03/26/2012 09:52 am ET Updated Aug 31, 2012

What's The Sweet In That French Onion?

The Splendid Table®'s How To Eat Supper by Lynne Rossetto Kasper

Hi Lynne,

I ate out last night and ordered French Onion Soup, something I haven't had in ages. It was delicious but a bit sweet and I am wondering what makes it that way. I have looked at half dozen recipes, all calling for Gruyere cheese, but am having trouble figuring out the sweetness factor. Do you know the reason?

Many thanks, Carolyn in Minneapolis


Dear Carolyn,

I'll bet it was the onions. Slow sauté onions and their sugars blossom; this is the same way you make so-called onion marmalades. And sautéed onions are the foundation of the soup. Fast sauté the onions so they brown quickly and you bring out their brash, deep, meaty tasting sides.

One trick with onion soup to sidestep the sweetness is to soften the onions with a slow sauté, then flip up the heat and flash brown them so you get both ends of the spectrum. Try this with any recipe calling for sautéed onions and you'll build in more layered flavors. Take a look at the onion dip recipe below to see what I mean...

Dear Lynne,

My guy lied. He said the junky "helpers" and mixes in the cupboards were his roommate's. Now I'm his roommate. They are his and he loves them. Onion dip is his biggest passion. He says no "real" food tastes this good. He's going to kill himself eating this stuff. Please help me help him or I am out of here.
Nila in Fort Lee


Dear Nila,
You're nudging him into palate detox so go slow. Gradually work in home-cooked versions of dishes he likes, but go for bold flavors or he'll turn up his nose. Your allies will be tomatoes, cheeses and crusty browned foods (not fried, but grilled and pan browned), because they'll give him the big tastes he's used to.

He is right about tastes of "real" foods. So much fat, salt, sugar and chemical flavor enhancers go into prepared foods that they blast the palate with flavors, then play havoc with blood sugar levels so cravings keep returning in waves. "Real" food can't compete unless flavors are big and satisfying. If you keep increasing the whole grains, beans and vegetables as you cook, they'll fight the blood sugar spikes and help keep him feeling satisfied.

His passion for onion dip is like throwing down the gauntlet for a cook. See how he takes to this home version. Fat is still high here (tests with low fat yogurt and sour cream didn't cut it,) but the chemicals are gone. You can skip the chips because raw vegetables are sensational with this, especially sugar snap peas.


10 minutes prep time; 10 minutes stove time
Makes 1 to 2 cups.
Keeps 1 week in refrigerator

About 2 tablespoons good tasting extra-virgin olive oil
1 large onion, cut in 1/8-inch dice
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Generous pinch hot red pepper flakes
1 large clove garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon tomato paste
1/4 tight-packed up fresh basil leaves, torn
1/3 cup dry white wine
1 to 1-1/2 cups sour cream (not low fat)
Fresh lemon juice to taste

Fresh Vegetables for Dipping (cucumber, sugar snap peas, peppers, cauliflower, radishes, celery, carrots, etc.)

1. Film the bottom of a 10-inch skillet with oil. Set over medium high heat. Stir in onions, pepper flakes, and season with salt and pepper. Turn heat down to medium low and sauté five minutes or until the onions are softened.

2. Raise heat to medium high to high and quickly take the onions to rich, golden brown. Stir them often and take special care not to burn the brown glaze developing on the bottom of the pan. Stir in garlic, tomato paste and basil. Sauté one minute or until fragrant.

3. Stir in the wine and simmer it down as you scrape up the brown glaze at the bottom of the pan. Once the wine has boiled off, taste the onions for seasoning. Turn them in a bowl, cool them completely and stir in the sour cream (start with 1 cup), then add lemon juice to taste. Sample for salt and pepper. Serve with raw vegetables.