10 Super Tips for Making Soups & Stews We Learned from the Pros

Liquid plus stuff doesn't equal soup (or good soup, anyways), nor does anything you can shove into a blender and purée. That's because soup is simple and therefore easy to mess up.

Treat soup wrong and it can be a gloopy or watery or a one-spoonful-and-done bowlful of sadness. But soup done right is a wonder, whether it's a broccoli and potato soup with layers of flavor or cauliflower that's simmered and blended until it's like silk. And because we have many a cold month ahead of us, we turned to our bookshelves to find tricks and techniques that make soup a little more super. And maybe (just maybe) a bit more simple.

Here are 10 of our favorite soups and stews tips:

Tip from Zahav by Michael Solomonov and Steven Cook: If you want fluffier matzo balls, add baking powder.

There are a lot of theories on how to produce fluffy matzo balls, from folding in whipped egg whites to lightening the mix with seltzer. For my money, a little bit of baking powder does the trick nicely.

How-to: When making matzo balls, add about 1/2 teaspoon of baking powder when you add your matzo meal. Zahav's matzo ball soup recipe also includes black garlic, a fermented flavor that "both elevates and deepens the broth."

Tip from Near & Far by Heidi Swanson: For a lighter "noodle" soup, use yuba (tofu skins).

"There are two ways to go about making this soup—using tendrils of yuba skins if you have access to them, and ribbons of egg pasta if not."

How-to: In Near & Far, Swanson includes the yuba skins in a leek soup alongside brown rice, white beans, coconut milk, and cauliflower. However, use the yuba in the recipe of your choosing, slicing the yuba into strips and allowing it to simmer in the soup a minute or so before serving.

Tip from Crossroads by Tal Ronnen: Fried capers are your new favorite soup garnish.

Crispy and briny, these little blossoms of goodness add unexpected dimension to even the simplest of dishes.

How-to: To fry capers, first drain and squeeze as much brine out of the capers as possible. Then heat about 1/4 inch of neutral, high-smoke-point oil (like canola) in a small pan. Add the capers and stir until the capers are crisp, then remove with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels. You can also try oven-roasting the capers, like in this recipe. Use the crunchy orbs to top puréed vegetable soups or bisques (and salads, roasted vegetables, fish, and pretty much anything else you can think of).

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More: Here's how to make any puréed vegetable soup—without a recipe.

Tip from The Food Lab by J. Kenji Lopez-Alt: Umami your chili! Add marmite, soy sauce, and tomato paste.

Adding a dab of each to my chile puree boosted my already-beefy short ribs to the farthest reaches of meatiness, a realm where seared skinless cows traipse across hills of ground beef, darting in and out of fields of skirt steak, stopping to take sips of rivers overflowing with thick glace de viand.

How-to: Try adding these "umami bombs" along with your other seasonings to your favorite chili. Regarding amounts, for a recipe that serves 8 to 12, the book lists 4 anchovy fillets (mashed into a paste), 1 teaspoon Marmite, and 1 tablespoon soy sauce.

Tip from Maximum Flavor by Aki Kamozawa and Alexander H. Talbot: For easier clam chowder, freezer shuck 'em.

When you freeze and thaw clams, they open on their own, making it easy to shuck them with a spoon. This process also tenderizes the clams so they resist becoming chewy when you cook them. The shucking technique works with mussels and oysters as well, making it easier to use fresh shellfish at home.

How-to: After washing the clams thoroughly, put them on a baking sheet and into the freezer until frozen solid, about 6 hours. Place the frozen clams in a bowl and let thaw in the refrigerator. "As they thaw they will open slightly; this will take at least 6 to 8 hours," the book says. Now, you can use a spoon to scoop the shuck the clams (over a bowl, please, to catch their liquid).

Tip from Franny's by Andrew Feinberg, Francine Stephens, and Melissa Clark: Bye, bye, broth. Hello, water.

Using water instead of stock allows the flavor of the ingredients to shine. Broccoli soup tastes deeply of broccoli, without any other distractions. Bean soup is earthy and rich. Soups made with water can be much cleaner and brighter, with articulated flavors that speak of the main ingredients that went into the pot, intensifying as they simmer. A stock can obscure the purity of flavors, which is an important part of what we're after when we cook up a big pot of soup.

How-to: Replace broth with water. That's it!

Tip from Cook This Now by Melissa Clark: Borscht doesn't need roasted beets—here's why.

At some point, I got lazy and stopped roasting the beets. I simply shredded them up and tossed them into the soup pot with the cabbage, and I can’t say I missed whatever layer of flavor I’d always assumed the roasting contributed.

How-to: Grate the beets and add along with the cabbage to the borscht. Proceed with cooking—no pre-roasting or boiling required.

Tip from Plenty by Yotam Ottolenghi: Broil (or roast) your vegetables—and then add them to the soup.

The process of broiling the vegetables before cooking them together gives this soup a profound depth of flavor.

How-to: Broil whatever vegetables you’re using. Keep them whole, chopping or tearing them into pieces and removing their skin (if necessary) post-broil. In his recipe, Ottolenghi uses eggplant, red bell pepper, and tomatoes.

Tip from Try This at Home by Richard Blais: Forget the stockpot—if you're going to make chicken stock, use a pressure cooker.

Who has a freezer full of chicken carcasses and a giant stockpot that an eight-year-old can fit in? No one. Instead, make chicken stock using just one chicken carcass in your pressure cooker, which saves time, money, and energy. The technique intensifies flavor and minimizes evaporation, increasing the yield. It’s economical.

How-to: Take the carcass of a roasted chicken and your typical stock aromatics (onion, celery, carrots, thyme, bay leaf, salt, and peppercorns) and 3 quarts water and place in the pressure cooker. Once the pot hisses, cook at medium-low for 25 minutes. Let the pressure subside completely before removing the lid and straining the stock.

Tip from Root-to-Stalk Cooking by Tara Duggan: Lettuce can be soup, too—or at least romaine can.

The dark green outer leaves from a head of romaine lettuce are delicious in a soup, creating a grassy, earthy puree that tastes similar to spinach or stinging nettles.

How-to: For a puréed green soup (like the one above), use all of the romaine: the dark green out leaves, tops, and white stalks. Add the stalks first, treating them as you would a leek, and sauté until very tender. The leaves can be added as you would spinach and towards the end of cooking prior to blending the soup.

Have a favorite soup or stew tip? Tell us in the comments below!

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petalpusher February 19, 2016
Only the pure of heart can make good soup - Mozart
Mrs B. February 8, 2016
The great Marcel Boulestin, an early, elegant food writer, urged using water rather than stock for soups in his 1931 book, “What Shall We Have Today?”:

The chief thing to remember is that all these soups – unless otherwise specified -- must be made with plain water. When made with the addition of stock they lose all character and cease to be what they were intended to be. The fresh pleasant taste is lost owing to the addition of meat stock, and the value of the soup from an economical point of view is also lost.

This quote is taken from Elizabeth David’s fascinating and loving essay on Boulestin, first published in “Wine and Food,” Spring 1965, and later included in the compilation of pieces she wrote for periodicals, called “An Omelette and a Glass of Wine” (Viking Penguin 1985), on page 168.
Chrissy /. January 20, 2016
I am never without at least 3 varieties of soup in my freezer portioned and ready for dinner in no time - it allows me to hibernate all winter!