I had my first taste of French Onion Soup when I was 18. My parents drove me to college, helped me unpack, and then took me out to dinner before bidding me farewell. I didn’t know a soul at school, and my nerves got the better of me at dinner when I cried all over my meal. My poor parents. Definitely not the sendoff they were hoping for.
Fortunately I rallied and thrived in college. Likewise, I’ve tasted many bowls of French Onion Soup since that first memorable bite, and, I have to say, there are a lot of BAD versions out there: too salty, too cheesy (yes, there is such a thing), too many onions, not enough onions, poorly seasoned broth, giant, soggy hunks of bread….just not right. My favorite place to get French Onion Soup was a local French cafe that closed last year. They did it right. So I resolved to figure out how to make it myself. And I think it came out pretty darn good.
A couple things to remember: 1) Caramelizing onions takes time. Plan for it. 2) Beef broth is key, as is a combination of red wine and dry sherry. 3) Melting your cheese all over the top of the cup is pretty to look at but not practical to eat. Toast your cheesy bread separately instead and float it in your bowl. (This way you can make extra, too. Score!)
Once those onions are caramelized, this soup comes together quickly. It makes a great starter for any meal, but I’ve been eating it for lunch all week (along with most of a baguette!). You can dabble with other cheeses if you don’t have access to any Gruyere, but I highly recommend searching it out. The nutty flavor is a perfect match for this soup. Besides, do you really need an excuse to buy more cheese?
Melt butter in a large pot over medium-low heat. Add onions, garlic, bay leaf and dried thyme to the pot. Stir to coat and cook for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add sugar and cook for another 20-40 minutes or until golden brown in color, stirring occasionally. Season with salt and pepper.
Increase the heat, add wine and sherry to the onion mixture and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and cook until the liquid is evaporated, about 10-15 minutes. Remove the bay leaf.
Sprinkle the onions with flour and gently stir to coat. Reduce heat to medium-low and cook for 8-10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Pour in beef broth and simmer soup until heated through. Add additional salt and pepper to taste.
Preheat broiler. Place baguette slices on a baking pan and top with grated Gruyere. Broil until cheese is melted and bread edges are toasted.
Ladle soup into bowls and float cheese toasts on top of soup. Serve immediately.