Fast French Onion Soup, Revisited

[Written July 4, 2024]

I noted about my first attempt trying J. Kenji Lopez-Alt’s “Fast French Onion Soup” from The Food Lab:

...[T]his one is bottlenecked on cutting so. many. onions. … Kenji advises against the use of beef stock for quality reasons, but the problem with that is: using chicken stock makes the result delicious, but wrong.

He’s right about commercial beef stock. We picked up some on sale, used it for something, and it wasn’t very good.

When I came back to making French Onion Soup, then, I made some changes:

  1. I made beef broth from Better Than Bouillion, instead of using chicken stock.
  2. I sliced onions on the mandolin slicer with the 1/4” blade, cutting the onion halfway to the center vertically, and slicing horizontally; thus, instead of making rings, it would make C shapes.
  3. I substituted 1 tsp dry thyme, left in, for the 6-8 sprigs fresh. Normally, that substitution would work out to 2+ Tbsp of thyme, but I refuse to waste my thyme—no pun intended—on making stupid tea with it.
  4. Finally, we planned to make a large batch of soup, cool it, and freeze many small portions, so I didn’t bother wasting fresh cracked pepper on that. I can pepper it at serving time.

It still took me two and a quarter hours to make the soup. Directions like “evenly coat with the caramel” are confusing, because there are five pounds of onions in there, which completely fill the “large Dutch oven,” with no room to really stir vigorously at that stage. I don’t know if a single tablespoon of caramel would actually “evenly coat” that many onions to begin with.

I also noticed that, despite being on the large burner and on high heat, the onions only started leaving a glaze on the pan after forty minutes, certainly not the “ten minutes” the recipe stated. At that point, more confusion ensued; this would have been a great place to include a photo of “deep brown” onions. I pushed ahead until they were the color of the waiting beef broth. It was hard. I don’t want to burn five pounds of onions!!

(By the end, that “Dutch oven full of onions” can barely be covered on the bottom with the onions. It’s very thick, like homemade applesauce, so it would rather heap up.)

All in all, I don’t know if Kenji knows who his audience is. On one hand, it’s “here’s some science about how to do home cooking better,” which is educational (if correct.) On the other, the “skills” sidebars like cutting onions or breaking down poultry always seem to be just short of a clear explanation. They’re fairly complete reminders if you already know how to do it, but they don’t teach it.

In other words, I feel like I’m a “normal” on Sorted Food, trying these recipes. I’m looking over various directions saying, “wtf?” while stuff is on the stove, creating a hard time limit on how long I have to figure this out. That’s stressful.

It’s clear that this book lacked a good review cycle with home cooks who do not have fancy restaurant experience. If any were included in the pool of beta readers, it should have been obvious that the book didn’t match with them very well. They would not need to try very many recipes.

But, probably, foodies reviewed it and said it was good, and voted it Cookbook of the Year, despite its glaring faults for the “home cooks” it is supposedly meant for.

I always thought Kenji was a good chef. Unfortunately, that is also the problem. He’s lost touch with real novices, so he can no longer teach them effectively.

However, there’s a deeper problem with the project of this cookbook: we cannot simply throw “science” at the “home cooks,” and leave our underlying classism around food unexamined. If we are successful at “improving” (by some definition) the food of the masses, then it loses its cachet; if not, all we are doing is flagellating the masses for their “failure” (by some definition) to duplicate the habits of the upper classes, who can simply buy a chef’s labor.

Either way, we sold them a cookbook! Ka-ching!