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Be a Genius, Do This One Thing, Have Better Soups All Winter

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There's one surprisingly simple thing you can do tonight (or tomorrow, or Saturday afternoon) that, all winter long, will give you the soup-making power of homemade vegetable broth in—snap!—the time it takes to make hot water.

The River Cottage’s Vegetable Bouillon (a.k.a. Souper Mix)
The River Cottage’s Vegetable Bouillon (a.k.a. Souper Mix)

It’s not magic, it’s bouillon! One jar will last you a good six months–basically through the end of broth season. And it will prove especially helpful if you identify with any of these traits:

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  1. You stumble when faced with the vagaries of the boxes and cans of stock at the grocery store—weighing costs, weighing ingredients, weighing how the hell will this make my soup actually taste?
  2. You kick yourself for not making your own stock from that bag of loose stems and onion skins you keep around—because that would have been really handy for dinner right now (the skins, as they stand, are not).
  3. You do not have room for quarts of stock in your freezer, what with all the compost and sliced bread and ominous-looking bananas. You tried to make room and a banana fell on your toe.

Instead, into a relatively tiny corner of your freezer or fridge, you could tuck a jar of vegetable bouillon that you yourself made—by simply blending a heap of raw vegetables into a paste, with enough salt to preserve them. There are also some herbs, alliums, and sun-dried tomatoes, whose natural umami (glutamate) is a delicious stand-in for the MSG you might find in commercial bouillon cubes.

The technique comes from Pam Corbin via The River Cottage Preserves Handbook, and she reasonably calls it "Souper Mix." When a spoonful of the paste hits a pot of hot water, the flavors will bloom into a full-fledged, well-seasoned broth—a little like those bouillon cubes, except made only with ingredients your great-grandmother (and you) would recognize.

The recipe below is a trusty formula, but, as Corbin writes, “You can use just about any vegetables and herbs you like—the important thing is that they are fresh and taste as vegetable-y as possible.

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This means that every batch will likely come out a little different—and also that if you can’t find celery root, that’s okay! Add more celery, or leek, or whatever you do have on hand. As Corbin points out, even if you do have a brand of store-bought bouillon you like, use it enough and, “You might find an underlying uniformity creeping into your cooking.” Not possible with this DIY hodgepodge.

Armed with your bouillon, you'll be free to use it for simmering any bean, any grain or grain-adjacent. It will become the base for your soups, stews, (stoups?), braises, sauces, and risottos. (I gave my colleague Sarah Jampel a jar back in June and I'm pretty sure she's done all of the above.)

Or, if you’re feeling under the weather, it will make a soothing broth all on its own. And all of it will be ready for dinner, even if dinner is right now.

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The River Cottage’s Vegetable Bouillon (a.k.a. Souper Mix)

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Makes three to four 8-ounce jars (but halves well)
  • 9 ounces leek
  • 7 ounces fennel
  • 7 ounces carrot
  • 9 ounces celery root
  • 2 ounces sun-dried tomatoes
  • 2 or 3 garlic cloves
  • 3 1/2 ounces parsley
  • 3 1/2 ounces cilantro
  • 3/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon fine sea salt

*How does salt act as a preservative? By osmosis! According to Robert L. Wolke, if any bacteria are present, water within their cell membranes is drawn toward the saltier exterior, to maintain an equal concentration of salt on both sides. "The unfortunate consequences for the bacterium are that it loses water, shrivels up, and dies."

Got a genius recipe to share—from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Please send it my way (and tell me what's so smart about it) at [email protected].

Thank you to SKK on the Food52 Hotline for this one, and Heidi Swanson at 101 Cookbooks for spreading the word back in 2010.

Photos by James Ransom