Taking On: Panera’s French Onion Soup

Taking On: Panera’s French Onion Soup

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I love French Onion soup, like really love it. The flavors are bold: onions, meld with wine and thyme, with the savory sweet flavor that can only be obtained through thoroughly caramelizing sugars. In restaurants copious amounts of cheese and bread are used cover a multitude of flavor sins– and not just for soup– but remove the carb and cheese-fest and you’re left with a rather drab bowl in some cases. Unfortunately, Panera, in this case I’m talking to you. I’m also a little lazy when it comes to complex dishes, so I can appreciate why you maaay have cut some corners in creating your soup- the onions are in little pieces (characterized by being chopped by a food processer) for instance. However, I don’t excuse the lack of complexity in flavor, which is so easy to obtain, but needs to be layered in from the beginning to create a truly delicious French onion soup

The Recipe:

4 Large Red Onions (or 5 Small), sliced in thin half moons. **If chopping them by hand, try and keep them even as possible in size– if you have a big range in thickness, the smallest pieces will be burned before the largest pieces are cooked through

2 Tbsp. Salted Butter

2 Tbsp. Extra Virgin Olive Oil

1 32 oz Carton of Free Range Low-Sodium Chicken Broth

1 16oz can of Beef Broth

1 1/4 Cups Red Wine (I used Pinot Noir– this recipe is forgiving though: just use something you also want to drink– believe it or not, I’ve also substituted Chardonnay with tasty results)

1 Cup Water

1/4 tsp. of Salt

1 tsp. dried Thyme

3 Bay Leaves

1 Tbsp. Balsamic Vinegar

1-2 tsp. sugar (optional)

Putting it together:

1. Slice your onions in half lengthwise (cutting through the root and where the stem was– this will allow your onion to hold together while you slice it). Cut the slices evenly as possible, in roughly 1/2 cm thick slices. As a note– this recipe calls for Red Onions– Sweet onions are natural substitutions, but if you use yellow onions, you may want to sprinkle them with 1 tsp. of sugar while sautéing- they have fewer available sugars and so will take longer to caramelize otherwise. Just keep a very close watch on them if you choose to do so– the sugars will go from caramelized to burned relatively quickly

2. You want to work in 2 batches to promote caramelization of the onions. You can choose to either do both batches sequentially in the same (large) pot, or use a deep high-walled sauté pan to do half of your onions simultaneously. Either way, you will divide your butter and olive oil, so that each half of your onions gets 1 Tbsp Olive Oil and 1 Tbsp butter. Allow the oil to heat and begin to melt the butter before adding your onions. Don’t skimp on the fat at this stage– you need to really coat your onions in fat to get a good caramelization (and prevent gumminess). Sprinkle each half with a pinch of salt (1/8 tsp).

3. For the first portion of the cooking process, leave the onions to sit (don’t overly stir them)– it’s just like browning meat– if you constantly move it, it can’t develop a good sear. Once you start to notice browning, keep a close eye, stirring once or twice a minute. It will take approximately 20 minutes to caramelize completely (less if you add a tsp of sugar).

4. When your onions have shrunk to 1/2 of their previous size, and are all caramelized looking (don’t jump the gun– having not fully caramelized onions in your soup is a bit of a downer) combine the onions together into your large stockpot. Now it’s time to deglaze your pan(s). If you used 2 pans, pour about a cup of your chicken stock into the sauté and the rest in your stock pot. Take a wooden spoon and scrape the bottom of your pot(s). Really work to get the caramelized bits off the bottom of the pan– this is where your flavor is. If using a 2nd pan (carefully) pour the deglazed onion- chicken stock into your larger stock pot.

4. Add your beef broth, red wine, water, and bay leaves to your pot. Take your 1 tsp. of thyme and crush it between your palms as you sprinkle it in.

5. Bring up to a boil and then simmer for 20 minutes.

6. At this point we’re finishing off the soup. Add the balsamic vinegar and taste. Onions, like all agricultural products, tend to vary by season– if it tastes flat to you– try adding 1-2 tsp of sugar.

Serve with sliced, toasted baguette (or my favorite a crusty seed bread) and low-fat swiss cheese (you’ll never notice the difference).