French Onion Soup & A Lesson About Beef Stock
To start, this wasn’t our first attempt at French onion soup, nor our second. We know how to make this shit. And it’s so easy! However, we were inspired to make it even better — we took Chef Alex’s advice and created a homemade beef stock for our soup. He believes that the key to the best French onion soup is the stock, not the onions. We trusted that he knew what he was talking about (he is French after all, and god forbid that we argue with a Frenchman), so we attempted to make a homemade stock for our soup. By almost any metric this experiment was a total success. However, we felt like it wasn’t — we know we can do better. How exactly did we mess up? Well, keep reading.
If you already know how to make French onion soup, scroll down to the GIF of Chef Alex to read about our first attempt at beef stock.
(Sidenote: if anyone wants to throw us a couple of bucks so we can upgrade to a Business plan on Squarespace so we can use anchor links, that’d be awesome. Shameless self-promotion over.)
How to Make French Onion Soup
First off, you’re going to want to peel and slice at least 3 pounds (1.5kg) of sweet onions (yellow or white, but definitely not red onions). Bust out your best knife and get ready to cry!
🔪 Mediocre Tip: We aren’t kidding about using your best knife. Make sure that bad boy is as sharp as possible. The sharper the knife, the less onion juice gets sprayed around, which means less tears. If you still find yourself crying, try cooling your onions down in the fridge before cutting them. Brittany doesn’t believe that it works, but Trevor swears by it.
Once you’ve cut up all of the onion, you’re going to want to add a decent sized knob of butter and a healthy drizzle of oil to a large pot. Add in your onions and season liberally with salt — the salt will help to draw the moisture out of the onion, speeding the whole process up. Set your burner to a medium-high heat and let the onions do their thing. You’ll want to stir the onions around every few minutes to make sure nothing burns, but for the most part you’re just going to let them cook by themselves.
It will seem like forever, but eventually the onions will begin to turn brown. Not a harsh, burnt, brown colour, but a nice caramel brown. Unsurprisingly, this means that the onions have begun to caramelize. Once everything is a nice deep brown colour, add in a cup of white wine to the pot and start scraping. The goal here is to try and scrape up as much of the brown bits stuck at the bottom of the pot as possible — this technique is called deglazing and will result in an amazing tasting soup.
🍷 Mediocre Tip: The wine that you use for deglazing doesn’t have to be super expensive. We normally choose to use a fairly cheap bottle (such as The Naked Grape Pinot Grigio — $11 per bottle) as the alcohol will get cooked off. What’s more important is to use a dry white wine — nothing too sweet.
You’re going to want to let the onion-wine mixture cook until all the alcohol has been cooked off. The best way to tell if it's been cooked off is to take a deep whiff of the steam. If it stings your nose and smells like a sharpie, there’s still booze in there. Trust us, you want to cook off all the alcohol — any remaining alcohol will make the soup taste bitter and unpleasant.
The next step is to add in a bit of flour — not too much, a tablespoon at most. This will thicken the soup up a bit. If you’d like to keep things gluten free, feel free to skip this step. You won’t lose much. Cook the flour for a minute or two to take the harshness out of it.
The last thing to do is to add the beef stock and an herb bundle. We opted for fresh rosemary, thyme, and dried bay leaves for our herbs. For three pounds of onions you’ll want to add about 1 litre of beef stock.
🌿 Mediocre Tip: Tie your herbs together using a piece of cotton twine so you can easily fish them out of the soup! Or, don’t listen to us and have fun playing Operation with your herbs.
Let it simmer for 30-45 minutes to develop some flavour and congrats, you’ve made French onion soup. To finish, pour the soup into oven safe bowls, top with a few slices of French bread and shredded gruyère (or any other kind of hard, aged cheese), and put it in the oven to broil for fiveish minutes or until the cheese is melted and golden brown. Bon appétit!
🥖 Mediocre Tip: To maximize the flavour, toast your bread slices in the oven beforehand. Let them get toasty and then rub them with half of a clove of garlic while still hot. Trust us, this takes things to the next level.
So, now you know how to make French onion soup. But we haven’t talked about how we messed up. So what’s the deal? Well, our problem lies with the beef stock. As mentioned above, we decided to make some from scratch for this attempt. Let’s talk about that.
Empty Stomachs as a Function of Time: A Beef Stock Tale
- 1:30pm: Trevor arrives at Brittany’s apartment ready to make the beef stock.
- 2:00pm: The beef and vegetable medley is ready to get seared in the oven.
- 2:45pm: Searing is complete, everything is transferred to the pot, water is added, the game is on.
- 3:00pm: Getting real excited for French onion soup. High fives all around.
- 3:03pm: Realization hits that we won’t be eating until approximately 7:30 pm.
- 4:00pm: First taste test of the beef stock — tastes real watery. That’s okay, still have lots of time.
- 4:30pm: Shit, we forgot the cheese.
- 5:00pm: We have acquired the cheese. Taste test number two — the stock is still very watery.
- 5:01pm: “Anyone want to order a pizza?” *stomachs grumble*
- 5:15pm: We don’t want to be here all night. Let's turn up the heat and remove the lid, we need to start concentrating the flavours immediately! *stomach rumbling intensifies*
- 6:00pm: Taste test number three — still watery, but definitely starting to taste more like beef stock. Added salt and pepper to try and get some sort of flavour going.
- 6:30pm: Started making the french onion soup. *mouth salivates*
- 7:15pm: Onions are ready, it’s now or never, there’s no turning back, we’ve hit the point of no return — we’re all out of time for the stock. One last taste test tells us that it tastes, essentially, how beef stock should taste.
- 7:45pm: French onion soup is out of the oven and ready to be eaten. (Fucking finally!)
As you can see in the above timeline, we panicked when our stock (which is supposed to take a long ass time to make) wasn’t developing its flavour quickly enough. So we overcompensated to try and speed up the process. We turned the heat way up and took the lid off. Our thought process was: if we try to maximize the amount of water that evaporates, the flavour should concentrate more quickly. And we were right. What we failed to account for was just how much liquid would evaporate. We started the stock with 3 litres of water and we ended up with 1 litre (actually slightly less after skimming the fat off). Doing some quick math, that’s a 67% loss of liquid.
The first thing you need to know about making beef stock from scratch is that you're going to need a lot of time — at least 5 hours, and that’s the bare minimum. If we were to do this again we would probably set aside 8 hours, and we’d start a lot earlier in the day. That was our misstep. Really, all the other things that happened were all a direct consequence of us not allocating a proper amount of time for this undertaking.
This is what our hubris got us. A measly 1 litre of beef stock, which was just barely enough to make the soup. Originally we planned on increasing our French onion soup recipe yield by 50%. We decided against that fairly early on, and thank god. We wouldn’t have had enough stock.
Our Mediocre Thoughts
👨🍳 Trevor: French onion soup is delicious. This attempt at French onion soup was delicious. Do you know what isn’t delicious? Failure. Our stock tasted fine, our soup tasted fine, but I can’t help but feel like we failed at the stock because of the insane amount of lost liquid.
I knew going into this that making beef stock just for the purpose of using it to make French onion soup wouldn’t be worth it, but I was excited nonetheless to try making stock as it’s something I’ve never done before. I was kind of hoping that there would be enough leftover stock to take some home. But there wasn’t. Because we were impatient. And that’s what bothers me. Had we planned a bit better, we might have been able to get a better yield. But instead, we spent 5+ hours and $25-$30 (and that’s not counting the price of onions, bread, cheese, or the wine) to get just enough beef stock for one meal of French onion soup — granted there were four us to feed, but still.
I do plan on making stock again, but next time I’ll start early in the morning and let it cook low and slow for a good chunk of the day in order to maximize the amount of stock I get. I also wouldn’t make the stock for the sole purpose of making French onion soup unless I was really trying to impress someone. I’d prefer to either have pre-made stock on hand, or just go with the store bought stuff.
👩🍳 Brittany: Before making French onion soup with Trevor, I’d only ever had it once or twice at Boston Pizza. (You can laugh if you want.) Their French onion soup is decent, I guess... but homemade French onion soup is a million times better! It’s easy to make if you use store-bought beef stock, and I’d say it tastes pretty similar compared to using homemade stock. Don’t get me wrong, French onion soup with homemade beef stock tastes better, but not omigodimustforevermakeitwithhomemadebeefstocknow better.
If I didn’t cry so easily cutting onions, I’d probably make French onion soup more often. And if I found myself having more leftover beef bones and beef trimmings, I’d also probably make homemade beef stock more often (buying ingredients for stock seems silly). For now, I’ll be sticking with Better Than Bouillon.
Our Final Review
Taste: 5 très biens out of 5 👌👌👌👌👌
Presentation: 4 handsome French men out of 5 🇫🇷🇫🇷🇫🇷🇫🇷
Affordability: 2 weak Canadian dollars out of 5 💰💰
If you like onions, you’ll like French onion soup. If onions aren’t your thing, this recipe will be a 1/5. We love onions, so naturally, we love French onion soup. Although Chef Alex talks about the beef stock adding a layer of complexity to the soup, in our opinion the star of the soup is the onions. However, the beef stock is still just as important because it balances the soup by taming the flavour of the onions.
Let’s talk about presentation. Our French onion soup isn’t fancy by any means, but we’re giving it points for being in a cute ramekin, having perfectly toasted bread, and having beautifully melted gruyère. French onion soup is a simple and humble recipe. Sometimes the best way to present such a dish is in a simple and humble container.
We made this French onion soup with homemade stock, so we have to rate the affordability with this in mind. The big question is, is it worth it to make homemade stock simply for French onion soup?
There’s a way we can answer this with math! We need to calculate expected yield versus actual yield, factor in the time and fiscal cost, and real versus nominal efficiency. Accounting for all of these micro and macro variables we get:
No it is not worth it. Like we said in our reviews, if you already have some homemade stock on hand, go ahead, and use it. But to spend the 5-8 hours making the stock, just to make French onion soup? No way. Especially if you have to go out and buy the beef scraps and bones like we did.
Chef Alex, if for some reason you have stumbled on to our shitty blog, first of all: Hi, we are huge fans! We’re sorry that we did such a shit job at following your beef stock instructions, and we’re sorry that we don’t think it added much to the soup. But don’t worry, we’re determined to try again someday and fix where we went wrong.
Whether you want to learn how to make your own homemade stock or want to make French onion soup with store-bought stock, we recommend learning how to make French onion soup from someone who knows what they’re talking about. Listen to Alex’s soothing (yet upbeat) French accent here:
Disclaimer: We spent half an hour researching the difference between stock and broth online. We wanted to know if we made a stock, or a broth, or a weird in-between hybrid. And the more research we did, the more confused we got. Some sources say a stock needs to be bone only, whereas a broth should include only meat. Even more sources claim that bone only stock should be called a clear broth, and that the difference is in the mouth feel. We don’t know exactly what it was that we made, but to be consistent with Chef Alex, we’re using “stock” for the meaty, fatty, liquid that was simmered for hours.