A Little History Lesson ~ French Onion Soup

Hi everyone! This is my edition for Weekend Cooking at Beth's place, "Beth Fish Reads".

I thought it might be fun to do a few posts about the history and origins of some of my favorite dishes. And I am starting the ball rolling with one of my all time favorite soups, French Onion.

First a few visual aids to help us along. Wow, do I sound like a teacher or what? Please feel free to call me 'Miss Diann' when you need to ask a question. Just raise your hand. There will be no willy nilliness going on in this classroom post! LOL

Exhibit A.
A proper looking French Onion Soup

Exhibit B:

You can even use pretty dishes.

Exhibit C:
This is NOT an acceptable bowl of French Onion Soup.

If you do not have cheese oozing over the side of the bowl, take it back! I will not be paying for such blatant disregard of a classic culinary favorite!

Now, do you notice when you go to restaurants and order French Onion soup it is always off by itself and the most expensive soup on the menu? This is one of the most simple soups there is to make and one of the very cheapest. So, why do we get charged high dollar prices for it?

Onions were common in the Old World and were used in many recipes: boiled, baked, and fried. For many centuries they were considered food of the poorer people. Onions were also thought to have restorative powers, making them a perfect choice for soup. It is interesting to note that early peoples thought eating raw onions caused headaches.

Ever wonder why it is French Onion soup instead of just Onion soup? Did the French create this soup? Of course not. But, they did add the important ingredients of the bread and cheese. The French "kicked it up a notch". For that fact alone, I have no problem referring to it as French Onion Soup.

However, onion soup has been around for a very long time.

Onions, and onion soup were enjoyed by ancient Roman and Greek peoples. French onion soup (with the bread and cheese topping) is reminiscent of Medieval sops. The recipe we know today is a direct descendant of modern French bouillon crafted in the 17th century. Onion soups are likewise found in early English cookbooks and American cookbooks from colonial days to present. Curiously, it is absent from Escoffier's Guide Culinaire [1903]. Onion soup enjoyed a resurgence of popularity in the 1960s, when French cooking was promoted in the United States.

Here are a couple of early Onion soup recipes:

[1651: France]
"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, [1651)

This one is from "The Frugal Housewife" (1803)

Source: Feeding America

Now, this recipe is a French Onion soup!

Soup a l'Oignon Gratinee

This turns onion soup into a hearty main course...You may prepare all the elements for this ahead of time, but once the soup is assembled in its casserole, you should proceed with the recipe or the bread may sink to the bottom of the dish. (Note: you will need a chewey homemade type of bread...)

A loaf of French bread
Olive oil or melted butter
The preceding soup, brought to the simmer
Optional: 1/4 cup cognac
A peeled 2-inch raw onion
A 2-ounce piece Swiss cheese
1 1/2 cups grated Swiss and Parmesean cheese, mixed

Cut the bread into slices 1 inch thick, paint lightly with oil or butter and arrange in one layer on a baking sheet. Place in middle level of a preheated 325-degree oven for 15 to 20 minutes until beginning to brown lightly; turn and brown lightly for 15 to 20 minutes on the other side. These are called croutes. Pour the hot soup into a serving casserole or baking dish. Pour in the optional cognac, grate in the onion, and shave the piece of cheese into fine slivers and strew over the soup. Place a closely packed layer of croutes over the top of the soup and spread on the grated cheese, covering the croutes completely. Sprinkle a tablespoon of oil or butter over the cheese, and set the soup in the middle level of a preheated 350-degree oven. Bake for about 30 minutes, or until soup is bubbling slowly and cheese has melted. Meanwhile, heat up our broiler to red hot; just before serving run the soup under the hot broiler for a moment to brown the cheese lightly. Pass remaining croutes in a bread tray along with the soup."
---The French Chef Cookbook, Julia Child [Alfred A. Knopf:New York] 1972 (p. 275-7)

I hope you enjoyed this little history of French Onion Soup. Hummmm, what will class be about next week?

Source for the quoted parts of this post was from: The Food Timeline

Don't forget about my Gold Teapot Giveaway going on until May 21, 2010!!!

Later in the week (Tuesday) I will link up to these awesome blogs:

Tempt My Tummy Tuesday

Tuesdays at the Table

Tasty Tuesday


  1. What a fabulous post. I have wondered why it was called "French" onion soup. Now I know. And we get Julia recipe too! French onion soup is just not right if it's missing that oozing cheese along the sides of the bowl. Oh yummm. Now if we continue to have a few cool nights, I might just dig out my onion soup bowls.

  2. YUM!~ I tell you it is not easy to get a good bowl of onion soup anymore...you are right that cheese needs to be ooooooozzzzzing out of control, and the bread on underneath YUM...looks so good!

  3. I enjoy history lessons, especially when it is on my favorite subject...food! French onion soup is one of my favorites but very seldom make it, don't know why as it is so easy.
    Have a great weekend, Diann...it is raining here, again!

  4. This is one of those dishes I always order and enjoy at restaurants but have never made at home. I loved today's lesson!

  5. Too funny! We have often asked that question about menu prices as this is my mother's favorite and she ALWAYS orders it!
    xoxo pattie

  6. Oh the soup looks fabulous! So much cheese makes me giddy!

  7. I vote for exhibit A! brown and bubbly cheese is a fine thing.

    I made Julia Onion soup recipe once,but I missed that thing about the grated onion.

  8. I am a regular user of loose tea and can always use another nice teapot...

  9. Hi Diann, The Onion soup looks so delicous. I love onion soup but haven't had any in a long time. Looks like I will be trying your recipe. Thank you for visiting and leaving your kind comment on my "My "TWEET" Tablescape Thursday", it was so much fun designing this table. I'm really into birds this year and I love the yellow and blue in this tablescape.

  10. I absolutely love French Onion Soup and insisted upon ordering it in every Paris restaurant we went to this spring....drove the husband-unit nuts, but I was happy.

  11. Thank you for this lesson on French Onion Soup.


Thank you for taking the time to comment! I love to hear your ideas. If you ask a question, I will answer it here in a comment back to you. Please check back! Thank you for visiting and have a wonderful day! Diann :)