Alton Brown's Broth Swap For Richer French Onion Soup

French onion soup, or soupe à l'oignon as it's known in France, has been around in one form or another for centuries. It has gradually evolved from a simple peasant dish to something a little more refined over the years, to the soup we recognize today that's topped with bread and melted cheese. It originally became popular in Les Halles, hence its nickname Gratinée des Halles.

At its most basic, a simple French onion soup recipe tends to consist of caramelized onions, beef broth or stock, bread, and Gruyère cheese, but many top chefs have developed their own twist. The French culinary bible "Larousse Gastronomique" suggests adding port or Madeira to the stock, while chef Raymond Blanc's recipe does not contain any meat stock, but he does add white wine that has been boiled for 30 seconds as well as using Roscoff onions from Brittany for their high acidity and sugar levels.

In his "Les Halles Cookbook," the late Anthony Bourdain adds balsamic vinegar and port wine to his soup, as well as dark chicken stock. Alton Brown, meanwhile, uses another classic French ingredient to add extra depth and rich flavor to his recipe: He swaps the beef broth for beef consommé.

What is beef consommé and how is it different from broth?

Consommé is a classic French clarified stock, or clear soup, made with meat, poultry, or fish. It's traditionally served hot or cold as a soup course at the beginning of a meal. Beef consommé is really just a clarified version of brown beef stock or broth, and the difference between broth and consommé is clear. Literally. It is said that Louis XIV of France invented consommé when he requested a soup "so clear that he could see his kingly reflection in it," per The New York Times.

True consommé, according to French cookbook "Larousse Gastronomique," is clarified carefully without rapidly stirring or boiling, and by boiling with egg whites before straining. A clear beef consommé is simmered slowly over several hours before the fat is removed, and it is then strained, traditionally through a damp cloth, to give it its signature clarity.

Alton Brown's recipe for French onion soup uses canned beef consommé, which is certainly much easier and less time-consuming than making your own, but still packs in rich, meaty flavors. But, don't be fooled that this is a quick dish just because of the added convenience of using a canned version of broth. Brown's recipe still takes two hours to make, though patience is rewarded with the intensely savory result.

How to make Alton Brown's French onion soup

For Alton Brown's French onion soup recipe, he uses peeled sweet onions cut into half-moons, and sweats them in butter for 20 minutes before cooking them slowly until they are a deep reddish color and reduced to approximately two cups (this takes about 45 minutes to an hour). He covers the onions in white wine, which he reduces until syrupy, then adds chicken broth and the canned beef consommé, the latter making the soup taste richer.

Brown then tops his French onion soup with melted Gruyère or Fontina cheese on toasted bread. The traditional cheesy topping is what really makes the dish one of the classic comfort foods, but it is also something that other chefs adapt to personal taste. English chef James Martin uses breadcrumbs rather than whole slices of toast, and grated Comté for melting rather than the usual Gruyère, while Mary Berry adds mustard to her croutes, and Ina Garten opts for shredded Parmesan without any bread at all. A friendly reminder: while these cheesy toppings are delicious, if you want your soup to be edible in less than an hour, make sure you make a hole for the steam to escape and save your mouth from a world of hurt.