"That beefy, caramelized onion flavor is actually really hard to achieve on your own at home. Improbably, the product is vegan, made with dried onions (of course), soy sauce, which adds plenty of umami, onion powder, and sugar, plus a slew of preservatives and additives like “high oleic sunflower oil.” Maira Weinraub/Food 52
As a child I think we had French onion soup mix in our kitchen. The dehydrated kind. I suspect we may also have had it in tins. But I do vaguely remember the soup which even then I don't think I really thought was wonderful. A bit watery.
Then came the french onion dip. Now when did I discover that? Maybe I made it - oh how I cringe now - for parties when I was at university. But I did like that. Although I see that the original recipe from 1954 - shown here - was made with sour cream and I don't think we had access to such stuff back then.
That dip was originally called California Dip and it used Lipton's packet onion soup mix which first appeared back in 1952. No French in the name either. And that mix is still going strong. They sell millions of packets per year. Still no French in the title. And that's just Liptons. There are lots of other brands now and every supermarket will have its own Home Brand.
As for the dip - well in that mind boggling array of dips that you will find in your supermarket French onion dip apparently reigns supreme - with 22% of the total sales, followed by Guacamole at 18% and Hummus at 14%. Which I do find interesting, because if you had asked me what was the top dip I would have said hummus.
All of which makes me think that the French onion mix must have something in it to give that umami taste that we all crave. Sure it has salt, but you could probably find a low salt brand somewhere today. Salt alone won't do it I think. Maybe it's the soy sauce. Apparently the onions are caramelised, so maybe that's it. Caramelized onions are indeed wonderful - but just so hard to make and so demanding of patience.
"As the obsession with making everything from scratch has grown, convenience foods like Lipton soup mix have fallen out of favor. They’re “fake” and full of sodium, the critics say, and so we remove them from our pantries in the pursuit of “eating healthier,” and replace them with more “natural” options, like painstakingly caramelized onions." Maira Weinraub/Food 52
I remember Felicity Cloake saying once, that you should never believe any recipe that says it takes less than an hour to make them - caramelized onions I mean.
"if this onion dip—whose quality may be more reliant on nostalgia than, say, its own merit—were invented today, would it still be as popular?" asks Maira Weinraub of Food52, which I think is a bit of a rhetorical question considering its dominant popularity and also the fact that the packets of soup still exist - after seventy years - and as Home Brands at that, which must mean they are popular. I wonder whether people are using them to make soup though. Or are they using them as an ingredient, or to make their own dip? Lots of people put dips in school lunchboxes these days, and I guess it would be much cheaper to make your own than to buy the made version. A cheat's version that is. A 'real' version would, of course have handmade caramelised onions and other luxury ingredients in the mix.
I started out on this because of this recipe for Easy French-onion rissoles in the latest Woolworths Fresh Ideas Magazine. I think I was out of ideas and so turned to the magazine for some. Seeing this I wondered whether anyone of the real foodies - the celebrity chefs - had deigned to use packet French onion soup in a recipe or whether it was really something for the underclasses. I mean the rissoles look quite nice don't they?
Well so far I have not found any 'name' chef or cook who has discovered it as a must-have ingredient. Not even Delia in her How to Cheat at Cooking book. It seems to be resigned to the everyday bloggers and the collection sites like Taste.com who glean their recipes from magazines and bloggers. Or TikTok and Instagram.
I did find one video on TikTok from a lady called Jane De Graaff who had a few ideas, the most interesting of which was to add it to her crepe mixture, suggesting that these could then be stuffed with other stuff, or sauced and served. Not much on Instagram though.
Various internet magazines and writers did, however, seem to think that it could indeed be a magic ingredient that just added that extra taste. The Food52 lady was one of these, but there were others who said much the same:
"The mix is also there to rescue pretty much any savory recipe that I have screwed up beyond all recognition."
One of the examples she gave is this French onion skillet gnocchi of which she says:
"The first time I made the recipe, I tasted the gnocchi before adding the cheese, and it was good. Really good. But there was still something missing that couldn’t be created in this meal that goes from stove to table in just under an hour, and it was a tablespoon of onion soup mix. Once added, my plate of plump potato dumplings in lightly caramelized onions went from tasty to transcendent."
She also gave the example of a dish that sounded like a daube which was surprisingly bland when she first tasted it, and so she added the French onion packet mix - just a little I think - and returned it to the oven to cook for half and hour or so and it was transformed.
Maybe. Anyway there are heaps and heaps of recipes out there, and here are just a few of the more interesting that I found: French onion meatball pasta from Woolworths, and also from Woolworths - well one of their customers - Potato bake with a twist; French onion honeycomb pasta from Taste and Sunshine pastry pull-apart spinach dip from Coles
You can also find recipes online for making your own French onion soup mix, but why on earth would you? Even if it only takes a quarter of an hour to do (and I haven't looked) it surely can't be worth it when you can buy a packet at the supermarket for 45c. Yes cents. Maybe I should buy some and add it to things that are just - well Ok but not great. Like Friday night's fish. It's a thought.