Monday, December 13, 2010

Bouchon's French Onion Soup

It has finally gotten cold here (well, cold for the South anyway), which has always been my favorite time to cook because it usually means comfort food, long slow braises, and dark beer to go along with all of that.  For a while now, I've been looking for a reason to make my own beef stock.  I make chicken stock relatively often because it's so readily available - I generally buy whole chickens when I make chicken, so it's easy to store leftover bones and make stock once every other month or so.  Beef stock, however, requires some planning.  I don't generally run out and buy beef on on the bone, so the weather has done me a favor in giving me an excuse to make stock, because really - what better use is there to show off a good beef stock than French Onion Soup?  It basically has 4 ingredients - bread, cheese, beef stock, and onions.  That simplicity makes the quality of the stock incredibly important, which I learned the hard way when I last made this recipe.  I bought premade beef stock from the store - I forget which brand now - but it had a very strange, almost sweet, wine-like, flavor to it.  It ended up being a real detriment to the dish because it came through in every bite.  This time I went all out and made my own stock, and it was absolutely worth it.

Before I really got into the dish, I was thinking about how I might word it out in this entry.  I figured that I would write something cliche like "this is a great casual dish to have on the stove all day on a Sunday."  The fact is that this soup is kind of a pain in the ass to make.  The stock is easy and fits the bill of start early, walk away, come back when it's done.  The soup, however, requires steady attention.  It's certainly not hard, but there are points where forgetting about it for even 15 minutes could lead to trouble.  It's worth it though, it took me to a land of puppy dogs and rainbows, and of course it will taste even better tonight after the stock and the onions have had a night to cozy up next to each other.

The Stock:
5 lb bony beef parts
2 tbsp tomato paste
2 stalks celery
2 peeled carrots
1 large or 2 medium onions (amount you use should double the celery & carrots)
½ head garlic, cut in half
2 tbsp whole black peppercorns
4 sprigs thyme
2 bay leaves
4 sprigs parsley

Regarding the beef parts - you want a good mix of bones and meat.  Bones give the stock body and richness, but the beef flavor itself comes mostly from the meat.  I have seen a lot of recipes suggest "meaty necks."  I'm sure they're great if you can find them, but I had to resort to using shanks.  The guy at the meat counter was super willing to help me by cutting a couple fresh shanks that were mostly bone to counter the ones in the case that were mostly meat.  At first I thought it was going to be overkill to use shanks but I have to say I am really glad that I used them.  The stock had great flavor and I had a small epiphany after straining the stock.  I found myself standing at my sink with like 5.5 lbs of beef shank thinking "am I seriously going to throw this out?"  Generally every stock recipe says to discard all of the solids, but I decided to take a bold step and try the shank before throwing it out. It turned out to be really pretty good, maybe a little bland but nice and tender after 6 hours of essentially braising in its own diluted juices, so I reserved the usable meat for another use.  I am sure that I can make something pretty awesome with it by seasoning aggressively.  Hurray for shanks!

Start by preheating the oven to 400º.  Coat the shanks in tomato paste with your hands and spread them out evenly on a baking sheet.  Try to leave space between them so that they roast instead of steam.  You want them to brown well.  Roast until the top side is brown and then flip and roast again.  Total cooking time should be around 45 minutes.  

When they are done, place the shanks in a big stock pot and cover with cold water.  Deglaze the baking sheet with water as well, scraping up all the brown bits stuck to the pan, then add that liquid to the stock pot.  Set on the stove and bring the liquid up to around 180º.  If the stock gets to the boiling point of 212º, the fat will emulsify into the liquid and give you a greasy stock.  180º is hot enough to extract all of the flavors but it also keeps the fat seperate from the water and allows you to skim easily.  I use a candy thermometer to keep an eye on the temperature, just because it gives me an instant reading.  If it's too hot and it starts to simmer vigorously, drop the heat on the range and add a few ice cubes to the stock. 

Keep the stock on the stove for at least 5 hours before adding the vegetables.  To prep the vegetables, cut them evenly, toss with about 1 tbsp canola oil, and then roast them in the oven for about 45 minutes, mixing often, until they are browned and caramelized evenly.  Add those vegetables to the stock as well as the peppercorns, herbs, and garlic head.  Adding the vegetables at the end gives the stock a fresher taste.  If you added them at the beginning, the flavors would be become muddied over the course of 6 hours.  You want the vegetables to bring brightness to the party.  

Final stage of stock making - you can see the thermometer there to help me out a bit.
Bring the stock back up to 180º after adding the vegetables and let it go for about an hour.  That makes for a total cooking time of at least 6 hours, although you can leave the bones on longer before adding vegetables if you want.  When it's done, strain it through a chinois.  At this point, I picked out the shanks and reserved the meat and bones from them. The meat is for us, the bones were a delectable treat for my #1 kitchen helper canine, Pickle.  Discard the solids from the chinois and then line it with a double layer of cheesecloth.  Pass the strained stock back through the chinois to strain all of the little bits.  You should be left with a nice stock.

The Soup:
(slight variation on a recipe by Thomas Keller, from Bouchon cookbook)
8 lb onions
4 tbsp butter
8 oz Emmentaler or Comte cheese
1 baguette
1.5 tbsp flour
5 sprigs thyme
2 tbsp peppercorns
1 bay leaf
champagne or white wine vinegar

Start by cutting the onions.  Your eyes will hate you after this, so you had better warn them in advance.  Cut the ends off of the onion and then cut in half from pole to pole.  Remove the outer papery layer then look at the inside of the onion.  Pull out the flat interior layers (probably just the first couple) with your fingers or use a knife to pry them out.  Lay the onion flat in front of you.  The general rule here is "always cut with the grain."  You can see the little green ribs on the outside of the onion, you want to cut in the same direction as those. Start slicing from the outside to the center of the core, with the grain, making slices that are about ¼" thick.  Cut slices until you reach the middle, then rotate the onion so that the side you just cut is now flat on the cutting board, then cut the rest.  Basically that step just prevents you from the awkwardness of having to twist your wrist the other way once you reach the middle of the onion.

Repeat that process for all 8 lbs.  You should have enough to fill the stock pot that you are going to use.  Doing some nerdy math here... I used my 5.2 quart dutch oven to make this.  5.2 quarts = 20.8 cups of onions (filled to the brim), which yielded about 2 cups after cooking.  That's a reduction of about 91%.  I guess you could use that ratio if you wanted to adjust the recipe to make more or less.  

Melt the butter over medium heat in a stock pot or dutch oven.  When it is hot, add the onions and about 1 tbsp salt.  Stir well and let the onions reduce. Stir relatively often, about every 15 minutes or so.  The onions will release a lot of liquid and begin simmering in their own juices.  Turn the heat down to med-low when the liquid starts reducing and then keep an eye on the onions.  As they reduce more and more, they will be more succeptible to burning.  Towards the end, the onions will need to be stirred every 5-10 minutes.  Be sure to turn the heat down - you want them to slowly caramelize, not high heat saute.  The total cooking time of the onions will be 4 hours or more.  

Finished onions

During that time, make a cheesecloth satchet with the herbs and peppercorns in it.  Just lay a piece of cheesecloth down, place the herbs in the middle, wrap it up and tie it with butcher's twine.  When they are done, add the flour and cook for about 2 minutes.  Add the finished beef stock and scrape up all of the onion brown bits around the pot.  Add the satchet and bring to a simmer.  Allow the soup to simmer for an hour, until reduced by about 10%.  If you taste it and it is not as flavorful as you would like, let it further reduce.  I got excited and I knew that this was going to be pretty awesome when I tasted it and it was really good even without any seasoning.  It only gets better from there.  When it's done, season to taste with salt and maybe a tsp of vinegar to balance it out.  

THE JAM... actually, the soup
The Croutons:
Slice the baguette into ½" slices.  Brush with olive oil and sprinkle salt on one side.  Broil on both sides until brown but not burnt.  Set aside

The Plating:
Ladle as much soup as you would like into a bowl.  We actually have some french onion crocks, but we were like screw that, we want A LOT OF SOUP.  So we broke out the gusto bowls.  Place the croutons on top but don't press them into the soup.  Slice the cheese and cover the top of the soup with the cheese so that it drapes slightly over the edges.  Shred more cheese and add it to the top.  Broil until the cheese is browned and bubbly.  

We served ours with a makeshift Lyonnaise salad because it is so very French.  It was a very nice comforting meal on a cold wet December night, despite about 11 hours of cooking time for the whole thing!

Served with a pseudo-Lyonnaise salad


  1. wow. 11 hours. That's a serious cook up for soup. Looks amazing though.

    When I lived in NYC there was a little brasserie on the corner of my block and we'd go there for onion soup constantly in the winter... yum.

  2. Looks KILLER! I can almost smell the cheese. i saw those shank pics up top. I noticed they had a fair amount of marrow in them. I hope you scoop that out and eat it on toast next time...

  3. i may have snuck a few marrow bites =D. it's usually roasted though, right?

    i think that i realize now why you don't often see french onion soup at home. obviously keller takes it to the extreme with the like 5 hours of cooking time on the onions, but it's still a fair amount of work for both major components. i would make this again because it's so cravable but i think i would probably break out the beef stock and the soup itself to different days...