icon Soupe à l'Oignon
(Classic French Onion Soup)

Based originally on
Pellaprat's Great Book Of French Cuisine by Henri-Paul Pellaprat (1967)

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.


  • 5 yellow onions, thinly sliced
  • 1 liter of homemade beef stock or consommé
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine
  • 1 tbsp butter
  • 1/2 tbsp plain flour
  • 1 clove garlic
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1/2 tsp thyme
  • Salt, pepper
  • 4 slices of baguette (or large croutons made from crusty white bread), toasted
  • 2 cups Gruyère or Emmental cheese, grated
  • 1/2 cups Parmesan cheese, grated (optional)
  • dash of brandy or cognac (optional)
  • Sprig thyme for garnish


  1. In a large saucepan, heat the butter until foaming. Add 1/2 of the onions, brown them, then and then add the remaining onions. Season with salt. Reduce the heat to low and cook slowly until onions turn deep brown and caramelized, at least 20 minutes. Some chefs continue this step on low heat for as long as 1-2 hours. Stir frequently to prevent the onions from burning even slightly as this would ruin the soup.
  2. When the onions are nicely caramelized, add garlic and sauté for a minute. Sprinkle the flour over the onion mixture, stir and cook for a few more minutes.
  3. Add the beef stock and white wine, increase heat and bring to a boil. Season with thyme, add bay leaf. Reduce heat to low, partially cover and simmer until all flavors are well blended, for about 30-40 minutes. Skim off any fat and floating herbs. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
  4. While the soup cooks, arrange sliced baguette or croutons in a baking tray and toast in the oven at 200 deg F until breads are dry, crisp and golden brown, about 8-10 minutes. Set aside.
  5. Just before the soup is finished and the heat is turned off, add a splash of brandy or cognac.
  6. When the soup is finished and the bread is toasted, prepare soup bowls. Place a couple of thin slices of cheese on the top of one slice of baguette, and place in the bottom of each bowl. Then ladle about 1 1/2 cups of soup over it into each bowl. Cover, allow to stand for 5 minutes and serve. The cheese will melt into the bread and the bread will float to the top of the soup. This is the classic presentation.
  7. Alternatively, place toasted croutons or baguette slices into bowls, ladle soup over it, then top the soup generously with grated Gruyère cheese and sprinkle with Parmesan cheese. Place the assembled soup under a hot broiler until cheese on top melts and turns golden brown, about 5 minutes.
  8. Serve hot from the broiler. Garnish with a sprig of thyme.
  9. YIELD: Serves 4 (as a starter)

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Last updated: October 12, 2010