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Credit: Photo: Ghazalle Badiozamani; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk Headshots: Getty, Shutterstock, Serious Eats, Getty
Recipe Review

We Tested 4 Famous French Onion Soup Recipes and Found a Clear Winner

updated Sep 30, 2022
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French onion soup is the ultimate comfort food. Onions get slowly cooked until sweet and caramelized, then simmered in rich broth until they’re practically falling apart.

To finish it off, toasted bread is added to give it that lovable crisp-gone-soggy texture and a generous amount of Gruyère cheese is melted on top. It’s warm, hearty, and ultra savory. It’s one of my all-time favorite soups, and I would happily eat it at every meal.

But not all French onion soups are created equal. Some versions are almost entirely broth-based and skimp on the onions, while others are basically just a bowl of caramelized onions with hardly enough broth to pass as soup.

Even more shocking is the variation in toppings. I always assumed French onion soup had to be topped with sliced bread and melted Gruyère (after all, it’s what I was taught in culinary school), but after a bit of research I realized that’s not the case at all!

To see which French onion soup variation is the absolute best, I made four popular recipes and tasted them side-by-side. At the end of the day, I found a new go-to recipe and learned a few clever tricks along the way. My kitchen will smell like onions for months, and it was well worth it.

Credit: Photo: Ghazalle Badiozamani; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

How I Chose My Four French Onion Soup Contenders

Because there proved to be so much variation in the toppings, I looked for recipes that were fairly traditional when it came to the soup itself.

The first recipe I settled on was from Julia Child. Her version is a very classic interpretation of French onion soup, down to the melty Gruyère and toasted bread.

The second recipe I picked was from Ina Garten. Her recipe is pretty standard but swaps out the Gruyère for shredded Parmesan and ditches the toasted bread altogether. It seemed like a bold choice, but Ina’s recipes are always a hit, so I was confident it would taste delicious even without the cheese and bread.

The third recipe I landed on was from Alton Brown. His recipe uses unfiltered apple cider to make the broth, and I was curious to see if it would make the soup too sweet. I’ve seen apple brandy used to make French onion soup, but never apple juice.

The last recipe I picked was from Serious Eats. It’s made with several different types of onions instead of just yellow, and gets finished with a dash of fish sauce to amp up the savoriness. I was curious to see if the fish sauce would make the soup taste fishy, or if it was one of those clever ingredients that adds a rich depth of flavor without knowing it’s there.

Credit: Photo: Ghazalle Badiozamani; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

How I Tested the Soups

Each recipe was tested on the same day and compared in a side-by-side taste test. I followed each recipe exactly as written and tried to keep all outside variables to a minimum. I garnished each with their suggested toppings and didn’t take any liberties. I wanted it to be a fair test.

I also grabbed a few friends to taste them to see what they thought. At the end of the day we all shared the same opinions and the results quickly became clear. The winner has become my new go-to French onion soup recipe.

Meet Our 4 French Onion Soup Contenders

Credit: Photo: Ghazalle Badiozamani; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

1. The Underwhelming (and Way Too Sweet) Classic: Julia Child’s French Onion Soup

This was the recipe I was most looking forward to, but it turned out to be my least favorite. The soup was way too sweet. The caramelized onions are cooked with sugar, which made their sweetness overwhelming and took away from the soup’s savoriness.

The soup was also made without a single herb or spice, so it lacked the subtle background flavors that made some of the other contenders’ soups taste better. The classic topping of toasted bread and Gruyère cheese was nice, but it wasn’t enough to salvage the soup.

This recipe wasn’t bad, but it was definitely not my favorite. If you want to make it at home, I suggest ditching the sugar and increasing the amount of salt to help balance the sweetness. No disrespect to Julia Child, but I will not be making this soup again.

Overall rating: 5/10

Credit: Photo: Ghazalle Badiozamani; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

2. The Untraditional (and Unsatisfying) Take on the Classic: Ina Garten’s French Onion Soup

Ina’s take on French onion soup ditches the bread and Gruyère cheese in favor of shredded Parmesan. The simple garnish sadly wasn’t very satisfying and left me wanting more. The soup lacked the heartiness you get from the beloved bread-and-melted-cheese combo, and instead was just a bowl of onion soup with shredded cheese on top.

The soup base itself was delicious, and using half beef broth and half veal stock gave it a nice richness, but the overall presentation felt lackluster and unfinished. If Ina had finished the soup with the traditional bread and cheese topping, this could have been a winner.

My suggestion? Make Ina’s soup base, ditch the Parmesan, and garnish it was toasted bread and melted Gruyère cheese instead. You’ll thank me later.

Overall rating: 7/10

Credit: Photo: Ghazalle Badiozamani; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

3. The Safe, No-Frills Recipe: Alton Brown’s French Onion Soup

Brown’s soup is a classic, no-frills French onion soup recipe. It’s rich, super savory, and satisfying. He uses a bouquet garni (a fancy word for a bunch of herbs tied together with string) to add a pleasant herby flavor to the broth that makes the soup taste complex. He was also the only contender to use beef consommé (a clear, concentrated type of beef broth), which made the soup taste richer and more unctuous.

The only thing I didn’t love about this recipe was the unfiltered apple cider. Brown cuts his broth with 10 ounces of cider, making the soup taste a tad too sweet for my liking. The apple flavor was surprisingly strong and added an additional layer of flavor that I’m not sure I liked. If I were to make this recipe again I would omit the cider altogether and add additional broth consomme in its place.

Overall rating: 8/10

Credit: Photo: Ghazalle Badiozamani; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

4. The Clear Winner: Serious Eats’ French Onion Soup (Soupe à l’Oignon Gratinée)

This recipe was the unanimous winner. It was everything I wanted French onion soup to taste like and more. It had the rich, ultra-savory flavor I associate with a good French onion soup and was topped with the winning combination of melted Gruyère cheese and toasted bread.

The recipe recommended using a combination of yellow onions, sweet onions, red onions, and shallots to make the soup, and the combination of the four made the soup taste more complex. The recipe uses chicken stock, which I was nervous would make the soup pale and flavorless, but it turned out to be delicious.

The one thing that made this soup stand out was its clever use of fish sauce. The recipe called for adding one teaspoon, which amped up the savoriness and took this soup to a whole new level. I absolutely loved this recipe and will be using it as my new go-to French onion soup moving forward.

Overall rating: 9/10