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What Is French Onion Soup?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 16, 2024
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French onion soup is a wonderfully warm soup identified by many as comfort food. Onions have long been a part of cooking, and were often identified as food used by the poor since they stored well, grew easily and were plentiful. The reason this particular onion soup gets labeled as French is due to several “origin” myths regarding its creation. It is said that King Louis XV or XIV created the dish at a hunting lodge after returning from a hunt and finding the cupboard bare of much beyond some stale bread, onions and champagne. Though the story may be myth, the soup endures.

Classic French onion soup begins with beef stock. Modern versions may use vegetable or chicken stock, and short cut versions simply use beef bouillon, which frequently results in very salty soup. Onions are sliced thin and then caramelized, which allows them to become sweet. They are then added to the heated stock. A little red wine may also be added to the stock to yield a richer flavor.

Often, French onion soup is topped with a toasted crouton, and then is layered with swiss (typically gruyere) cheese. The soup may be placed in ramekins or oven proof crocks so the cheese gets bubbly, brown and melty, when broiled for a minute or two, before being served. When served in large portions, the heartiness and richness of the soup is a meal in itself. It can also make a lovely beginning soup course when served in smaller portions. Alternately, consider a meal of French onion soup, salad and slices of crusty bread.

You can certainly make vegetarian versions of the soup by omitting beef stock and using a hearty vegetable stock instead. Moreover, you can use tofu cheese or omit the cheese entirely for vegans. If you don’t have time to chop and caramelize onions, there are a few good canned versions of the soup. Amy’s Kitchen® makes an excellent vegetarian canned version which can help you shortcut the process of making the soup, and get right to adding cheese and broiling, or simply heating up the soup, if you prefer the simpler version.

The soup is undoubtedly popular in France, Europe in general, and in the US. Don’t expect if you’re in France to order French onion soup. Instead it is usually called Soupe à l’oignon Gratineé. You may also see it listed this way in traditional French restaurants outside of France, especially when the menu is written in French.

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Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a DelightedCooking contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By anon303290 — On Nov 13, 2012

I can't see Louis XIV making his own soup, or even knowing how to do it. Or that his hunting lodge would not have a well stocked larder. More likely he got there ahead of the food wagons and told a manservant, "Find me something to eat".

By tigers88 — On Apr 26, 2012
Has anyone made slow cooker french onion soup? It seems like it would work, I guess you would have to ladle it into its own french onion soup bowls and then sprinkle on the cheese and broil it. But this is not any harder than it would be using a big pot. I am going to have to do some searching. My crock pot is just sitting there waiting to be used.
By jonrss — On Apr 26, 2012

French onion soup is the ultimate comfort food for me. Whenever I am feeling blue, or it is cold and rainy outside I will get some.

There is a bar and grill just a couple of blocks from where I live that makes a really tasty version. It is nothing fancy but they do what they do well. It has lots of onions, lots of cheese and it is served with really tasty crusty bread. It is a meal in itself.

By ZsaZsa56 — On Apr 25, 2012
I have a great recipe for a delicious french onion soup. It is pretty labor intensive. It actually involves making your own beef broth. But it is amazing once it is done and I have never met anyone who did not agree.

I like to make it for dinner parties and special occasions. It has become a staple of our Thanksgiving meals.

By anon60578 — On Jan 14, 2010

Uh... actually, in French we write "Soupe à l’oignon gratinée".

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a DelightedCooking contributor, Tricia...
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