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Every chef has a specialty, a food realm in which she has unique creativity. Mine is soup! And the good news is I love sharing my secrets.
Here are five that you can incorporate when making any soup recipe you love:
1. Start with a great stock or broth.
The first secret of great soup making is learning to make great broths and stocks. They’re the rock-steady foundation on which fantastic soups are built, like a powerhouse rhythm track to a soaring melody.
Take my nana’s chicken soup: Like most cooks of her day, she threw the bones into the stock, but her trademark was to take the vegetables out of the stock at the end and, in that pre-blender era, put them through a Foley Food Mill. She was 4 foot 10 and her pots were BIG. She had to stand on a stool to hand grind those vegetables back into the soup, making the stock richer—with a little more texture, a little something something. And she was not afraid to season! She tasted as she went, layering flavor all along the way. She was famous for saying, “If it tastes good, it is. If it doesn’t, it’s not!” She was right.
2. Learn how great soup is born.
It will help elevate your soup-making skills from good to great if you deconstruct soup to see how it works. All soups have some common elements:
- Fats, such as olive oil, ghee, coconut oil
- Aromatics, such as onions, carrots, celery, fennel
- Dried herbs and spices, such as cumin, red pepper flakes, fresh garlic
- Deglazing liquids, like ½ cup of broth, wine, tamari
- Main ingredients, not limited to vegetables, legumes, meat
- Broth or stock
- Finishers, including salt, acid, fresh herbs, garnishes
Once you recognize the role each ingredient plays in a soup, you’re on your way to freeing up your creativity. You’ll soon see a recipe as a guideline instead of something that must be strictly followed to the letter.
3. Understand the process, step-by-step.
Once you understand why you do what you do at every step of recipe making, you’ll understand how to utilize the essential ingredients to make a great soup.
- Heat your pan before adding the fat.
- Add aromatics with a pinch of salt. Let the onions dance for a short while to sweeten them. Cook until they’re translucent and slightly caramelized.
- Add dried herbs (if using) and spices. Sauté for just a minute, so they combine into your base and get coated in fat.
- Deglaze the pan with half a cup of broth or another liquid. Let the liquid simmer until it reduces by half so the flavor is concentrated. (I get so excited about this, I can smell the aromas as I write!)
- Now you’re home free. Add the main ingredients, the vegetables, the legumes, the meat, and stir to coat with the seasonings. Everybody is mingling! The chorus line is mingling with the stars. All the characters are on stage.
- Add your broth. Bring it to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer until all the ingredients are soft enough to puree or cooked to desired tenderness. Soup’s on!
4. Taste as you go.
Just as my nana taught me, I want to teach you to layer your seasoning, to season as you go along.
This is the key: Taste, discover, and build flavor throughout the cooking process. Don’t wait to add salt until the end — you will have missed the boat! The salt acts as a scrubbing bubble, allowing vegetables to release their flavors into the soup at each stage. That’s where soup alchemy happens. You build flavor.
Use my little tool called FASS, which stands for Fat, Acid, Salty, and Sweet, to course correct flavor. If you’ve ever wondered how to elevate soup flavor into the realm of absolute deliciousness, this is it.
- Fat: Fat distributes flavor across the palate and makes you feel satiated.
- Acid: Acid, such as lemon, lime, vinegar, or salsas, draws out and brightens flavor as well as balances soup that’s too sweet or salty.
- Salt: Salt brings out the flavor of food and moves flavor to the front of the tongue where taste is best perceived. If flavor is hanging back, then you know you need a pinch or two of salt to move it to the front.
- Sweet: My favorite sweet is Grade A Dark (formerly Grade B) maple syrup, so rich you only need a little to harmonize and round out flavor.
A cool or room temperature nut cream swirled into a warm, blended carrot soup adds a distinctive feel and a savory second flavor in a spoonful. An herb sauce can make a soup such as fish, lentil, or broccoli pop. A crispy texture on top can move a soup from good to memorable.
Enjoy your new soup skills! And especially savor your soup. It’s the ultimate culinary hug.
For more soup recipes and smarts, Rebecca's book is Clean Soups.
This article originally appeared on September 13, 2016. We're re-running because it's January, aka soup season.