquid left in the pan.
Add in the stock, soy sauce, thyme and black pepper. Keep the heat on medium low and cover. Allow to simmer semi-covered for about 20 to 30 minutes until flavor is fully developed and concentrated.
Ladle the soup into crocks or bowls and top with 2 thick slices of baguette topped with the cheese. Place the bowl onto a baking sheet and under the broiler on high until the cheese is bubbling and golden brown. Serve!
If you have leftover soup I suggest storing it in the freezer in a ziptop bag, and heating it on the stove whenever you’re in the mood for more!
David lebovitz’s french onion soup (from ‘my paris kitchen’)
S OME ONIONS WON’T LAST—you know, the ones whose tops didn’t brown down thoroughly before harvest, and may still look more like a scallion’s stalk, or store-bought ones sitting in that bowl on the counter a little too long. Solution: onion soup, specifically David Lebovitz’s onion soup from “My Paris Kitchen,” one of his popular books.
It’s a soup you can make and enjoy now, or freeze, depending on how many willing yellow onions you can get your hands on, and on whether you can resist eating it all right away. With my first bowlful, I didn’t even manage to wait long enough to melt the cheese on top of the recommended toast. It just smelled too inviting as-is (or was), and then, suddenly, gone.
If you haven’t met David Lebovitz, the story, in brief: In 1999, he left Chez Panisse and a career in the restaurant business. He moved from San Francisco to Paris—where he jokingly says Belgian endive is so inexpensive as to be the French version of “trash” lettuce, and reports there are more than 1,260 bakeries. Packing up little more than his best skillet, cookbooks and trusty laptop, David turned to writing, and his 2011 memoir, “The Sweet Life in Paris” (Amazon affiliate link), became a “New York Times” bestseller.
His website is likewise a giant hit (and has an e-newsletter I enjoy).
No wonder. Besides having a way with food, he is a delicious storyteller, too, always layering in the essential ingredients of humor, tenderness and accessibility—even when he’s “remastering the classics” as is the stated goal of “My Paris Kitchen.”
He leaves his mark on coq au vin and croque-monsieur, cassoulet and lamb tagine, and delicious frites (made in the oven, a nod to the fact that most of us don’t have a deep-fryer in the kitchen the way French households often do). And there is dessert, of course David was for many years a pastry chef. To the chocolate-dulce de leche tart, the salted butter caramel chocolate mousse, and coffee crème brulee, I say, help me! But there are simpler choices such as madeleine, too.
And there is the French onion soup—but not with beef stock, as is the tradition. David uses chicken stock, specifically homemade. (Small example of David humor: On his website FAQ page, he answers the inquiry about, “Finding Canned Chicken Stock in France” with, “You can’t.”)
I’m a vegetarian, so I skipped the chicken stock that David suggests in his recipe notes below, using vegetable instead (or half water and half vegetable stock if the stock is insistent-flavored). And as I said, I skipped the cheese, at least the first time around, as you can see in my monastic photo at the top of the page, compared to the positively elastic, in-action one from David’s book just below. Now seeing his version, who can resist this recipe from “My Paris Kitchen“?
French onion soup (soupe à l’oignon)
recipe below copyright by David Lebovitz, from “My Paris Kitchen” photo above from the book, copyright Ed Anderson (used with permission).
By David Lebovitz
Beef stock is thought to be traditional in this soup, but it’s heavier, and I rarely have beef stock on hand, so I use chicken stock. For a heartier stock, you can roast the chicken bones in a 400ºF (200ºC) oven on a baking sheet for 30 to 45 minutes, until well browned, then use those bones to make the stock.
- 4 tablespoons (2 ounces/55g) unsalted butter
- 2½ pounds (1.2kg) yellow or white onions, peeled and very thinly sliced
- 1 teaspoon granulated sugar
- 2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
- 2 teaspoons sea salt or kosher salt, plus more if needed
- 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus more if needed
- 2 teaspoons all-purpose flour
- ¾ cup (180ml) white wine or sherry
- 2 quarts (2l) chicken stock
- 1 to 2 teaspoons sherry vinegar or balsamic vinegar, plus more if needed
- 6 thick slices hearty white bread, or about 18 thick-sliced pieces of baguette, well toasted
- 1 to 2 cloves garlic, peeled and left whole, for rubbing the bread
- 3 cups (255g) grated Emmenthal, Comté, or Gruyère cheese
1. Melt the butter in a large pot or Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the onions and sugar and cook for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally, until soft and translucent.
2. Add the garlic, salt, and pepper and continue to cook for 1½ hours, stirring less frequently and decreasing the heat to avoid burning as the onions continue to cook down. (You may wish to use a flame diffuser if your cooktop doesn’t allow low enough heat.)
As the onions cook, if they brown on the bottom of the pan in places, use a spatula to scrape those appetizing brown bits into the onions because they’ll add flavor. The onions are done when they have collapsed into a thick amber-brown paste.
3. Stir in the flour and cook, stirring constantly, for 1 minute. Add the wine and use a flat utensil to loosen any and all brown bits from the bottom and sides of the pan, stirring them into the onions. Add the stock, bring to a boil, then decrease the heat and simmer slowly for 45 minutes. Turn off the heat and add the vinegar, tasting it to get the balance right, adding a touch more vinegar, and salt and pepper, if desired.
4. Preheat the oven to 400ºF (200ºC). Set six ovenproof bowls on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper or aluminum foil.
5. Divide the hot soup among the bowls. Rub both sides of the toasted bread slices with the garlic. Put the toasts on the soup, then sprinkle the tops with the grated cheese. Bake the soups on the upper rack of the oven until the cheese is deeply browned, about 20 minutes. Alternatively, if your bowls can withstand the heat, you can set the cheese-topped soups under a hot broiler, cooking them until the cheese is melted and starting to brown.
More from david lebovitz
- Visit David Lebovitz’s website, a mix of recipes, plus Paris-centric tips and restaurant recommendations. is full of newsy tidbits, many of them food-centric, and his Twitter stream has a massive audience. And of course he is on Instagram.
Enter to win ‘my french kitchen’
I BOUGHT AN EXTRA COPY of David Lebovitz’s “My French Kitchen” (Amazon affiliate link) to share with a lucky reader. To enter, all you have to do is answer this multi-part question in the comments box below the last comment on this page. (Note: the giveaway is over.)
Do you grow onions? Have you ever made onion soup? (If not, what’s your most onion-centric dish?)
No answer? That’s fine just say “count me in” or the equivalent, and I will. But an answer is even better. I selected a random winner after entries closed at midnight Sunday, September 14, 2014, and another book for another round of the giveway that ended Tuesday November 19, 2019. Good luck to all.
French Onion Brisket
When we set out to find the ultimate brisket recipe, it made a lot of sense to turn to Jake Cohen, a self-described &ldquonice Jewish boy&rdquo and New York City&ndashbased chef known for his mouthwatering recipes.
According to Cohen, there are two schools of thought in the world of Jewish brisket: tomato or no tomato. &ldquoI grew up in a tomato household, where anything other than a crimson braise would be damn near blasphemy,&rdquo Cohen told us. &ldquoHowever, as the one who now cooks any holiday feast, I took a trip to the dark side and converted my family with a new take on the centerpiece dish.&rdquo
That&rsquos when French onion brisket was born. &ldquoTons and tons of caramelized onions provide the same sweetness as tomatoes, and a glug of sherry wine adds the acidity you need to cut through the richness of the meat,&rdquo he explained. This recipe is guaranteed to convert even the most devout tomato braiser. and everyone else too.
PureWow&rsquos Chef in Residence program invites food influencers and tastemakers from all over the world to create new recipes in our New York City test kitchen.
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
5 medium yellow onions, thinly sliced
Chopped parsley and chives, for garnishing
1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Pat the brisket dry with paper towels season liberally with salt and pepper. Heat the oil in a large, wide Dutch oven or roasting pan over medium-high heat. Sear the brisket, turning as needed until completely golden brown, 20 to 25 minutes. Transfer to a sheet pan.
2. Add the garlic and onions to the Dutch oven and reduce the heat to medium. Cook, stirring often, until softened and caramelized, 25 to 30 minutes.
3. Add the sherry to deglaze, then stir in the stock and season with salt. Return the brisket to the pot and add the rosemary and thyme. Once the liquid begins to simmer, cover and cook in the oven until tender, about 3 hours. Remove from the oven and let cool, then refrigerate overnight.
4. The next day, remove the brisket from the pot and slice it against the grain into ¼-inch slices. Return the meat to the pot and warm over medium heat adjust seasoning with salt. Garnish with chopped parsley and chives before serving.
One-Pot French Onion Soup With Porcini Mushrooms
Romulo Yanes for The New York Times. Food Stylist: Vivian Lui.
This version of the classic French soup simmers and bakes in a Dutch oven, while the toast broils right on top. Dried porcini mushrooms, fresh fennel and leeks provide deep umami flavor. Unless you have homemade beef stock on hand, go with a good chicken stock rather than boxed beef stock, which tastes mostly of salt. You could opt for vegetable stock for a vegetarian version, but skip the demi-glace, in that case. The preparation of this soup is time-consuming, but the flavor is well worth the effort. You can make the soup through Step 5 up to two days ahead of time. When ready to serve, reheat on the stove then continue with the final baking step for a hearty communal feast.