Soup is the best. It can be an appetizer or a whole meal. It can be hot or cold, and you can incorporate almost any ingredient into a soup (and someone has almost certainly already tried).
Soup can be as easy or difficult to make as you’d like, and it’s endlessly customizable to your liking.
Soups have three parts:
- A base of liquid, called a stock or broth;
- Ingredients that add flavor and substance;
- (optionally) Ingredients that thicken the soup and/or give it texture.
Broths and stocks
Broths and stocks form the underlying basis for a soup: liquid and background flavor. They are made by boiling ingredients in water (potentially for several hours), then straining out all the ingredients leaving just the liquid, plus the flavor and color it picked up along the way. Officially, a “broth” is made just from meat ingredients and seasonings, and a “stock” is made also using vegetables (or entirely vegetables); but those definitions often are not followed religiously on product labels.
There are four common broths and stocks that are used in soupmaking: chicken, beef, vegetable, and fish. Chicken is extremely common as a soup base, as it is generally light in flavor so it complements other ingredients rather than competing with them. Vegetable stock is often used in vegetable-soup recipes, or as a substitute for chicken stock to make a recipe vegetarian or vegan; it has a bit stronger flavor than chicken stock, and a different flavor that tends to emphasize, rather than complement, other vegetable ingredients in a soup. Beef stock has a much stronger flavor than chicken stock, and so it tends to be used more in soups that include other kinds of red meats and stronger-flavored ingredients (much as red wine is served with stronger-flavored foods compared to white wine). Fish stock is almost entirely reserved for fish-based soups and chowders, as it has a uniquely “fishy” flavor that doesn’t hide in the background.
You can make your own broth or stock at home, and either use it immediately or freeze it for future use; it’s not difficult, but it can take several hours (mostly unattended). Or you can buy canned broth or stock at any grocery store. If you’re short of space, you can also buy concentrated stock or broth, called “bouillon,” which can be mixed with water to reconstitute it. Bouillon traditionally comes in cubes (about the size of a sugar cube), but more recently Better than Bouillon has come onto the market with concentrate in jars that gives you the ability to more precisely control how much stock you make and how much flavor it brings; its products get very good reviews for flavor as well.
If you’re trying to win a cooking contest, making your own stock is definitely the way to go; nothing else beats its flavor. But if you don’t have the time, the inclination, or the freezer space, there are some decent canned stocks that are perfectly passable for everyday cooking. Your neighborhood grocery store will have at least a half-dozen different brands, and it’s worth trying a few different ones until you find the one you like best. For what it’s worth, independent taste tests have shown that Swanson Low-Sodium Chicken Broth rates very highly; it’s what I use, it has a long shelf-life, and you can buy inexpensive cans by the case at Costco. I keep a smaller supply of beef and vegetable stock in my pantry, and a jar of Better than Bouillon fish stock concentrate in my fridge for the rare occasions when I need fish stock.
The Main Event
The fillings that you add to the soup are intended to be the center of attention; that’s why we call it “chicken noodle soup” and not “chicken stock with some meat and pasta.” It can be one ingredient, or several complementary ones. Sometimes we cook the ingredients in the stock; other times we cook them separately and then add them in, depending on whether boiling is an appropriate way to cook the ingredient to get the desired flavor and texture.
The process of preparing the soup fillers is very similar to making a sauce-based dish: it often starts with some aromatic vegetables as a flavor base, then browning some proteins, and finally adding other vegetables and/or starches like rice or noodles.
Sometimes we want the liquid part of the soup to be thin; other times we want it to thicken up. Some recipes call for it to be watery, while others desire a creamier texture. There are several ingredients that are typically called on to make this magic happen:
- Flour. Just as with sauces, flour is often mixed with oil or butter to make a roux that will then activate when heated to thicken liquid.
- Corn starch. This is less common in soups.
- Potatoes. If you cook potatoes long enough, they fall apart and then combine with the stock to create a thicker liquid. This is very common in chowder recipes. Choosing the kind of potato to use is very important, as they have different textures when they break down.
- Starches from rice or noodles. There are starches on the surface of noodles and rice that leach into the water when boiled. Those starches can do a very good job of thickening liquid in a soup. Some recipes call for cooking the rice or noodles in the soup for that reason. Others ask you to cook the rice/noodles separately, but “reserve” some of the water to add to the soup later to thicken it.
- Pureed fruits and vegetables. With a strong blender, you can make a vegetable soup out of almost any vegetable: tomato, carrot, celery, broccoli, onion, squash, etc. Also mushrooms. It’s perhaps more accurate to think of the stock as thinning the puree, rather than the puree thickening the stock.
- Cream. Cream isn’t a strong thickener on its own, but it can add a silkier texture to a soup that is either watery or coarse (like pureed vegetables, often).
Season to Taste
Finishing making a soup is the most fun part: tweaking the flavors to get everything in balance. There’s the usual salt, pepper, herbs and spices. But there is also an opportunity to make sure that you’re bringing out all of the hidden flavors. Remember that flavor needs to be dissolved in one of four substances in order for us to be able to taste it: water, fat, acid, and alcohol. It might be that a dash of cream (fat), hot sauce (acid), or brandy (alcohol) might make the soup come alive. It’s worth looking at the recipe, checking to see whether any of these ingredients ave not already been included in some form and might be worth trying as an addition.
Tips and suggestions:
- Match your ingredients to your flatware. If you expect people to consume your soup with a soup spoon, then make sure you don’t have ingredients too large to fit on a spoon (or cut them into spoon-size pieces). Likewise, if you are including long, thin noodles, provide a fork or chopsticks (or break the dry noodles into smaller pieces before you add them to the soup).
- One other option for soup stock: some high-end grocery stores sell containers of freshly-made soup stock in their deli department.