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.