Building a Better Soup
When you think about it soup is a pretty versatile dish. It can warm you up on a cold day, or cool you down on a hot day (think chilled gazpacho or fruit based soups). It is a great side dish, usually with a sandwich or salad. Soups can be sweet, savory or spicy; light, hearty or rich and creamy; quick and easy or as complicated as you are willing to get.
Over the past few days, it has been bone-chillingly cold here in Colorado Springs. The kind of cold that makes me crave a warming bowl of soup. With January being National Soup Month, I thought I would explore some easy ways to enhance the flavor of your homemade soups and stews.
Choose the Right Pot
When making soups and stew, flavors really develop to the fullest when the ingredients are allowed to simmer over a long period of time. What should you look for in a good soup pot? A thick, heavy bottom to help prevent burning. Here at CHEFS, we love the “Never Burn” Sauce Pot for its heavy bottom and advanced technology that ensures even heat distribution and no scorching.
Make Flavorful Stock
The stock is the canvas of the soup. It is the starting place and from where the flavor begins. Starting with good, flavorful stock is essential for the best tasting soups and stews.
I am the first to admit that I don’t always have time to make a stock from scratch, nor do I always save the bones and veggie clippings to make it. But if you have a few hours one evening or a Saturday, throwing a few ingredients in a pot to make homemade stock is worth the effort. Or, as an alternative, use the slow cooker. Let it simmer away all day while you are away, and come home to delicious homemade stock.
To get flavorful meat-based stock, roast the bones. If you are like me and sometimes forget to save the bones, stop by your friendly butcher. I bet he has some good stock bones set aside that you can get. Take the bones or chicken carcass, drizzle with a couple of tablespoons of olive oil. Sprinkle with herbs, if desired—for chicken I like to add thyme and rosemary or for beef I will add some garlic. Place in a shallow roasting pan or baking pan, and roast in a 400 F oven for 30-45 minutes. When they are finished roasting, transfer everything in the pan into a stock pot. Add vegetables, typically carrots, celery, and onion, and seasonings to pot. Add just enough water to just cover everything. Put over medium heat and bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 4 hours. Periodically skim any foam or scum that rises to the top.
If you are making vegetable stock, roasting or caramelizing will bring out the rich flavors of the vegetables, too. Don’t cut your vegetables too finely: cutting them in half or quarters is plenty, and leave the peels. They will help add color and flavor to the stock. Drizzle the vegetables with olive oil and roast in a 400 F oven or caramelize on the stove top until just brown. Depending on what vegetables you are using it will take 10 to15 minutes.
Boost the Flavor
Start your soup by seating the aromatics (onions, celery, carrots, garlic, leeks, etc.). Allowing them to soften, but not brown, allows the vegetable to give off some of their liquid and deepen the soup’s flavor.
As with most cooking adventures, it is important to taste and season as you go and again before serving. There is nothing as bad as over salted or under seasoned soups and stews. And, as much as I wish it were true, the old-wives tale about adding a potato to over-salted soup just doesn’t work. Pull out that tasting spoon and use it, frequently.
But if you want to liven up your soup, try these ingredients to add an extra boost of flavor:
- Cheese rinds—I don’t have a good explanation for what happens here, but it adds amazing flavor to every soup I have tried.
- Shitake mushrooms—Adds a great earthy flavor to soups. While usually you would remove the stems, leave them on for soup.
- Greens—Adds a little color, flavor and nutrition all at once.
- V-8—Especially to tomato based soups and stew. I use the Tabasco flavored version in my chili, its delicious and I don’t like tomato juice. When it is available, opt for the low sodium versions.
Finally, just before serving, add a bit of something fresh. A sprinkle of fresh herbs, fresh citrus juice, dollop of cream will add a bright fresh note to highlight the deep, delicious flavor of the soup or stew.
Make it Smooth and Creamy
A smooth soup is usually from pureeing the ingredients. To get a proper puree you are going to need a blender, food processor, or immersion/hand blender. My choice most of the time is the immersion blender. I can blend right in the pot, no transferring hot liquids, and very little mess.
If you do use a blender or food processor, work in batches filling only halfway. Remove the center cap of the blender or the pusher from the food processor and cover with a dish cloth before blending to allow heat to escape and prevent an explosion of hot liquid.
If you are going to puree a soup, make sure your vegetables are soft all the way through. Undercooked vegetables will make the puree gritty.
To make it thicker or creamy, you have a few options:
- Cream: Kind of the obvious choice, cream will make a silky, reach cream soup.
- Yogurt or Sour Cream: Much like cream, but will have a lighter result. Both will add a tang that is a nice compliment to some soups.
- Puree: Puree a couple of cups of the soup and stir it back into the main pot. This will add some thickness and body without losing the chunky goodness. I use this method most frequently if the soup contains potatoes.
- Bread: Tear up a couple of slices of bread and stir into the soup to thicken it slightly without affecting the flavor.
- Ground Nuts: Historically, ground nuts are one of the fist thickeners used in soups and sauces. Grind the nuts until they are almost paste. Then whisk nuts with some broth and then into the main pot. Nuts will add a flavor note to the end product. I like to use the ground nut method with my vegetable based soups, like roasted pumpkin soup, instead of a slurry.
- Starch: Flour, Cornstarch, Potato Starch, Arrowroot, are some of the most common thickeners. They can be added to soups in a slurry by whisking a couple of tablespoons in a cup of broth and then whisking into the main pot. Or, knead equal amounts of flour and butter together to make a thick paste, and then whisk into the soup.
Freeze the Leftovers
I love having leftover soup in my freezer. It’s quick and easy to heat, and still delicious. But a few tips to keeping your soup at its flavorful best in and out of the freezer:
- Hold the cream: If you know you are going to freeze your soup, add cream only to the portion you are going to immediately use. Cream and milk (even soy or coconut milk) tend to separate and become grainy in the freezing and thawing process. Add it to the soup when you are reheating.
- Hold the pasta & rice: Pasta tends to get mushy when frozen and thawed. Brown and whole grain will hold up better in the freezing process than white, but I still wait and add it when I reheat.
- Hold last stage ingredients: It’s best to wait on any ingredients added in the last stages of cooking like eggs or fresh herbs. They are added at the end because of their delicate nature, and will test best if added when reheating.
Looking for more information about soups?
Check out additional CHEFS Mix Blogs on Soup!
Your Turn: What tips do you have for making better soups?
Winter Soup Recipes
For more recipes visit CHEFScatalog.com
Cook’s Country Wisconsin Cheddar Beer Soup
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 onion, chopped fine
2 carrots, peeled and chopped fine
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
1-3/4 cups low-sodium chicken broth
1 (12-ounce) beer
2 cups whole or low-fat milk
3 cups shredded sharp cheddar cheese
1 cup shredded American cheese (see note, above)
2 teaspoons cornstarch
Salt and pepper
Melt butter in large pot over medium heat. Cook onion and carrots until lightly browned, about 10 minutes. Add garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Stir in flour and cook until golden, about 1 minute. Slowly whisk in broth, beer and milk. Bring mixture to a simmer, then reduce heat to low and simmer gently (do not boil) until carrots are very soft, 20 to 25 minutes.
Meanwhile, toss shredded cheeses and cornstarch in large bowl until well combined. Puree soup in blender in two batches until completely smooth, return to pot, and simmer over medium-low heat. Whisk in cheese mixture, one handful at a time, until smooth. Season with salt and pepper. Serve. Soup can be refrigerated in an airtight container for 3 days.
Butternut Squash and Bean Soup
3 tablespoons olive oil
3 medium (about 6 ounces) carrots, peeled and diced
2 stalks celery, diced
1 medium (about 8 ounces) yellow onion, diced
3 large cloves garlic, minced
2 pounds butternut squash, peeled, seeded and cut into 1/2″ cubes
28-ounce can stewed tomatoes
15-ounce can cannellini beans
8 cups low sodium chicken or vegetable broth
1 small head (about 8 cups) Savoy cabbage, core removed and leaves thinly shredded
1 bunch (about 6 cups) Swiss chard, stems discarded and leaves coarsely chopped
1 bay leaf
One 2″ piece Parmigiano-Reggiano rind plus grated cheese for serving
freshly ground black pepper
Set an electric pressure cooker to brown according to the manufacturers instructions. Warm the olive oil in the pressure cooker, add the carrots, celery and onions and salt the vegetables lightly. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are slightly softened and the onion is translucent, 5 to 7 minutes.
Stir in the garlic and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the butternut squash, tomatoes, cannellini beans, broth, cabbage, chard, bay leaf and Parmigiano rind. Stir to combine the ingredients.
Place the lid on the pressure cooker and cook on high for 10 minutes according to the manufacturer’s instructions, or until the vegetables are tender.
Release the pressure according to the manufacturer’s instructions and carefully remove the lid. Using a stick blender, puree the soup to desired consistency. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Serve with grated Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Jacques Pepin’s Onion Soup Gratinee
2 tablespoons oil
1 tablespoon butter
1 1/2 pounds onions, peeled and thinly sliced (about 5 cups)
1 teaspoon minced fresh thyme sprigs, or 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon salt, or more to taste
5 cups hot chicken stock, homemade, or low-sodium canned broth
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, or more to taste
1/4 cup red or white wine (optional)
For each crock of onion soup gratinee:
3 or 4 slices baguette, about 1/4 inch thick cut on the diagonal
2 to 2 1/2 ounces Gruyere or Emmentaler cheese, grated (about 3/4 cup)
Special equipment: A heavy-bottomed 3- or 4-quart saucepan, with a cover, to make the soup; small (11-ounce) soup crocks or a large crock or heavy casserole for the gratinee version.
Set the saucepan over medium-low heat and add the oil and butter. When the butter has melted, add the onions, thyme, and 1/2 teaspoon of salt and mix together thoroughly. Cover the pan and cook for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. When the onions are quite tender, uncover and raise the heat slightly. Cook for another 20 to 25 minutes, stirring frequently, until the onions are dark brown and have caramelized in the pan. Lower the heat if the onions are in danger of burning.
Stir in the hot stock, scraping any crystallized juices from the bottom of the pan, and bring the soup to boil. Taste and adjust the seasonings, adding salt and 1/4 teaspoon of black pepper or more to taste, and wine, if you like. The amount of salt will vary, depending on the broth. Cover and simmer for about 10 minutes.
The soup may be served plain or gratineed.
For onion soup gratinee: To make croutons, toast a dozen or so baguette slices on a baking sheet in a 400 degree F oven, until crisp and starting to color about 10 minutes. When the soup is ready, arrange the individual crocks on the baking sheet. Put the croutons (whole or broken into large pieces) into the bottom of each crock, and sprinkle about 2 tablespoons of cheese on top. Ladle in a cup or more soup, to fill the crock to the inner rim (about 1/4 inch from the top). Heap a large mound of grated cheese all over the surface of the soup, using the rest of the cheese for each crock. Place the baking sheet in the oven and bake for 30 – 40 minutes, until the cheese is dark golden brown and has formed crust over the soup. Move the hot crocks carefully onto individual plates and serve.