What’s French for onion soup?

QuickTime video

In France, this ubiquitous soup is known simply as “gratinée” by virtue of the de rigueur melted Gruyère cheese on top.

Our travels through Quebec brought me into contact with the real thing (not a packet mix) for the first time, so of course we had to try and make it ourselves. Last episode we made beef stock as the base, and in this instalment we finish the process of creating French onion soup from scratch.


It was a bit of a tearjerker for Lenny, who had to slice all the oignons because I was busy with bookkeeping.

I’m sure you could just use shop-bought beef stock, but then you’d miss all the fun of making your own starting with just bones, water, vegetables and a few simple spices.

We had been a bit surprised by how light in colour and flavour our stock was, and some viewers have suggested we could have boiled it down to make it stronger. In the end, though, I think it was about right; a stock isn’t there to provide the primary flavour of a dish, and I don’t recall our Quebec gratinée experience being a particularly beefy one.

Two other examples of Quebec cuisine that caught our attention: Tourtière à la québécoise, a meat pie; and cipaille or “sea pie”, a layered meat dish crammed with different species.

Sea pie crops up repeatedly in Patrick O’Brian’s “Master and Commander” book series, as a dish made from whatever leftovers are at hand or whatever species are within musket shot. I’m sure it must be the same thing.

I reckon we’ll attempt cipaille sometime, accompanying it with another batch of gratinée of course.

– Waz

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14 Responses to “What’s French for onion soup?”

  • Woohoo, first post! ^_~

    Looked gorgeous, I’m glad to hear the beef stock worked out though, have to say, in its jelly form it looked a bit nasty though. I’m going to be trying this dish myself, on Sunday next week I think, but I haven’t the time to make the stock, so, would you recommend one for me, that is reasonably suitable?

  • Laura, are you in the UK? I’m told Waitrose do pretty good stock and you can find it in the refrigerated section. Otherwise, Knorr makes stuff that comes in those soft tetra-style packs. And I’ve seen another brand in cans with silvery-maroon labels from memory. Stock cubes to be avoided at all costs!
    – Waz.

  • Bonjour Lenny and Waz!
    Looked like a great gratinée! Keep up the good work, I look forward to the next recipe! You guys look like you have so much fun in the kitchen. -Natalie Montréal, Québec

  • Laura,

    I just checked in a local Waitrose and they had some fresh stock available. It was in the meat section, I only saw it in a 300ml size, and it seemed really expensive for that amount. You get slightly more with the Knorr stuff, which is in the aisle with all the powdered stock.

    But I really think your best solution is to bite the bullet and make your own
    stock starting with bones. Cut a few corners: you could just roast the bones and not the veg, or even grill the bones, or brown them in a pan, to speed things up. Once you’ve chucked everything in the pot to simmer there really isn’t much more to do except pour/scoop/siphon off the fat at the end and enjoy the results! Someone suggested an easy way to remove the fat is let the stock cool so the fat solidifies on top. And the herbs and spices used are probably subjective too – in a pinch you could most likely get by with just salt and pepper.

    Good luck,

  • To me french onion soup will always be the way my mom makes it with a recipie from her old good housekeeping illustrated cookbook, which includes puting the bread in the soup not toasting it, but other versions are always good. I’ll have to try this out when I have the time to make some stock. Thanks.

  • Hello Lenny and Waz,

    Enjoy your podcasts. About the color of the stock: if you want a really brown stock, you put the brown husk of the onions (wash it before you peel it off) in the stock, let this simmer with the meat and vegetables.
    Tried the Brandy in the soup today, it was ok, never did it before.

    Claudio, from the Netherlands.

  • I think i’m also going to give his recipe a go. i think i’m gonna trying using either a mushroom stock or this really good vegetarian chicken stock though. The only thing i’m afraid of is the clean up from the onions that burn onto the pot…

    Thanks a lot for the episode.

  • I guess it’s too late now, but I just saw a tip for cutting onions.. apparently all of the enzymes/gases makes you cry is mostly concentrated in the base/core of the onion.

    So if you remove it (take a conical piece out of the onion from the bottom) or just avoid slicing into it, you shouldn’t have very many tears.

    The soup looks great tho!

  • This looks excellent! I might try adding the wine to deglaze the onions after you browned them, to get all the tasty bits off the bottom of the pan, or maybe even flamed it with brandy.

    I can’t wait to have enough money to buy the ingredients and make this for myself.

    Love your shows!

  • holy moly that looks good!

    nice blog you guys have here – i’ve got you bookmarked. i just moved out on my own and need all the help i can get so your video blog’s awesome.

    .. and you’re aussie so that gives you extra points =P

  • I am vegitarian and can not find veggy French soup anywhere!

  • Just a couple thoughts to deepen color and strengthen broth without reducing, although I agree that additional time is probably the best bet. First, you can also roast the vegetables, and you can add roasted vegetables later after the first full batch of bones and vegetables have simmered several hours. Basting the new vegetables with some of the skimmed froth before roasting them gives additional carmelization. Second, you can re-roast the bones. In each case, make sure you deglaze the roasting pan and don’t burn it. Consider juice of half a lemon added to the deglazing broth (take that from the top of the simmering stock). You can also add either bean sprouts or a woody mushroom (shitake is good–dried is fine) to the broth. One or both of these deepens the flavor. Reducing does enhance flavor, but if you add water at all, consider potato water, which like the broth, can be frozen from earlier meals. The starch adds a bit of thickness. I’m usually looking more for the stock, and not necessarily for soup but for gravies and sauces. Noting B’s interest in Vegie French Onion Soup…I’ve not done that…but if you used leaks and garlic with the intital veggie roast, perhaps some varieties of mushroom and bean sprouts, that might make a reasonable exchange. With some nice wine, that could be a two bottle job best saved for the weekend with a boxed set of your favorite TV show and no place to go the next day. After a couple glasses, you can always baste the second roasting of bones and new vegies with half a glass of your wine added to a bit of broth. The carmelization gives you the deep color and deglazing all the darkened vegies, bones and dripping gives you the deeper flavor.

  • I just responded to a post at Brandon Eats about French Onion soup. For years I made mine with red wine (red wine-beef stock, logical right?) but it never turned out exactly right until I tried it with white wine. For some reason that defies logic, it made the finished product just perfect

  • What cheese can we use instead of Gruyare cheese?

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