Onion soup: a typical French dish
May 14, 2024

Onion soup: a typical French dish

Onion soup: a typical French dish
Julien Mainguy

French and based in Vancouver since 2014, Julien Mainguy is the co-founder of Best of France. Passionate about the cultural difference between Canada and Europe, he is leading numerous projects to create awareness, help people grow, and bring communities together.

The Onion Soup, a traditional and warming dish

Nowadays, onion soup is renowned all over the world as an iconic part of French gastronomy. Essentially made from caramelized onions, meat broth, wine and served with croutons topped with melty cheese, there are many versions of this dish today! Some prefer to use red wine while some prefer white wine, some add gruyère cheese while some add mozzarella cheese, some top it with baguette, others with pain de campagne … It has even become a trendy dish that tourists are eager to try to experience French gastronomy. However, onion soup is in fact not part of French people's daily meals. It was originally meant to be eaten after a family reunion in the middle of the night to cure hangovers… 

If you want to know the true story of the unmissable onion soup and how to cook this cozy, warm and flavorful dish at home with the original recipe, this is the right place!

Onion soup served with croutons inside
Onion soup served with croutons inside

The story behind this famous soup

Its history

Onion soup has long been frowned upon. In ancient times, Romans saw it as a dish for the poor. This is due to the fact that onion cultivation was accessible to all, especially to peasants.

A legend has helped to restore the image of this soup: it is said that while King Louis XV slept in his hunting lodge, he woke up because of a nocturnal craving. He would then have made a soup from what he had on hand: onions, butter and champagne. Although King Louis XV had the reputation of being a good cook, this story seems unlikely...

There is a more credible theory. It would be a Duke of Lorraine who would have tasted onion soup at an inn in the Champagne region during a trip. The duke would then have greatly appreciated this dish and would have popularized the recipe at the court of Versailles.

During the XXth century, this soup was nicknamed the “soupe d’ivrognes” (the soup of drunks) because is it supposed to cure from hangover after an evening of drinking

Its present

This soup has become very trendy and a symbol of French local gastronomy. Tourists are so fond of it that more and more restaurants are putting this soup on the menu. However, onion soup is often wrongly made and understood. Indeed, many tourists see it as a fancy and luxurious product while, like explained above, it was originally a dish for the poor and had a purpose that we could qualify as the opposite of fancy (curing hangovers). In fact, French people only occasionally eat it and each family has its own way to cook it. It is probably still one of the most comforting dishes from French cuisine and for French people, a symbol of conviviality, tradition and family.

Family onion soup topped with Maroilles cheese
Family onion soup topped with Maroilles cheese

Tips and tricks for the original French onion soup flavours

The importance of the ingredients

The choice of your ingredients is crucial to obtain the original taste of onion soup. Moreover, French gastronomy is all about the freshness of the ingredients to provide an authentic and intense taste to the dishes. To this effect, the quality of the stock, the wine and the cheese chosen is hugely important

This soup is traditionally made with beef broth, although you can also use chicken broth for a milder taste or mix both at your convenience. If you're using industrial broth, give it a try first! If you don't like the taste, don't use it and make your own ecological and economic broth from scratch. If you're making beef or chicken, save the leftovers and freeze them to make the broth later by boiling it in water with herbs and spices. 

It is important to use a cheese that melts well to have this comforting flavor and interesting texture of the croutons crunchy taste topped with the thawing cheese. We recommend you to toast your bread in a pan with olive oil until crunchy and then to rub it with a garlic clove. Once this step is over, you can sparkle the cheese on the toast, if you like intense cheeses, you can try to use Comté, otherwise, Swiss cheese (Gruyère) will perfectly do the trick! You should try to get your cheese from a cheesemaker for a more authentic taste.

Regarding the choice of wine, a dry white wine is ideal. We recommend you an Arbois blanc (a wine from Jura) for its notes of hazelnuts or a Pinot blanc (a wine from Alsace) for its warming and sweet taste.

Cooking techniques for the Onion Soup

You absolutely need to take time to caramelize the onions in order to release their sweet flavor. This only happens after a long cooking time (a little more sugar helps). The more your onions are caramelized, the more color and flavor you'll get from them.

How to present your Onion Soup?

The presentation of this dish is also important. Do not forget that French cuisine is also about aesthetics! Individual ceramic bowls are the best to create a warming, cozy and authentic atmosphere. If you wish to stay loyal to the story of this family soup, be generous with the serving.

The original recipe for onion soup

On cold days, there is nothing better than onion soup to warm hearts. Here is the delicious and easy recipe to light up your winter. 

  • Preparation Time: 20 mins
  • Cook Time: 1 hr
  • Total Time: 1 hr 20 mins
  • Servings: 4 to 6

Ingredients for 4 to 6 servings

For the soup

  • 5 big yellow onions
  • 6 tablespoons butter
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • optional: 1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar
  • 4 cups beef stock
  • 4 cups chicken stock
  • ½ cup dry white wine
  • 2 tablespoons cognac
  • 1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
  • 3 bay leaves
  • 2 minced cloves garlic
  • 1 teaspoon nutmeg or pepper
  • salt at your convenience

For the toasting

  • 8 slices baguette (or more)
  • olive oil
  • 2 cups grated Comté or Gruyère cheese
  • grated parmesan cheese at your convenience
  • optional: more pepper


  1. Peel and slice the onions: Peel the onions and then thinly slice them.
  1. Caramelize the onions with butter: In a 5 to 6 quart thick-bottomed pot (Le Creuset type), heat 3 tablespoons of butter on medium heat before adding the onions.Toss the onions to coat them with butter. Stir until the onions become translucent, about 15 minutes and add the sugar and the balsamic vinegar. Stir again and increase the heat to medium high. Add the remaining tablespoons of butter and salt and cook, stirring often, until the onions are brown and well caramelized, about 30 minutes or more. The amount of time will vary depending on your equipment.
  1. Add the minced garlic and cook for 2 more minutes.
  1. Deglaze the pot with wine: Add the white wine to the pot and scrape up the browned bits on the bottom and sides of the pot on medium high heat. 
  1. Add the stock and herbs: Add the meat broth, bay leaves, and thyme. Bring to a simmer, cover the pot and lower the heat to maintain a low simmer for about 30 minutes. Then, you can optionally add a pinch of pepper or nutmeg and salt at your convenience to enhance the flavors. 
  1. Discard the bay leaves and add the cognac

  2. Toast the bread: While the soup is simmering, cut your bread into thin slices and grill it with olive oil in a pan on high heat until golden crispy. If it is not crispy enough, you can then put it in the oven for 3 to 5 minutes at 450°F.

  3. Turn the toasts over and slightly rub it with a garlic clove then sprinkle with the grated cheese and Parmesan. You can add a bit of pepper on the cheese if you have chosen the Gruyère. Return to the oven when it's close to serving time and bake until the cheese has melted and is lightly browned.

Serve: Pour soup into bowls and transfer the cheesy toasts onto the top of each bowl. Cover with the toast and sprinkle with more cheese. Put into the oven on a broiler program for 10 minutes at 350° F, or until the cheese has melted and is slightly browned.

Onion soup served with toast bread aside
Onion soup served with toast bread aside

Where to taste onion soup when in France? 

Onion soup is part of the typical brasserie menu. In winter, you can order it in the emblematic parisian French bouillon. If you desire to taste a frenchmade onion soup, we can recommend you to go to those restaurants:

If you liked this article and that you are a foodie, we recommend you to check the recipe of the iconic Canelé, the history of the famous Tarte Tatin, Calisson and Nougat and some others French classic recipes to try at home. If you prefer sweet delicacies, here are those you should taste when visiting France!