This Vegetarian French Onion Soup is a celebration of the onion. Instead of beef broth, which masks the onion, the slowly caramelized onions make their own sweet, deeply flavorful broth as they cook. For a faster cook-time– caramelize your onions ahead of time and freeze them!
Do you ever have ‘ah ha!’ moments? Moments where suddenly, everything makes sense, and your world will never be the same again? I had one of those moments recently– about onions. (Don’t stop reading, guys! It’s good– I swear!) Specifically, my ‘the skies opened and everything was clear’ moment was about French Onion Soup. You’ve eaten French Onion Soup, right? Have you tried to make it? Have you heard the warnings about using high-quality broth so as not to not ruin the hours and hours you’ve spent caramelizing onions into perfect, amber goodness? The warnings are true, to an extent, because bad broth WILL RUIN your soup. However, and this is a big however, you don’t need to add broth at all, because the onions make their OWN BROTH. (If you’re staring in horror at your screen– stay with me!) The broth you’ll get from simply using well-caramelized onions, hot water, and a little wine, is INCREDIBLE. It’s so incredibly delicious, that when I tasted it– I immediately threw away all my other Vegetarian French Onion Soup recipes, because it was one of the best things I’ve ever eaten.
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If you’re staring at your screen, skeptical and full of doubt, I felt the same way– before I tried it! (If you think I’m being over-dramatic now, keep reading.) The first time I heard of this wild, crazy idea to leave out the extra broth, I was reading straight through a cookbook (as one does– wait, people do that, right?). Specifically, I was reading Michael Ruhlman’s book, Ruhlman’s Twenty, where he argued that French Onion Soup was originally a peasants’ dish, and peasants wouldn’t have always had access to pricey bone broth. I wasn’t convinced yet, but in theory, I loved it. Once I made it this way, however, I was SOLD. I mean, let’s think this through. Caramelizing onions is a labor of love– it takes time for the onions to release all their juices, and slowly caramelize into the little strands of goopy food gold. As soon as we finish painstakingly extracting every ounce of flavor that onion has– what do we do? Cover it up with flavor from the broth! Well, no more! Stop the madness– let the onion shine! (Maybe I can get a job as an onion advocate– is that a thing?) Have I convinced you yet? Are you going to give it a try?
Caramelizing Onions – A Labor of Love
First things first– let’s talk onions. To make an onion soup featuring the deeply complex flavors of caramelized onions– you’re going to have to caramelize them very well. You don’t need special, hard to find, extra expensive onions– yellow onions will work just fine. Grab about eight (yes that’s right– eight) onions. Peel them, slice them, and get started. Budget anywhere from 2-5 hours to caramelize them.
Next, get out a soup pot– It needs to be big. 7 quarts is ideal for 8 onions– if your pot is smaller, like mine is, try breaking the onions up into two pots. The wider the base of your pot, and the higher your heat, the faster they’ll caramelize. Avoid turning the heat higher than medium-low, and remember that the lower the heat, the sweeter the results. (Normally, I cook mine on low for about an hour and a half, and then get impatient and crank the heat to medium-low for another half-hour.)
What kind of pot should you use? Ideally, use an enameled cast iron pot. (I use a dutch oven from Lodge.) Why does the pot matter? For one thing, the heavier your pot is, the more evenly it’s going to distribute the heat to your food. For caramelizing onions, this matters. Stainless steel is lighter, and the onions will tend to cook a little faster (yay!) but that means they won’t be quite as sweet (boooo!).
Another reason to pick an enameled cast iron pot for this soup is because we’re going to ‘deglaze.’ (In other words– when the onions finish cooking, they’re going to leave caramelized bits stuck to the bottom of the pot. We’re going to crank the heat up, and pour wine in the pot to pull all that yumminess off the pot and back into the onions.). Stainless steel works well for deglazing, but in my opinion– enamel works even better, because the caramelized bits are less likely to burn. (If you want to use a regular cast iron pot– be careful– deglazing with wine can pull the seasoning off the pan.) If you don’t have an enamel cast iron pot, don’t cry! (Unless you’re crying because of the onions– if that’s the problem, see the tips below!) Stainless steel will work well– you just have to watch the onions a little bit more closely than with enameled cast iron.
If you’re reading this thinking, “That’s insane– when do I have 2, 3, 4 hours to make dinner?!” It’s true. Caramelizing onions is time consuming, and there’s no cheating, because they won’t be as sweet if you rush it. HOWEVER– you can make these onions in large batches on a day when you DO have time, freeze them, and then you’re golden! Use them anytime– including days when dinner needs to be FAST!
Making Vegetarian French Onion Soup
Once your onions have caramelized, it’s time to deglaze. Crank the heat up to medium-high, and pour in some wine. Let the wine boil down, and then add hot water and rosemary. Bring the soup to a boil, and then lower the heat to a simmer. Taste your soup, add more water if the onions are too strong, and then turn on your oven’s broiler.
If you’ve got oven-safe bowls, set them on a baking sheet, and ladle soup into your bowls. Add some slices of crusty bread to the soup, and top it all off by shredding as much cheese as your little heart desires. Set the baking tray carefully in the oven, and cook until the cheese is golden and bubbly. If you don’t have oven-safe bowls, just brown the cheesy bread separately on a baking sheet, and then plop it into your soup. I like to top my soup off with some diced green onions, but I’m just a little crazy like that. Onion soup, topped with onion? Why not! Before you know it, you’ll be an onion-caramelizing maniac, shouting about your love of onions from the rooftops and devouring bowl after bowl of cheesy, wonderful, onion-tastic soup.
Note: Traditionally, French Onion Soup is topped with Gruyère, but I also love it with sharp white cheddar cheese. Use whatever cheese you love best.
Onion Cutting Tips
If you haven’t figured it out, you’ll be cutting up a lot of onions to make this soup. If cutting up onions makes your eyes water badly, try these few tricks:
- Don’t wear glasses if you don’t have to!! Obviously I’m not advocating blindly cutting your onions, but if you are able to wear contacts, I’ve found this helps tremendously. The fumes get caught between the glasses and your eyes.
- The husband swears using a serrated knife makes the onion fumes worse. Make sure you’re using a sharp, smooth-bladed knife.
- For more tips on how to keep the onion fumes from burning your eyes, check out this article at The Kitchn.
Vegetarian French Onion Soup
- 2 TB butter (or sub olive oil)
- 8 yellow onions, thinly sliced
- 2 tsp salt
- 3 bay leaves
- 1/2 cup white wine (or sub red- use dry or sweet according to preference)
- 2 sprigs rosemary (destemmed)
- crusty bread, sliced (enough slices to fit in each bowl-- amount will depend on the size of your bread. I use 2-3 slices per person)
- 1/2 cup Gruyère or sharp white cheddar cheese, shredded (more or less as desired)
- diced green onion to garnish (optional)
In a large heavy bottom pot, melt butter over medium heat. Add onions, salt, and bay leaves. Cover pot, and cook over medium-high for 4-5 minutes, until they begin to look translucent and start releasing water.
Remove lid, and cook onions over low (or medium-low) until they caramelize. This will take 2-5 hours, depending on the size of your pot and the temperature used. The onions can be left alone and checked on about once an hour, except at the beginning and end of the caramelizing process. (*Tip-- this can be done ahead of time, and the onions frozen until you're ready to use them).
When onions have reduced and are an amber color, you're ready. Increase the heat to medium-high and add the wine. Allow the wine to boil down for 3-4 minutes.
Add 5 cups of hot water and the rosemary, and bring to a boil. Then, reduce to a simmer. Taste soup-- if you prefer a milder flavor, add another cup of hot water. If desired, add another splash of wine. Remove the bay leaves.
Turn on oven broiler.
If using oven-safe bowls:
Ladle soup into bowls, then set bread into soup. Pile desired amount of cheese over bread. Set bowls onto a baking tray, and set under broiler 1-2 minutes until cheese has melted and is golden.
Garnish soup with fresh herbs (optional), and serve immediately.
If NOT using oven-safe bowls:
Lay bread slices on baking sheet and top with cheese. Set in oven under broiler for 1-2 minutes, until cheese has melted and is golden.
Ladle soup into bowls, and set cheese bread on soup. Garnish soup with fresh herbs (optional), and serve immediately.