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Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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« Weather Delay | Main | Another Cold-Weather Recipe: Chicken Pot Pie »

December 28, 2010

A Cold-Weather Recipe, By Request: Onion Soup

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Posted by Derek

If there's big pharmaceutical news going on right now, it hasn't reached me. So in the spirit of taking time off, here are some things I've been making here at home while the wind rattles the windows.

First up is French onion soup. I use pretty much the procedure that the Cooks Illustrated people recommend. Take half a dozen onions (this should be a bit over 3 lbs, or 1.5 kg) and slice them fairly thinly. The Cooks people recommend red onions, and those certainly work well, but I've used all sorts (and mixtures of whatever's on hand). Now comes the only time-consuming part: cook these in a pot with butter (2 tablespoons, or about 30 grams) over medium-to-low heat, stirring frequently, until they're quite dark but not burnt. This will take at least half an hour, and probably more. If you're using a conventional pot (not nonstick), you'll have a lot of stuff stuck to the sides, so be careful that it doesn't burn. This is the key step in the whole preparation: well-browned onions are the crucial ingredient, without which all is lost.

Now add a mixture of beef broth (2 cups, 500 mL) and chicken broth (6 cups, 1500 mL). I sometimes have the latter around frozen from previous chicken preparations, otherwise, you can use canned. Beef broth I almost never have around, for one reason or another, so that's almost always canned. (Note - using all canned beef broth makes a fairly nasty soup, while using all chicken broth makes an edible, but rather chicken-centric one). This step will loosen up all the caramelized onion stuff and get things into suspension, if not into solution. You can also add a half cup or so (125 mL) of red wine at this point if you like. Season it all with dried thyme, salt, and pepper to taste, add a bay leaf, and simmer the mixture gently for at least fifteen minutes. (If it goes longer, you can add a bit of water to bring the volume back up). Check the taste at this point - you might like it with more of a bite, in which case a few mLs of balsamic vinegar added to the pot will help out.

You can have this as is, or go the traditional gratineé method, with toasted bread and cheese on top. I use whatever's on hand in the bread department, just making sure that it's cut fairly thick and is well toasted, and then add some sort of Swiss-ish cheese - your choice. (You can even go as far, and as non-traditional, as mild Provolone, but I don't think that sharp cheddar (for example) would be a very good idea). The best way to do all this is probably to put the soup in some sort of heat-resistant bowl, plop in the bread, cover that with cheese, and run the whole thing under a broiler.

This, to me, is one of the best meals for very cold weather - I can't imagine eating it in July. Next post: chicken pot pie.

Comments (17) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Blog Housekeeping


1. Curt F. on December 28, 2010 5:38 PM writes...

Interesting recipe. I've tended to follow versions that have the onions on low heat for up to 6 hrs or in the oven overnight, also with good success. Lower heat and longer time seems like it makes it harder to burn.

I like the idea of mixing the two broths; I'd just used chicken broth in prior attempts.

I usually add white wine (not red) and sometimes a small amount of apple cider, but plenty of times I've added too much cider or wine and turned what had been on the verge of being great soup into dreck. I've had people serve me the red wine version and I think I am starting to like red better.

For cheeses, I like Gruyere.

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2. Derek Lowe on December 28, 2010 9:41 PM writes...

Gruyere's definitely a traditional favorite in this soup, but when it's hot, it's too pungent for my taste. If you like that, though, it's definitely the one to have, or maybe Emmanthaler. Another good thing to try is mixing cheeses - a milder Swiss with some Asiago, Parmesan, or Romano on the top for more oomph, e.g. Those sharper, dryer cheeses don't melt all that well on their own, anyway.

You're right about the wine/cider/vinegar addition; you have to use a light hand and sneak up on it. I over-acidified a batch one time on my own, and brought it back closer to edible with some sodium bicarb. Made things a bit salty, but that beat having it at pH 4. . .

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3. dl on December 28, 2010 10:44 PM writes...

So I've made this in a crock pot beofre and it turned out quite good. (mind you we have one of those ones where the pot can also be used on the stove burners and did initial browning that way for flavor and let them soften on low heat) This way is nice I find because of low burnt onion chances.
Side note: veal stock is the traditional stock for this, but since most people dont have the marrow bones of tiny cows around thier house this is less of an option, thus cutting beef with chicken broth.

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4. momrowgal on December 28, 2010 11:52 PM writes...

Wind really sucked yesterday. Will have to try your recipe, Derek--sounds delicious.

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5. pc on December 29, 2010 12:48 PM writes...

That's the difference between the recipe from a real chemist and from regular cooks! Detailed instructions and explanations. No confusions. However I guess you forgot about the yield. How many people can the soup mentioned normally serve?

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6. Sigivald on December 29, 2010 1:43 PM writes...

Vegetable broth has a good flavor, too. (And is useful if you have to feed a vegetarian.)

pc: As a main course, I'd expect it to feed at least six, having made essentially the same dish more than once.

(Actual servings depend on the hunger of the diners, how much bread and cheese you add, etc.)

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7. John on December 29, 2010 2:55 PM writes...

Your local butcher can provide the veal bones, then see this.

If that's too much trouble, reduced veal stock (glace de veau) can be purchased locally or online.

The taste is quite different from beef or chicken, so you should give it a try at least once.

Restaurants generally do the onions in the oven, since stirring needs a lot of attention and can more easily go wrong.

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8. Nick K on December 30, 2010 7:20 AM writes...

Sounds like a great recipe... I think I'll try it at home. Incidentally, I've only ever seen this kind of French Onion Soup in the States, never in France. Soupe à l'oignon à la française isn't as good, in my opinion.

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9. Vocci on December 30, 2010 8:30 AM writes...


I made it last night and it came out awesome. I added a little (~20-25 ml) olive oil to the butter-onion browning step, which by the way would have gone a lot smoother with a fume hood.


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10. Danny Dave on December 30, 2010 9:20 AM writes...

Eagerly waiting for the chicken pot pie recipe. I hope I would have all the ingredients at home since going to the supermarket is really a hassle.

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11. Dr. Demento on December 30, 2010 8:58 PM writes...

Cooks Illustrated is the way to go for fool-proof cooking that is written in a manner that definitely appeals to chemists. We used to have maybe 20-30 cookbooks, but once we discovered CI, we chucked them all and now just have 2 cookbooks from them. Some of the recipes are pretty involved, but I've never had one go bad on me yet. Sometimes I think that when it all goes bad in Pharma, I'd love to go work there.

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12. Mike on January 1, 2011 2:30 PM writes...

Interesting, the recipe I found only called for beef broth. I wouldn't call the result "nasty", but it was definitely off. I blame AllRecipes :) I will definitely give this a try with the mixture of broths, thank you very much for posting it!

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13. LeeH on January 3, 2011 9:23 AM writes...

Try Gruyere cheese on the top, and sherry instead of wine (probably less by volume).

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14. Moebius on January 4, 2011 1:38 PM writes...

I like adding white wine and a bit of scotch (an inexpensive one). Another good trick is to sprinkle a tsp of sugar while browning the onions. It helps the whole caramelization process.

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15. Ambidexter on January 9, 2011 11:08 PM writes...

Veal broth is traditionally used for this soup. The onions have to be caramelized slowly over low heat. If the heat is too high the onions will burn and become bitter.

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16. BernD on January 10, 2011 5:35 PM writes...

In Indian Cuisine, the onions are slowly fried in ghee, a substance resembling butter but being way fattier.

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17. Miriam Rita on July 20, 2012 3:15 AM writes...

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