Okay, perhaps chicken. But that always seems wrong.
When I got Michael Ruhlman's book Ruhlman's Twenty, I was shocked to see that his French onion soup didn't start with beef stock. Not even chicken. Nope, only onions.
Not that long ago, I had no idea who Michael Ruhlman was. Later, I knew him as someone that other people talked about. Then I found out that he really knows what he's talking about. He's not a chef that's all flash and no substance.
So when he said that "traditional" French onion soup didn't start with beef stock, I didn't slam the book shut and say that he didn't know what he was talking about. Instead, I took the challenge and made the soup.
This isn't a quick recipe. The onions cook for a looooong time. But that's great on a chilly fall day when you want to warm the kitchen. Most of that onion-cooking time is hands-off while the liquid cooks away. At the beginning and end of cooking, you need to pay more attention to it, though.
The onions can be cooked ahead of time, and the soup can be finished very quickly on another day, if you prefer.
This looks like a lot of onions when you start, but they cook down to very little. When I started, my 5 1/2 quart Dutch oven was overfilled. When the onions were done cooking, there was less than a pint of onions left.
French Onion Soup
Adapted from Ruhlman's Twenty by Michael Ruhlman
7 or 8 large Spanish onions (7 to 8 pounds) thinly sliced
2 teaspoons kosher salt (more, to taste)
Freshly ground pepper, to taste
6-12 slices of baguette or similar bread
1/3 cup sherry
Red or white wine vinegar (optional)
Red wine (optional)
1/2 to 3/4 pound Gruyere or Emmenthaler cheese, grated
Melt the butter in a large, heavy-bottomed pot. Add the sliced onion, sprinkle with 2 teaspoons of salt, and cover the pot. Cook on medium heat until the onions have heated through and have started to steam.
Uncover the pot, turn the heat to low, and continue cooking until the onions have released their water, the water has evaporated and the onions are an amber brown color. Stir as needed to keep the onions from sticking.
In the middle of the cooking process, when the onions are swimming in liquid, you don't need much stirring. Once the liquid has disappeared and they are beginning to turn brown, you'll need to watch them carefully. This process can take 5 hours or more if you cook at a very low temperature. Add a few generous grinds of pepper.
Once the onions have cooked down, add 6 cups of water and raise the heat to high and bring the soup to a simmer, then reduce the heat to low.
If the soup is too sweet, add a little vinegar to balance it. If you want more depth of flavor, add a splash of red wine as well.
Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 200 degrees and place the bread slices in the oven to dry completely. You can do this ahead of time and leave the bread in the oven - it shouldn't burn at this low temperature.
To serve, ladle the soup into small oven-safe bowls. Top with one or two slices of bread, as needed, to cover the soup. Cover the bread with grated cheese.
Put the bowls under the broiler to melt the cheese and brown it a bit. Serve immediately.