Good soup toppings balance whatever is inside the bowl with crunch (say, from a sprinkle of toasted pumpkin seeds), a hit of acidity (from a squeeze of lemon), spice (from a dash of chile flakes), or cooling refreshment (from a swirl of yogurt).
And it’s not that hard to think beyond oyster crackers. By taking only a few extra minutes (while your soup boils, perhaps?), you can make toppings—like grilled cheese croutons, salt and vinegar potato croutons, and chimichurri sauce—that will make winter soups, stews, and chilis feel like special meals.
As a general guide, spicy soups naturally pair well with mild, carb-heavy toppings or dairy-based sauces: Think Barbara Lynch’s Spicy Tomato Soup with grilled cheese croutons; popcorn (buttered and tossed with herbs and/or lemon zest); or crème fraîche, yogurt, or sour cream.
The bready toppings, especially, will soak up the warm tomato goodness and give your mouth a break from the heat.
When you’re in the mood for a bowl of something rich and smooth, try Creamy Cauliflower and Potato Soup, Creamy Butternut Squash Soup with Sherry, or Creamy Broccoli Soup (without the cream!) and great creative with what you add to the top.
Whether you’re serving soup at a dinner party as a first course, cooking up a pot for a quick weeknight dinner, or spending a cozy weekend huddled around the fire with endless bowls of chili, these soup toppings are sure to make the meal more fun (and more delicious).
Here's how to make a few of my favorites:
Grilled Cheese Croutons
Makes enough croutons for 2 bowls of soup
2 slices of multigrain bread
Extra-sharp cheddar cheese
Essentially, you’re making your favorite grilled cheese sandwich, removing the crusts, and cutting it into small cubes to plunk into your soup. I find my kids have a better soup-to-grilled cheese ratio if the sandwich is transformed into a pile of croutons rather than served on the side.
A couple tips: I like to butter the bread itself(rather than the pan) and to grill in a cast-iron skillet over medium heat.
Salt and Vinegar Potato Croutons
Makes enough croutons for 3 bowls of soup
1 russet potato
1 sweet potato
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon malt vinegar
Peel the potatoes and cut them into a small 1/8-inch dice. Heat a skillet over medium heat, and cook the potatoes in the olive oil until tender and crisp all over, about 10 minutes. Sprinkle the potatoes with salt and pour over the vinegar. Toss the potatoes in the salt and vinegar for two minutes, then serve warm.
Makes about 1 cup
2 garlic cloves
1 bunch flat leaf parsley
1 lemon, zested and juiced
1/2 cup olive oil
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1/3 cup red wine vinegar
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
Using a food processor, pulse the garlic cloves until finely chopped. Add in the remaining ingredients and pulse until everything is combined and the parsley is roughly chopped (you want visible specks of parsley). Serve at room temperature.
Sarah Waldman is a food writer and recipe developer living on Martha’s Vineyard. She is putting the finishing touches on her cookbook, Feeding a Family: A Real-Life Plan for Making Dinner Work.
Photos by Elizabeth Cecil