Change the Way You Cook

How to Wake Up Sleepy Soups and Stews

January 10, 2018

This article is part of Change The Way You Cook, a new series to help anyone (yes, you!) become smarter, faster, and more freewheeling in the kitchen.

Biscuit-topped chicken pot pie. Ooey-gooey French onion soup. Short rib chili. They're all well and good for the first few weeks of winter but soon enough, unfailingly, I start to feel like a bear pre-gaming hibernation, halfway to sleep, wanting only to awake when it’s spring so I can stroll in the sunshine and eat asparagus at every meal.

Why can’t winter foods be cozy and bright? Less nap-inducing, more revitalizing?

Photo by Bobbi Lin

Then I remembered: citrus. ’Tis the season for slow braises and creamy bisques, sure. But also for lemons and limes, oranges and grapefruits, clementines and tangerines, pomelos and satsumas—sour, puckery, and perfect.

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And, it turns out, just what our sleepy soups and stews need to wake up. Heavy flavors want to be lifted—and acid is up for the job. Acid is ready. Acid is on it. Acid is here for you (and your stew)!

Adding acidic ingredients at the end, as a finishing flourish, keeps their flavors bright and sunny—providing a boost of contrast for classically rich recipes.

Here are acidic ingredients you’ll want in your winter toolbox—and how to use them:

Change the game

Gazpacho is the it girl of summer soups for two good reasons: It’s chilled and it’s tomato-based. Such is why creamy tomato soup can hang out with grilled cheese—super acidic tomatoes balance all that richness. We can incorporate tomatoes into wintry soups in two ways: stirring crushed or pureed canned tomatoes in toward the end, making an otherwise creamy broth blush, or garnishing the soup with chopped sundried tomatoes.

Pickled or fermented anything
Pickle chips on cheeseburgers, sauerkraut on bratwurst, kimchi with bo ssäm: Eat your way through any cuisine and you’ll encounter a pickled or fermented condiment—a vegetable that has become such a salty, acidic, intensely flavored version of itself, you need only a small amount to make a big difference. Here, especially, I love to play around with mash-ups. If the soup is quiet, reach for something loud. Minimalist, pureed or brothy soups work best.

Make a splash

There are few food accessories cuter than lemon hair nets—you know, those yellow, stretchy wraps around lemon halves at seafood shacks? The fact that these even exist gives you an idea of how powerful a squeeze of lemon—or lime!—can be. I shy away from other citruses with soups because, to me, they feel out of place. But if something is screaming grapefruit or orange, give it a go!

If hot and sour has taught us anything, it’s that soup can handle a lot of vinegar. Take Joanne Chang’s recipe: 4 cups chicken broth, 2/3 cup rice vinegar. Or, a 6 to 1 broth to vinegar ratio. Which makes adding a measly splash to any other soup seem like small potatoes. The only question is: Which vinegar? Just ask your soup where it’s from, then speak the same language.

Soups are just like us. If they’ve had a little wine, they probably want a little more. When there is alcohol in a soup or stew recipe, use that—or a close cousin—for garnish. I learned this trick from Ina Garten, who makes chicken bouillabaisse with Pernod and white wine; she suggests an additional splash of either just before serving “if you want more fennel flavor” or “if it needs a little alcohol edge.” And what doesn’t need a little alcohol edge?

Do a dollop

Cultured dairy
Sour cream feels like an oxymoron. How can something be rich and creamy and tangy and bright all at the same time? Because it’s both fatty and acidic, cultured dairy serves as a flavor bridge between hearty soups and zesty garnishes. Think Greek yogurt, crème fraîche, Mexican crema, and labne—bonus points for mix-ins like salt, minced garlic, or chopped herbs. Also great: big personality, semi-soft cheeses like feta or blue.

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Emma was the food editor at Food52. She created the award-winning column, Big Little Recipes, and turned it into a cookbook in 2021. These days, she's a senior editor at Bon Appétit, leading digital cooking coverage. Say hello on Instagram at @emmalaperruque.