Big Little Recipes

The Ultimate Chicken Noodle Soup Only Needs 2 Ingredients

Yes way.

January 15, 2019

A Big Little Recipe has the smallest-possible ingredient list and big everything else: flavor, creativity, wow factor. Psst—we don't count water, salt, black pepper, and certain fats (specifically, 1/2 cup or less of olive oil, vegetable oil, and butter), since we're guessing you have those covered. Today, we’re making the most minimalist chicken stock, then turning it into noodle soup.


Chicken soup is easy to enjoy—especially if it’s cold outside or you’re feeling sick—but it isn’t easy to make. Or, that’s what I assumed for most of my life.

Maybe it was all the ingredients that my mom bought, washed, peeled, and chopped every time she made it, or the fact that the whole recipe took her the whole day. That’s why, when I was growing up, my family saved chicken soup for special occasions, like the first day of school, or a holiday, or if one of us was sick.

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But if you’re like me, you want chicken soup way more often than that.

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Top Comment:
“I actually had my very old world Jewish mother-in-law tell me she liked me after eating my special double chicken matzo ball soup made with my double-chicken stock. It is still simple because it just uses a second chicken after the first one is done. ”
— Marc
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So, how do you make it simple enough for any week—but so delicious that you want it every week? I sorted through countless chicken stock and chicken soup recipes to figure out how to streamline the process while keeping the flavor. The common thread is that good chicken soup starts with good chicken stock*, and good chicken stock follows this basic formula: chicken, liquid, and any aromatics (more on those soon), all simmered for a long time.

*As far as we're concerned, the difference between stock and broth is that you cook with stock and consume broth. But for the purpose of this piece—in which stock becomes broth by being added to a bowl—we're using stock for clarity.


My soup goals are threefold: a super-flavorful chicken stock, tender shredded chicken (white and dark meat, please), and bouncy egg noodles. But how can we achieve these with as few ingredients as possible?

Back to those aromatics. Most chicken stocks have a whole slew of aromatics, or various vegetables, herbs, and spices, which simmer along with the chicken:

  • Onion, carrot, and celery are classic. Also used: parsnips, leeks, scallions, and fennel, plus punchy bonuses like ginger and garlic. These can be sautéed first or added to the water raw.
  • Parsley, thyme, and bay leaves are popular herbs, but who’s to stop you from using dill, cilantro, or tarragon? You can bundle these in a cute bouquet garni, or not.
  • Some like peppercorns for a gentle kick or coriander for lemony brightness. Some don’t.

Whichever aromatics a recipe calls for, the theory is the same: Aromatics round out the stock, creating more complex flavor. Which is true. But they don’t create more chickeny flavor, which is what I’m after. Aromatics will get you oniony flavor. Or carroty flavor, or peppery flavor.

All you need for A+ soup. Photo by Rocky Luten

Now, what if instead of cooking all these ingredients in water (which becomes stock), you cook them in stock? Does that lead to even richer flavor? Such is my mom’s go-to method for matzo ball soup—dump store-bought boxes of chicken stock in a pot, add a whole raw chicken, some chopped onion, carrot, celery, and parsnip, and simmer until it tastes just right.

I never knew this technique had a name until this past November, when Helen Rosner wrote about “Double Stock” in The New Yorker. That’s when I started to understand why my mom’s soup tastes so dang good: You’re essentially using more chicken (the chicken from the first stock + the chicken for the double stock), simmering for more time (the first stock’s cook time + the double stock’s cook time), and getting more flavor. Ta-da!

So that’s one way to make flavorful stock. But there are a million other factors one could obsess over. To name a few:

  • Which chicken part yields the most flavor? This question is a deep, dark internet rabbit hole. (This Serious Eats article summarizes it well.) Suffice it to say that every chicken part has a different personality (various amounts of fat, connective tissue, and bone) and benefit (flavor or gelatin).
  • Will you brown the meat before you cook it or just add it to the pot raw? And if you’re using a whole chicken, will you add it to the water whole, or break it down into pieces, or pulse it in a food processor a la The Food Lab?
  • Will you cook the meat just until it’s done, then remove from the pot to eat later, or will you cook it for the entire time, then toss the hopelessly-overcooked meat?

Read enough chicken stock recipes and it starts to seem like the most complicated thing in the whole wide world. Which is why I started to wonder: If the skeleton of all chicken stocks is chicken and water, then what would happen if you just used chicken and water?

The more cookbooks and websites I read, the more I realized how unexplored this question is. The simplest version that I stumbled upon hails from Cooks’ Illustrated, with water, chicken, onion, and bay leaves—two ingredients more than I was interested in.

Of course, I anticipated that if you strip away all the ingredients, then you'd have to overcompensate in the technique. Use twice as much chicken, or brown the meat first, or cook it for 17 hours.

Turns out, none of these were necessary. A little ingredient list and straightforward method still produced a golden, flavorful stock, with lots of tender chicken to boot. Which is to say, the simplest chicken stock, for the simplest chicken noodle soup.

Photo by Rocky Luten

Here's how to do it:

Use a whole chicken. That Cooks’ Illustrated recipe I mentioned above uses "chicken backs and wings." Alton Brown's version calls for "chicken carcasses, including necks and backs." And several other sources are just as scrappy. I know, I know, I should be collecting chicken carcasses and parts in my freezer for spur-of-the-moment stocks. But I don’t. That’s why this recipe uses a whole chicken and calls it a day. Because you’re using all the chicken parts, you get the full range of chickeny flavor, plus plenty of gelatin. And there’s no pre-planning necessary.

Cook it in less water. In Daniel Gritzer's recipe for Basic Chicken Stock, he notes: "Four pounds of chicken for the four quarts of water here is the minimum I've found that will produce a good, flavorful stock." In other words, 1 pound chicken to 1 quart water. This recipe, which uses a 5 1/2 pound chicken and 3 quarts of water, nearly doubles that chicken-to-water ratio. More chicken, more chickeny flavor.

And cook it in two stages. First, simmer the chicken pieces (figure eight to twelve, so they fit better in the pot and cook more evenly) until the meat is cooked-through and tender. Then remove the pieces, pluck off the meat, and get the bones and skin back in the pot. This means the meat and the stock get to cook on their own timelines, and you don’t have to throw away a bunch of overcooked chicken just for flavor’s sake.

Consider this a weekend project. After the chicken is pulled, the bones and skin will simmer for three to four hours. You don't want to rush this part. A long, leisurely simmer—during which you have to do next to nothing, by the way—is the most crucial step of the recipe.

Season to taste. Our secret weapons here aren’t so secret—salt and schmaltz. Salting at the very end means you won’t inadvertently overseason the stock. And schmaltz is what amps up the sunny color and chickeny flavor. As cookbook author Leah Koenig remarked in The New York Times: “Chicken fat is everything when it comes to soup. You just have to embrace it.” And we will! Add salt and schmaltz, stir, taste. And I mean actually taste it. Does it need more salt? More schmaltz? Repeat until you really love it.

Cook and serve the egg noodles separately. By cooking the noodles in a pot of heavily salted water, you’re giving them a chance to become their best selves. By serving them in the bowls, then ladling the chicken soup on top, you’re ensuring that the noodles don’t overcook and everything is seasoned perfectly. If you add the noodles right to the giant pot of soup, they’ll be mushy before you know it. No thanks.

Keep it simple. Do I sprinkle fresh parsley on top? If I have it around, totally. But before you start reaching for extra ingredients, at least try a spoonful of the original first: pure chicken stock, perfectly cooked shredded chicken, and fat egg noodles. If you’re like me, you’ll have an aha moment when you realize just how satisfying something so minimalist can be. Then, if you have fresh herbs or leftover boiled or roasted vegetables, feel free to add them to your bowl.

How do you make chicken soup? Tell us in the comments!

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Emma is a writer and recipe developer at Food52. Before this, she worked a lot of odd jobs, all at the same time. Think: stir-frying noodles "on the fly," baking dozens of pastries at 3 a.m., reviewing restaurants, and writing stories about everything from how to use leftover mashed potatoes to the history of pies in North Carolina. Now, she lives in Maplewood, New Jersey with her husband and their cat, Butter.

24 Comments

Marc March 5, 2019
When I have time (Passover chicken matzo soup comes to mind), I do a double chicken recipe. I cook the first chicken just like you lay out. Then, the next day, I use that delicious broth to cook a second chicken. The result is golden yellow, gelatinous pot of perfection. I actually had my very old world Jewish mother-in-law tell me she liked me after eating my special double chicken matzo ball soup made with my double-chicken stock. It is still simple because it just uses a second chicken after the first one is done.
 
Picholine January 26, 2019
Chicken soup done simply and pure ! I love it this way best. I keep the noodles in a plastic bag in the fridge after cooked in water and place in bottom of the bowl and ladle soup on top . Just wonderful and heartwarming.
 
Binnie S. January 24, 2019
Using a large stock pot, I start with 6 pounds of chicken parts - wings and carcasses. I add approximately 4 1/2 quarts of water and set the temp to medium high. Every once in a while, I skim the surface of the soup, removing foam/cum. While the chicken is cooking away, I rough cut the aromatics, which always include carrots, celery and onions. If I'm lucky, I'll also add cut up turnips and parsnips. Once the foam/scum is gone, I add several cloves of garlic, and then stir in at least a heaping teaspoon (each) of dried marjoram, thyme, and dill. I then add the aromatics and veggies, and turn the heat down to medium low. I cover the pot and simmer for at least 3 hours. After that, I remove the chicken from the soup with a strainer, then strain the soup itself into a clean pot. Any soft veggie solids are pressed through the strainer. The pot goes into the refrigerator overnight. The next morning, the hardened fat is removed from the soup. The soup in the pot is a gelled mass. I heat it over low heat, check for needed seasoning (kosher salt, additional marjoram, etc.) I then package the soup into individual uart zip top bags. I don't add noodles. I kinda like my soup straight up. I learned this method from my mother.
 
maggie January 21, 2019
This how it is done! If I have green onions I throw a tablespoon of them on top, if not, just eat and enjoy.
 
Ann January 21, 2019
My mom used to make chicken soup with all the usual vegetables. When I went last week to my Chinese friend's house for lunch she made her chicken soup this way...exactly. I couldn't believe how delicious it was. . . . just made that simply! Thanks for reminding me about a lovely, simple recipe.
 
Victoria C. January 20, 2019
I've been making double stock using Deb at Smitten Kitchen's recipe for Uncluttered Chicken Stock made in a slow cooker by making one batch of stock exactly as the recipe says using 3 pounds of chicken wings, then using the first batch of stock to make a double stock, but this time roasting the 3 pounds of wings until they are dark. That way I get a rich stock. But I am going to riff the method here and use the first batch with a whole chicken to make this beautiful soup. I can't believe you are cutting up a whole chicken on the gorgeous FOOD52 wooden cutting board. I have a "cover" that I put on top of my cutting board, and it goes straight into the dishwasher after I've cut up the chicken. I would never think of cutting chicken on top of wood.
 
Susan M. January 25, 2019
I agree, I wouldn't cut chicken on a wooden board. I use an inexpensive white nylon cutting board that goes right in the dishwasher.
 
Denise M. May 31, 2019
I cut chicken on my wooden cutting all the time. And then was it well & sanitize with bleach.
 
Cheri D. January 16, 2019
This is how I make my chicken noodle soup! It’s so much better than with all the additions! I do cook my noodles in the broth though...I think they taste best that way, but to each his own!
 
Author Comment
Emma L. January 18, 2019
So cool to hear that you use this stock method!
 
Rowena January 16, 2019
Can I make the stock in a crockpot? Should I set on low and for how many hours? Thank you for the recipe!
 
Author Comment
Emma L. January 18, 2019
Hi! Please see my reply to J-Lon below.
 
Grant S. January 15, 2019
Good info about soup, but misleading headline. Water, chicken, an noodles, that's three ingredients already. Then Salt? Herbs?
 
Author Comment
Emma L. January 18, 2019
Hi Grant! Please see the column intro: “We don’t count water, salt, pepper, and certain fats (say, olive oil to dress greens or sauté onions), since we’re guessing you have those covered.” And I cover the herbs in the last paragraph of the piece—they’re a totally optional garnish, should you want them!
 
Susan M. January 25, 2019
Agreed, the final tally is the usual number of individual ingredients, why write that headline?
 
Joan S. January 15, 2019
This sounds like a really lovely chicken soup recipe. I am going to try it this week-end. I love Michael Ruhlman's over method Turkey stock recipe. But this recipe really sounds great because of the simplicity.
 
Author Comment
Emma L. January 18, 2019
Thanks, Joan—hope you enjoy!
 
Joan S. January 19, 2019
I started the soup yesterday. Finished it all up for dinner today! WOW! This is the best recipe! The “Double Stock” really bring out the chicken flavor. The stock was just amazing! So flavorful! I will be making this again.

 
Author Comment
Emma L. January 20, 2019
So glad you enjoyed, Joan!
 
J-Lon January 15, 2019
If one wanted to do this in an electric pressure cooker, what sort of timing would one use?
 
Author Comment
Emma L. January 18, 2019
Hi! I haven't tested this with an electric pressure cooker, but this article from Helen Rosner, quoted in the piece, offers times and instructions for an electric pressure cooker, slow cooker, and pot: https://www.newyorker.com/culture/kitchen-notes/win-thanksgiving-and-post-thanksgiving-with-double-stock. Hope that helps!
 
mmurray January 15, 2019
Hi Emma, also check out Deb Perelman's recipe for "perfect uncluttered chicken stock" using only wings, an ion and a clove of garlic. Skipped the last 2 for purer "chicken" flavor but really excellent every time.
 
Author Comment
Emma L. January 18, 2019
Hi! Stumbled upon that in my research—looks wonderful! Haven't made it myself, but always love anything I make from Smitten Kitchen.
 
Melissa Y. January 19, 2019
Deb's stock is my favorite. The flavor is awesome because it doesn't have that livery flavor I always get when I use a whole chicken.