quick(er) french onion soup

And if the boy have not a woman’s gift
To rain a shower of commanded tears,
An onion will do well for such a shift,
Which, in a napkin being close convey’d,
Shall in despite enforce a watery eye.
– William Shakespeare, The Taming of the Shrew

Bill Watterson 1996

I love onion soup. Sodden baguette rounds drowning under a congealing gob of blubbery cheese… not so much.
French onion soup should be about the onions, not the bread. Or the cheese. In fact, cheese is to French onion soup what oak is to wine and ketchup is to hamburger; injudicious application is often a camouflage for incongruent flavors or lacklustre broth.

Classic versions of this soup call for yellow onions, white wine, and repeated de-glazing of the pan… but unless you actually want to spend all morning tethered to your stove, try red onions and dry red wine. Caramelized red onions will add complexity and flavour to the broth in a relatively short period of time, while red wine will bring deep colour to the finished soup.

Onions are easier to peel after they have been halved. Take 3 large red onions and halve them pole to pole, (through the root and stem, not across the equator), cut off the stem end and peel the skin back towards the root. Leave the root intact (it will hold the onion together as you slice) and slice the onions thinly, starting at the stem end.

Depending on the onion (and your choice of knife), this might make you cry. Onions absorb sulfur from the soil and convert it to amino acid sulfoxides that, when triggered by a specific enzyme, act as a chemical defense mechanism for the plant. Just think of it as tear gas for alliums: when onion cells are damaged by chewing, chopping or slicing, the sulfoxides form sulfenic acids, which the enzyme breaks apart to form a sulfur compound that is  released into the air as a kind of naturally occurring (unlike tear gas) lacrimator. As the sulfur compound lands on your eyeballs, it mixes with your tears and breaks down into hydrogen sulfide, sulfur dioxide and sulfuric acid, a volatile concoction that irritates your corneal nerves and makes your eyes water (very much like tear gas).

Actually, I have been gassed, thanks for asking, it’s one of the many delights of basic training, and it ranks right up there with being marinated in copious quantities of police grade pepper spray.

In any event, a sharp knife and an efficient chopping method will mitigate the tear gas effect, as will chilling your onions for a few minutes in the freezer, as the cold will significantly slow the rate of the chemical reaction inside the onion.

Alternately, you can buy onion goggles…

Maybe it’s me, but the fact that you can even buy dedicated onion goggles lends credence to the cliché that a fool and his money are soon parted.

But back to the soup…

In a large Dutch oven, melt 3 TBSP of butter over medium-high heat. After the foaming subsides, add the onions and stir in  1 tsp of sea salt. Cook the onions for about 30 minutes, stirring frequently.

The dark brown crust on the bottom of the pan (the fond) is what you’re after here, as this is what gives the broth its flavor.

After about half an hour, the onions will be glossy and caramelized and will have reduced to almost nothing. Add 1/4 cup of dry red wine to the onions; scrape the bottom of the pan vigorously as the wine simmers, loosening the fond. When the liquid has evaporated and the bottom of the pot begins to brown again (3-4 minutes), add another 1/4 cup of wine to the pot and repeat the process.

After the wine has evaporated a second time, add 2 cups of beef stock, 3 cups of chicken stock and 1/4 cup of dry sherry to the pot. Scrape up any remaining brown bits, bring the liquid to a simmer and reduce the heat to medium-low. Tie 4 sprigs of fresh thyme together with butchers’ twine (I don’t bother tying herbs together when I make stock, as I strain the liquid through a fine-mesh sieve, but in this case, it’s much easier to pick out of the pot if it’s tied into a bundle), add it to the pot and simmer for 20 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees F and set one rack set to the middle. While the soup is simmering, cut the baguette into 1 inch cubes, spread the bread evenly over a rimmed baking sheet, and bake for 20 minutes, stirring a couple times during the drying process.

This is a relatively recent addition to Costco’s bakery repertoire: portion-controlled baguette. Except that it comes in a six pack.

And, if you’re a die-hard traditionalist who advocates for naturally staled baguette rounds, take a minute to ask yourself why.

Because it tastes better? Produces better mouth feel?

Or… because it’s always been done that way.

But where was I?

Oh, yes, putting away my soapbox…

Back in the days when food was scarce and “waste” was a profanity, staled bread was used up in myriad recipes, including French onion soup, because throwing it out would have been the culinary equivalent of a deadly sin. In the western world, at least, modern food distribution has given us highly effective ways to prevent waste, which, (when combined with mindful shopping), should eradicate our need to use up stale bread in the first place. In the meantime, modern science also tells us that bread dried in the oven is molecularly different from bread staled on the counter, and that the former creates a better crouton, and therefore a better dish.

When bread stales at room temperature, despite appearance to the contrary, the moisture in the loaf does not evaporate. Rather, the starches recrystallize and the water in the bread migrates from the starches to the spaces in between, leaving the bread hard and crumbly, but not necessarily dry. When the loaf is reheated, the starch reabsorbs the water, turning the bread gluey. If, however, you heat a fresh loaf in a low oven, the moisture is actually driven off through evaporation, and the dried bread makes better stuffing, better bread pudding (if there is such a thing), and yes, even better French onion soup.

Next, remove the croutons from the oven, set the oven to broil, and divide the soup evenly between 4 French onion soup bowls. To keep the croutons out of the soup, (as an aside, I use croutons, not baguette rounds, because you can spoon them out one at a time with no need to repeatedly push the bread all the way under the liquid’s surface to break it into bite-size pieces. But that’s me; I can’t stand crackers in my soup, either, saturated crackers remind me of pablum, and not in a nostalgic way, either), layer one slice of Swiss cheese over each soup bowl before distributing 1/4 of the croutons over each slice. Sprinkle 1 TBSP of grated grueyere cheese over each bowl and run the soup under the broiler until the cheese is golden brown and bubbly, about 5 – 7 minutes.

Serve piping hot.

Serves 4

3 large red onions
3 TBSP butter
1 tsp sea salt
1/2 cup dry red wine, divided
2 cups beef stock
3 cups chicken stock
1/4 cup dry sherry
4 sprigs fresh thyme
8 inch chunk of fresh baguette (or one demi-baguette)
4 thin slices Swiss cheese
4 TBSP grated grueyere, divided


  1. Halve onions pole to pole; slice off stem end and peel back skin. Starting at the stem end, slice the onions into 1/8 inch slices.
  2. Melt butter in large Dutch oven over medium-high heat. When foaming subsides, add onions and stir in salt. Cook, stirring frequently, until onions are glossy and reduced, and bottom of pot is covered in deep brown crust, about 30 minutes.
  3. Add half the red wine; bring to simmer and scrape up all the brown bits. Simmer until all liquid is evaporated and pot begins to brown again, 3-4- minutes. Add the rest of the wine and repeat.
  4. When the wine has evaporated a second time, add the stocks and the sherry; bring to a simmer and cook for 20 minutes.
  5. preheat the oven to 300 degrees F and set one rack to the middle.
  6. Chop the bread into 1 inch cubes and toast for 20 minutes.
  7. Remove the croutons from the oven; switch the oven to broil. Divide the soup evenly between 4 French onion soup crocks; layer 1 slice of Swiss cheese over each bowl, divide the croutons evenly over the cheese, and sprinkle 1 TBSP of the grueyere over the croutons.
  8. Broil until cheese is golden and bubbly, about 5 – 7 minutes.
  9. Serve piping hot.

© copyright 2012 ingrid baier all rights reserved

public speaking and the Art and Science of being a fraud

“It’s quite simple, public speaking. Say what you have to say and when you come to a sentence with a grammatical ending, sit down.”
– Winston Churchill

The Alberta Teachers’ Association is sponsoring its annual Science Conference this November in Banff, and I have been invited to present:

“I would like to invite you to share the project that you developed as your independent inquiry, on Saturday (November 17). Conference registration is free to those who present. Conference is Nov 15-17. Bill Nye is the keynote on Saturday!”

As in Bill Nye, the Science Guy?

Okay, I’m flattered to be asked—really I am—but me and Bill??

I don’t think so.

Safely ensconced in my shell on the couch, I write back, trying my best to be diplomatic:

“Thank you for the offer, I am tentatively interested, but would like to confirm approximate audience size before committing…”

This is what I get back:

“Thank you, Ingrid, for your response, I am so glad you will be participating…”


The first thing I do is panic.

The second thing I do is ask my husband for advice on how to extricate myself. He raises one eyebrow in that way he has and when he speaks, his voice is calm: “You know you have to do this.”

Case closed.

I phone my PhD-toting, neuroscientist sister (she know what’s really going on here), and ask her the same question, but she’s no help at all. She too can do that annoying eyebrow thing, and I can practically hear one silky brow as it whisks along her hairline.

“I concur. You have to do this.”

You concur? What are you, a Supreme Court Justice?

I revert to panic, and the “what ifs” paralyze me on the couch as I contemplate everything that could possibly go wrong:

I’m not that great with Power Point. Prezies make me nauseous. My hands will shake. I’ll drop my paper. WHAT WILL I WEAR??  

And as I wallow in my fear, the real issues start to come up…

What if I’ve made a mistake in the science? What if my research is unsound?

…quickly followed by the mother of them all…

What if they realize I’m a fraud? What if they notice that I know nothing at all about science? What if they see right through my long words and recognize me as an intellectual poseur, laying claim to a scientific authority I don’t actually possess…

Like the pauper in love with the princess, I have always worshiped science from afar, surveying her fortress with the furtiveness of a stalker whilst the whispering waters of the moat mock the absurdity of my feelings:

“…science isn’t for you… science is for smart people…”

I’m not sure where, exactly, I picked up this intellectual inferiority complex—I know I am not unintelligent—yet I have spent a significant part of my academic career feeling like an imposter, believing, for whatever reason, that if I was good at something, it must not be very hard.

Science was hard.

I fell in love with science as a child because of Madeleine L’Engle, a children’s author whose fiction departed from the usual fairy tale, illusion and magic, and drew instead from cutting edge biology and physics; whether she was transferring regenerative strategies of adult somatic stem cells from newts to humans, redefining mitochondrial function as the fulcrum balancing cosmic good and evil, or reconstructing a tesseract as a medium for time travel, my child’s imagination was captured by the sheer possibility, the utter coolness of science…

But there’s the rub… science and science fiction are not the same thing, and when I turned in school to science itself, I discovered an academic disconnect that haunts me to this day.

I have no recollection of science classes as a young child, and—having skipped a grade in elementary school—high school science labs always seemed to get bogged down in behavioral issues as I struggled to fit in with kids who were, in my adolescent mind, so much older and more socially adept than I. In physics, I was the kid in the back playing with the laser; in chemistry, the kid who got kicked out of class for reversing the lab directions, just to see what would happen.

After so many days locked out of class in the hallway, or caged in the principal’s office, science and I parted ways—she as the idol, myself as her unworthy suitor. As much as I loved the concepts, I couldn’t grasp the practice, and even when I truly believed I understood something, my teachers insisted otherwise. Unfortunately, my young mind conflated difficulty and superiority, with the result that I placed Science on a pedestal, later concluding that Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences must be a myth, a heroic fiction created by humanities majors in a robust attempt to defend their own lack of scientific prowess; a valiant attempt to equalize cognitive ability, to be sure, but ineffective nonetheless, because all it accomplished was to create a hierarchy of intelligences in lieu of a genuine plurality.

The visual representation of such a scheme is, in the pathos of western culture, a pyramid, with “Logical-Mathematical” at the pinnacle, and “Intrapersonal” intelligence—that bastion of the New Age Universe—shoring up its massive, swollen bottom. In a world in which physics is truth (and chemistry is lies that work), we worship at the altar of hard science, and the fact that Gardner is a psychologist, not a physicist, isn’t lost on the congregation. Indeed, my undergrad years as a philosophy student were filled with such flippancies:

Q: How many psych majors does it take to change a light bulb?
A: One, but he gets three credits for it.

And again in grad school:

Q: What’s the most frightening aspect of being a parent?
A: The realization that your children are being taught by people who majored in education.

And yet… and yet… the draw of science has persisted.

I collect layman’s physics books. I indulge my passion in private, where no one can catch my mistakes. I write science fiction stories that never see the light of day.

And still… and still… the feeling of being an imposter endures.

The truth is, I have always lacked confidence in my ability to understand bona fide scientific principles, and while a précis of scientific concepts (courtesy of amazon.com), arrests my interest, to my chagrin, “real science” always seems to lie an inch or two beyond my grasp. Even as I recognize this flaw, I can’t seem to change it. While I realize that my own distorted conceptualization of science as loftier than all other disciplines isn’t a strength, particularly in light of my own lack of foundational scientific knowledge, I continue to feel disenfranchised in the presence of “real scientists.”

And because I feel like a fraud, I assume I will be viewed as one, as well. My intellectual hangover from high school, influenced by both teachers and family, has left me with an acute awareness of the uneasy relationship between science teachers, humanities teachers, and pedagogy today. In essence, it boils down to a question of accessibility. While scientists may dabble in creative writing, sing in the Bach choir, and earn certificates in cordon bleu cooking, English majors don’t typically set up ad hoc labs in their garages so they can tinker with the human genome at the weekend. As John D. MacDonald once said, “if you want to write, you write. This would not be a useful approach to brain surgery.”

I found this perceptual disconnect between academic faculties particularly noticeable during my  years in education, for while the “science people” in my professional seminars clearly understood the pedagogical concerns of the “arts people”, the reverse was not the case. I’d like to believe that we are two sides of the same coin, but my inner high school physics student—who is, perhaps, still sitting in the principal’s office—is wont to disagree.

The ATA Science Conference is, for me, about more than getting through a Power Point presentation without going into myocardial infarction, it is a clarion call for me to deconstruct my own self-criticism. I have no idea how to do this, but this much I know is true: I have to start by getting up off the couch.

© copyright 2012 ingrid baier all rights reserved