Soup has been around probably as long as people have been eating. It’s cheap, filling, restorative, and democratic.
Onion soups have been popular at least as far back as Roman times. They were, throughout history, seen as food for poor people, since onions were plentiful, easy to grow, and considered a restorative food.
The modern version of Onion Soup originates in France in the 18th C., made from softened onions and, traditionally, beef broth. Onion soups are likewise found in early English cookbooks and American cookbooks from colonial days to present.It is often finished by being placed under a grill in a ramekin with croutons and Gruyère melted on top. The crouton on top is reminiscent of using bread as “sops”.
Here are a couple of examples of early written Onion Soup recipes:
“Potage of onion.
Cut your onions into very thin slices, fry them with butter, and after they are fried put them into a pot with water or with pease broth. After they are well sod, put in it a crust of bread and let it boile a very little; you may put some capers in it. Dry your bread then stove it; take up, and serve with one drop of vinegar.”
—The French Cook, Francois Pierre La Varenne,  Englished by I.D.G. 1653, Introduced by Philip and Mary Hyman [Southover Press:East Sussex] 2001 (p. 130)
Peel 2 good-sized onions (say 7 oz.), cut them, in halves and then crosswise, in thin shreds:
Blanch, in boiling water, for five minutes, to remove their acrid flavour;
Put in a 6-inch stewpan, with 1 1/2 oz. of butter;
Stir over a brisk fire, and, when the onion becomes of a light brown colour, add a tablespoonful of flour, say 1 oz.;
Keep on the fire for two minutes longer;
Add: 1 quart of water; 2 pinches of salt; and 2 small ones of pepper;
Stir till boiling;
Simmer, for five minutes, on the stove corner; taste the seasoning;
Put in the soup-tureen 2 ox. of sliced dried roll, and 1 oz. of butter; our in the soup, stirring gently with a spoon to dissolve.
—The Royal Cookery Book (Le Livre de Cuisine) , Jules Gouffe, translated from the French and adapted for English Use by Alphonse Gouffe [Sampson Low, Son, and Marston:London] 1869 (p. 38-9)
(sources: www.wikipedia.org, www.foodtimeline.org)
************************************************************************************************************************* A few notes:
For myself, I like a lot of onions in my soup; almost stew-like. If you prefer a brothier soup, either reduce the amount of onions or increase the broth.
Because onions do sweeten as they cook down, I don’t recommend using sweet onions like 1015’s, Vidalias, or Mauis. They will make the soup too sweet. Regular yellow onions are just fine. Plus, they’re cheaper.
This soup is traditionally made with beef broth. However, you can use chicken or turkey broth if you want a lighter soup. Or, use vegetable broth to make this vegetarian (or vegan if you omit the Gruyère or use soy cheese).
The best bread to use with this soup is a good crusty European-style bread like a baguette, ciabatta, pain au levain, etc. These will hold up quite well if you decide to make the soup a gratin.
2 tbsp. Olive Oil
5 lbs. onions, sliced about 1/4″ thick
4 cl. garlic, minced
1 tsp. sugar
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. dried thyme
1/2 c. dry white wine or unsweetened apple cider (optional)
4 c. beef broth or vegetable broth
Salt & Pepper to taste
Toasted bread or your favorite crackers
Shredded Gruyère, Emmenthal, or Swiss cheese
1. Heat the olive oil in a stockpot or large saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the onions, garlic, and the 1 teaspoon sugar and 1 teaspoon salt (these will help release the water from the onions and make them wilt more quickly).
Stir until the onions begin to heat through, turn the heat down to medium-low, cover and begin wilting the onions.
2. After the first 30 minutes (stirring after each 15 minutes), uncover the onions (there will be a lot of liquid; it will cook down), add the thyme, and continue cooking until the onions are cooked down as much as you prefer, stirring every 15 minutes. (If you are cooking your onions until they become very soft, you will want to stir them more often as they soften so they don’t begin to burn.)
You want your onions to be soft, but not necessarily caramelized.
3. Once the onions are cooked to your preference, increase the temperature to medium-high, add the white wine or apple cider (if using) and cook until the wine has evaporated.
4. Add the broth and bring to a boil. Lower the heat to medium and cook for 30 minutes. Taste for seasoning.
5. If you want to do the more traditional serving method, here it goes: Turn on your oven to broil and place the rack in the top position. Ladle the soup into oven-proof bowls (the best bowls are ones that have handles; you can buy these at any restaurant supply – if you don’t have bowls with handles, place them on a baking sheet), place a piece of the toasted bread in the center and sprinkle on a healthy amount of the cheese. Place the bowls under the broiler for just a minute or two so until the cheese melts and gets brown and bubbly. Carefully remove the bowls from the oven and serve.
If you don’t want to go that route, simply serve the soup with the bread and cheese on the side.
Enjoy and stay warm!