Alcott · Little Women

Cookbook Outtakes: Beth’s Onion Soup


Author: Alcott, Louisa May
Book: Little Women
Difficulty rating: Pride and Prejudice (mainly because caramelizing onion is hard)
Deliciousness rating: Exceeds Expectations

Old Hannah never wearied of concocting dainty dishes to tempt a capricious appetite, dropping tears as she worked, and from across the sea came little gifts and cheerful letters, seeming to bring breaths of warmth and fragrance from lands that know no winter. (Chapter 40: “The Valley of the Shadow”)

We have a section devoted to “dainty dishes” in Beth’s chapter of our Little Women Cookbook. This onion soup was considered a “fine restorative after any unusual fatigue” by legendary cookbook author Eliza Leslie. It’s surprisingly complex in its flavor, especially considering how few ingredients go into it. How could this soup not be delicious, with the whole stick of butter in it?

(But we thought it was a bit too rich to be an appropriate dish for Beth, so we cut it from the cookbook when we needed the space.)


Based on Eliza Leslie’s Onion Soup Recipe from Directions for Cookery, in Its Various Branches (original recipe below!)
Makes 3-4 servings


  • ½ cup (1 stick) butter
  • 4 small onions, sliced thin
  • 1 teaspoon salt, plus more as needed
  • 1 teaspoon flour
  • 1 quart boiling water, plus more as needed
  • ½ cup bread crust, cut into ¼-inch cubes
  • 2 egg yolks, beaten (These make a huge difference!)


  1. Heat a Dutch oven or medium soup pot over medium-high heat and cook until it melts and sizzles.
  2. Caramelize the onions: Add just enough onions to cover the bottom of the pot, along with 1 teaspoon salt. Stir frequently with a wooden spatula. Add a handful more onions once the batch in the pot has turned an even tan color. Repeat until you have added all the onions to the pot. Keep stirring until the onions turn a rich brown color, scraping the sides of the pot to keep them from burning, about 30-40 minutes.
  3. In a kettle or separate saucepan, bring a little more than a quart of water to a boil.
  4. Add the flour to the onions, and stir frequently for 5 minutes.
  5. Pour in the boiling water.
  6. Put in the cut bread crust and boil, stirring all the time, for 10 minutes.
  7. Take the pot off the heat, and after waiting a minute or two for the soup to stop boiling, stir in the beaten egg yolks.
  8. Add room temp/warm (not boiling) water to adjust the soup to the thickness you prefer.
  9. Season with salt to taste.


From Eliza Leslie’s Directions for Cookery, in Its Various Branches 


Put half a pound of the best fresh butter into a stew-pan on the fire, and let it boil till it has done making a noise; then have ready twelve large onions peeled and cut small; throw them into the butter, add a little salt, and stew them a quarter of an hour. Then dredge in a little flour, and stir the whole very hard; and in five minutes pour in a quart of boiling water, and some of the upper crust of bread, cut small. Let the soup boil ten minutes longer, stirring it often; and after you take it from the fire, stir in the yolks of two beaten eggs, and serve it up immediately,

In France this soup is considered a fine restorative after any unusual fatigue. Instead of butter, the onions may be boiled in veal or chicken broth.

Alcott, Louisa. Little Women. Reprint. 1896. New York: Viking Penguin Inc, 1926.

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