Hundred-year-old Recipe for French Onion Soup

bowl of French Onion Soup with toast and cheese on top

French Onion Soup topped with toast and Swiss or Gruyere cheese is my favorite “restaurant soup,” so I was intrigued when I saw a recipe for French Onion Soup in a hundred-year-old cookbook. I could immediately tell the old recipe wasn’t exactly like a modern one because the soup was topped with toast and American cheese.

I have a somewhat negative stereotype of American cheese (and it just isn’t the same as Swiss or Gruyere cheese), so my expectations weren’t very high for this recipe. But I was pleasantly surprised. The resulting soup tasted similar to modern French onion soups–and the melted American cheese was yummy (and not the least bit jarring) when immersed in the soup. My husband even said that he liked how the cheese was “less stringy” than the cheese on the typical French Onion Soup.

Here’s the original recipe:

Recipe for French Onion Soup
Source: A New Snowdrift Cook Book (1920) by Mrs. Ida C. Bailey Allen

Old cookbooks often just use the generic term “cheese.” This is the first time I’ve seen a hundred-year-old recipe explicitly call for American cheese. According to Serious Eats, James Kraft patented a method for making process American cheese in 1916, and it apparently was widely available by 1920.

This recipe is from a promotional cookbook for Snowdrift published by The Southern Cotton Oil Trading Company. Snowdrift was a shortening made from cottonseed oil. When I made the recipe, I substituted butter for the Snowdrift.

And, here is the recipe updated for modern cooks:

French Onion Soup

  • Servings: 3-4
  • Difficulty: moderate
  • Print

3 tablespoons butter

6 medium-sized onions, thinly sliced

1 quart soup stock (I used beef broth.)

1 slice of bread for each bowl of soup

1 slice American cheese for each bowl of soup (Use 2 slices per bowl if the slices are thin.)

Melt butter in a Dutch oven or stock pot, then add onion slices. Using medium heat sauté until the onions have softened and caramelized while stirring occasionally. It will take approximately 45 minutes for the onions to caramelize. Add the soup stock, and bring to a simmer.

In the meantime, lightly toast bread. Cut toast into squares small enough to fit the soup bowls; then cut the American cheese into squares slightly smaller than the toast. Top the toast with the squares of American cheese. Put under the boiler until the cheese melts (about 1 minute); remove from oven.

To serve: Ladle soup into bowls, and top with the toast squares/melted cheese.

58 thoughts on “Hundred-year-old Recipe for French Onion Soup

  1. This looks really odd, because of the toast and cheese. I wonder if it would work as well placed atop croutons? In any event, a lot of this soup suffers from too much of that stringy cheese on top, and there are times when American cheese really does complement a recipe best.

    1. It would be worth a try. As long as the American cheese was atop croutons, I think that it would work fine. But for the cheese that was just on top of the soup, I’m not sure whether it would float or sink when it melted.

    1. You should give it a try. It’s really not difficult to make; it’s just a little time-consuming to cook the onion slices until they begin to caramelize. I don’t know much about the history of cottonseed shortening, but it was widely used for many years, You probably know more than me about it than me, but my sense is that it took a lot of processing to make cottonseed shorting.

  2. I can hear Parisiens gasping in horror all the way across the ocean! But I must admit, the stringiness of the traditional cheese is one of the things that makes me not order this soup in a restaurant.
    I think that the bread broken up into spoon-size pieces would be better, and I think I’d have to opt for Canadian cheddar, to honour my roots. 🙂

    1. I like your suggestion to break the bread into pieces and to use cheddar cheese. Definitely not “authentic” French Onion Soup – but it’s fun to think of of the variations we could have: French Onion Soup with American Cheese, French Onion Soup with Canadian Cheddar, and so on.

    1. I also had never heard of Snowdrift until a saw 1920 Snowdrift promotional cookbook for sale on Ebay. It may have been wonderful, but I’ll take butter any day.

  3. I learned two new things! I didn’t know what snowdrift was but it sounds awful. And I had no idea American cheese was invented that long ago. Strange! Did you say what kind of stock to use? Does it have to be beef?

      1. I did add two slices, but my wife had added another kind of cheese before I could tell her. I will try it next time with only American cheese.

  4. I like the idea that everyone would know what “cheese” meant 100years ago. I am still a little stumped by a recipe from my great grandmother from around 1900 that calls for “rat cheese.” Any idea?

    1. I see that another commenter suggested that “rat cheese” might refer to any inexpensive cheese. I don’t know if she’s right, but it makes sense to me.

  5. I enjoy cheese sandwiches,but I’ll take the soup and sandwich separate ,while Leona is looking over my shoulder saying ,yum…,so I just have to try it for her.😀

  6. I’m in the group which hadn’t heard of snowdrift…I have however tried American cheese..never again…give me a good cheddar any day…my understanding of Rat cheese is an inexpensive cheese…Interesting post, Sheryl 🙂

      1. Shiver. . . but it does make sense that an inexpensive cheese would be used as bait on rat traps. Some things have definitely changed for the better across the years.

  7. Very interesting. I haven’t had French Onion soup served this way, and I didn’t know that processed cheese was known as American cheese. I think we just called it Kraft cheese.

  8. I love French Onion soup. I do agree with your husband about the intense stringiness of traditional cheese and when the soup is hot, it makes it difficult to chew. I’ll try the american cheese for sure.

    1. If you don’t like the stringiness of the typical cheese on French Onion Soup, you should give American Cheese a try. It looks unusual, but works surprisingly well to top the soup.

  9. I like the idea of substituting American cheese for the swiss cheese, as the stringiness of the white cheeses is a problem. At first I didn’t think it would taste good, but since you said it did, this might be well worth trying. Thanks!

    1. You should try it. I had thought that the use of a different type of cheese in this soup might be jarring, but it really wasn’t. It still had a very nice taste.

  10. Looks quite delicious! I’d never heard of Snowdrift. I do like the idea of using American cheese with French onion soup, though I like the ooziness of Gruyere for it. Great post.

    1. It’s just different – Gruyere is great for the traditional oozy French Onion Soup topping; American is tasty for those who want a non-stringy alternative. It’s wonderful to hear that you enjoyed this post.

  11. Isn’t it funny how things evolve! I would have never thought of American cheese with onion soup…but I will say I hate to fight my way through a huge cheesy “crouton” atop an onion soup bowl, especially in a restaurant! Your recipe is such an easy preparation and the American cheese makes a nice change, I hope to try this soon!
    Jenna

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