Think about this for just one second: what are the top two most used ingredients in cooking throughout the world? Any guesses? It’s not a trick question. The most common cooking ingredient in the world is ... drum roll ... WATER! Yeah, guess that was a trick question, though quite obvious. The next ingredient is far more interesting and it’s the topic of today’s diatribe. The lovable onion!
Now I have your attention, or maybe you’ve walked away in disgust. Either way, I’ll continue plodding forward with my ever-so-pleasing tale of the onion.
It’s said the first onions were cultivated in the Middle East, probably ancient Babylon. I’m sure the infamous Tower of Babel was built for the sole purpose of drying the fall crop of delicious, farm-fresh onions so the delectable culinary heroes could be stored throughout the winter. Once other cultures got wind of these delicious alliums—undoubtedly from Babylonian breath—the onion became an instant sensation.
The ancient Egyptians believed the onion, with its concentric layers and round shape, symbolized eternity. Just a fun note here: The Egyptians also allegedly invented beer, so chances are they were smashed when they came up with that theory. The onion was soon introduced throughout the Mediterranean through trade and became a staple of peasant larders because of ease of cultivation and storage.
Do you want to know my personal favorite fun fact about onions? (Of course you do!) The reason a freshly cut onion causes you to cry is because the juice of the onion contains sulfur compounds, which become airborne and react with the natural saline in the eye to form sulfuric acid. Fascinating, don’t you agree?
Even though Egyptians worshipped the onion, it was the French who became the pungent bulb’s best friend. We can all thank French cooks for teaching us how to coax the mild, sweet, umami-like flavors from these fantastic alliums.
There are three basic techniques to get the best from an onion: sweat, fry and caramelize. Sweating is the most common. In most quality recipes (those not written by shoemakers), onions are always the first ingredient in the pan. This is where the sweating happens, where the diced onions are gently cooked over moderate heat until they begin to turn translucent. This draws out the natural sugars and begins to form the base or first layer of flavor in a dish. Frying, the second technique, produces crispy, tasty onions coated in seasoned flour.
The final technique is caramelization, which means the onion is cooked very slowly, to draw out the sugars and to brown them as well. This takes a bit of patience, but if executed with care, the results are extraordinary—especially when used as the base of this boozy French onion soup recipe.
Chef Bill’s FRENCH ONION SOUP
• 2 onions, sliced
• 2 Tbsp. butter
• 2 oz. red wine, or more to taste
• 2 oz. sherry, or more to taste
• 2 cups chicken broth
• 2 cups beef broth
• 5 sprigs thyme
• 2 bay leaves
• Cracked black pepper and salt to taste
• Slurry as needed
• One-half baguette
• Gruyère cheese
1. Begin sauce pan at medium high heat, add 1/4 of onions and begin to brown. Stir frequently for even browning.
2. Add another 1/4 onions, continue to stir and brown.
3. Add remaining onions and reduce heat to medium low. Continue to caramelize onions until they’re a nice amber color.
4. Deglaze the pan with red wine and reduce au sec. Add sherry and reduce au sec.
5. Add the broths and herbs. Bring to a simmer. Season with salt and pepper. Simmer 30 minutes, adjust seasoning and thicken with slurry, if desired.
6. Slice the baguette into medallions, brush with butter and toast.
7. Place soup in a crock, top with croutons, Gruyère and melt in broiler.
Email Chef Bill Thompson, owner of Fernandina’s Amelia Island Culinary Academy, at firstname.lastname@example.org, for inspiration and to get Cheffed-Up!