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Vegetarian French Onion Soup

Updated on September 21, 2017
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Exploring food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes... one ingredient at a time.

Years and years (and decades?) ago, when my husband and I were working together, we discovered a restaurant near our office that once a week served French onion soup. I had never actually heard of French onion soup until I saw it on the menu (my mom was a good cook, but not very adventuresome).

To say that it was a "new taste sensation" is a gross understatement. Never before had I experienced a simple meal with so much intense flavor and textures in one tiny bowl--the richness of the broth, the fragrance of the herbs and onions, the creaminess of the cheeses and the crunch of the toasted croutons.

And so over the years, with much trial and error (emphasis on the latter) I developed a recipe that I really liked. BUT, that original recipe included beef broth--not a favorable ingredient when someone you love (my younger daughter) is a vegetarian. So about 10 years ago I began my quest to create that same wonderful rich-tasting broth without the use of animals.

Here's how to do it:

5 stars from 1 rating of Vegetarian French Onion Soup

Cook Time

Prep time: 10 min
Cook time: 55 min
Ready in: 1 hour 5 min
Yields: 4 to 6 servings

Ingredients

  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 4 red onions, thinly sliced, about 2.5 lbs.
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1/4 tsp. black pepper, ground
  • 1 cup dry red wine
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 4 cups water
  • 1 cup canned diced tomatoes, drained (see Instruction #2 for how to use this ingredient)
  • 1 tsp. fresh rosemary, minced
  • 1/4 tsp. dried thyme leaves
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 tablespoon soy sauce
  • 1 day-old baguette, cut into 1/2-inch thick slices
  • 1/2 cup Parmesan, grated
  • 1/2 cup Swiss or Gruyere, grated
  1. Sauté the onions in the olive oil in a large sauté pan or dutch oven over medium-low heat, stirring frequently, until browned--about 30 minutes. (This first step requires a bit of patience. The onions need to caramelize low and slow to develop the rich, sweet flavor one associates with french onion soup. Hurry the process with high heat and you'll end up with bitter, burned onions. If you don't allow the onions to develop a deep golden color you'll end up with flabby, watery, and tasteless onions.)
  2. Increase heat to medium-high. Add salt and pepper, wine, and tomato paste. Cook until wine is almost evaporated (about 5 minutes). Add water, tomatoes, and herbs. Bring to a boil and then cover; reduce heat to simmer and cook about 20 minutes. Stir in soy sauce. Discard bay leaves. We prefer to leave the tomato pieces in our soup, but you may puree the tomatoes in a blender before adding them to the soup if you wish.
  3. OK, now you have the vegetarian stock. And you can use this for so many more things than French onion soup. So, keep this recipe in your back pocket (as my dad would have said) for future reference. But, if you want to proceed to turn this into Ooey Gooey Cheesy Goodness, continue with the instructions below.
  4. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Brush bread slices with olive oil and bake in oven until edges are brown, about 5 minutes. Set aside.
  5. When ready to serve, whisk the 1/2 cup Parmesan into your hot broth. It’s important to whisk in the cheese at the last minute, or else the cheese will fall to the bottom of the pot and burn. Ladle the warm soup into heatproof bowls, and lay a slice of the baked bread over each bowl. Sprinkle a layer of Gruyere cheese over the bread, and place the crocks under the broiler until the cheese bubbles and browns.

What Makes this Recipe Work?

Typically when we think of French onion soup, we imagine caramelized onions slowly simmering in a rich beefy broth. What can we do to capture that savory taste without using animal protein? The key to the puzzle is understanding the science of taste.

There are five distinct tastes that the human tongue recognizes--sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami.

The first four you are probably familiar with:

  • sweet is a pleasurable sensation produced by sugars.
  • Sourness is the detection of acidity--the most common foods that contain the sour taste are citrus fruits, some melons, and some unripened fruits.
  • Saltiness is mostly from the presence of sodium.
  • A bitter taste is usually deemed unpleasant or disagreeable. Black coffee and unsweetened chocolate fall into this category.

And then there is umami. Umami is a Japanese word for "pleasant savory taste"--a MEATY taste. There are several natural, non-meat foods that have a umami flavor--tomatoes, mushrooms, soy, potatoes, carrots, and Parmesan cheese.

So, if you create this soup for your family, you will be giving them an uber-umami taste without meat.

© 2013 Linda Lum

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