Genius Recipes

This One Genius Ingredient Will Make Better, Quicker Soups

Vegan, store-bought magic.

January 23, 2019

Every week in Genius Recipes—often with your help!—Food52 Creative Director and lifelong Genius-hunter Kristen Miglore is unearthing recipes that will change the way you cook.

Photo by Bobbi Lin

Making soup at home can often feel like an unsavory trade-off: Though we very much want the homey comforts of a brothy bowl of something (preferably soon), do we bite the bullet and buy a random box of stock, with its long, aimless-seeming list of ingredients and faded flavor? Or do we take the time to make a better-tasting homemade broth? (1)

I clearly feel this mental tug-of-war often, since I’ve already written about several solutions: herby sauces to freeze and deploy into boiling water, homemade veg bouillon you can keep on hand forever, water-based soups bolstered with miracle vegetables or carbs or—well, what is nutritional yeast exactly? Miracle microorganisms? These will all come in handy.

But maybe you’ll sense how happy I was to learn about another quick fix for the cozy soup now conundrum—one I never saw coming. Perhaps the simplest and most unexpected of them all, this genius trick is all thanks to Food52 contributor Yi Jun Loh, who writes and photographs the gorgeous blog Jun & Tonic.

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The fix is coconut water, which, thanks to its reputation as a healthful, hydrating drink since around 2009 (thanks, Madonna!), you can find it at pretty much any grocery store, just like you would the box of stock with the carrageenan and the natural flavors and the caramel color. Unlike that box of stock, you can even find it at the gas station.

Photo by Bobbi Lin

Also unlike that box of stock, this ubiquitous store-bought wonder is made up of just one very straightforward ingredient that happens to be vegan: the water that comes out of young coconuts—which turns out to be a shockingly good substitute for the umami and subtle sweetness of even meaty bone broths.

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Top Comment:
“They often think they have lactose intolerance only to find later that it's the carrageenan. ”
— Linda A.

Jun’s mom discovered this sleight-of-hand trick when his sister Jia went vegetarian, and the long-simmered chicken or pork-based soups that fed their family in Malaysia needed to be rethunk. Jun, a reformed chemical engineer who trained at culinary school and restaurants like Blue Hill, recognized the brilliance of this substitution, experimented with it further himself, and then—lucky us!—sent it my way. “There's clearly some sort of liquid magic happening here,” Jun wrote to me. “Sure, it does taste slightly different, but the depth and richness it adds to the broth simply blows my mind.”

Photo by Bobbi Lin

You can use this trick to quickly give a backbone to any soup or stew (2), but a very good place to start is Jun’s riff on his mom’s ABC soup, the Malaysian version of the classic, simple chicken soup. Here, Jun simmers a few humble vegetables in big chunks in a measured dose of salted coconut water till they soften, then adds one more round of coconut water at the end, to create two layers of flavorful broth. The first is deeper and subtly steeped with the vegetables; the second remains light and fresh. A little crushed white pepper at the end grounds the soup, and finishes off the illusion of a more complex and long-simmered broth.

If you’re still feeling skeptical, I’ll leave you with these words from Jun’s blog:

Let’s all embrace a little weirdness in our cooking, and embrace foods that are a little strange but surprising, weird but wonderful, unfamiliar but nostalgic!

I urge you to listen to Jun, trust, and try it. I’m sure glad I did.

(1) If you have a stash of homemade stock in your freezer, extra points for you and trade-off solved! But we can’t all be you all the time.

(2) As I learned from Andrea Nguyen’s column for Cooking Light, you can also use coconut water in glazing vegetables or cooking rice or sautéing chicken or making nuoc cham dipping sauce…

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].

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From our new podcast network, The Genius Recipe Tapes is lifelong Genius hunter Kristen Miglore’s 10-year-strong column in audio form, featuring all the uncut gems from the weekly column and video series. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts so you don’t miss out.

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Lazyretirementgirl
  • Steve Markham
    Steve Markham
  • txchick57
  • Linda Arlene
    Linda Arlene
  • Reva
I'm an ex-economist, lifelong-Californian who moved to New York to work in food media in 2007, before returning to the land of Dutch Crunch bread and tri-tip barbecues in 2020. Dodgy career choices aside, I can't help but apply the rational tendencies of my former life to things like: recipe tweaking, digging up obscure facts about pizza, and deciding how many pastries to put in my purse for "later."


Lazyretirementgirl February 3, 2019
Thank you for this. I would never have thought of it and look forward to trying it.
Steve M. February 3, 2019
The title of your article reads like clickbait which cheapens the entire continent. I did read it in spite of the title and I found the information interesting. I will try it.
DocSharc March 1, 2019
txchick57 January 24, 2019
I am here for this. Will try this weekend. Can we just once have a recipe where the Food Police stay home and spare us the wacky conspiracy theories.
Lazyretirementgirl February 3, 2019
Probably not. Sigh. 🤷🏻‍♀️
Linda A. January 23, 2019
Why would you ever want to have carrageenan?? It's a know carcinogen and many people have digestive issues with it. They often think they have lactose intolerance only to find later that it's the carrageenan.
Kristen M. January 23, 2019
I don't know much about it myself, but I always feel better cooking with ingredient lists I recognize (thanks, Michael Pollan!), which is why a lot of boxed stocks give me pause—and why I loved that 1-little-ingredient coconut water is such a great substitute.
zaqary January 23, 2019
Your claim in anecdotal at best, and has actually been scientifically proven to be false.
Reva January 23, 2019
I never thought about using coconut water when making soup, & now I will. Thanks. I found it hard to read the little pop-up notes during video. Would be nice to see a list of what I missed. I’m guessing it was recipe info, like amounts of ingredients or something. I did catch one about “sad tomatoes”. :)
Kristen M. January 23, 2019
Hi Reva, you didn't miss too much :) The bubbles in the video are meant to just be little additive tips or commentary, but the full recipe page will have all the details you need to cook the recipe (also linked above at the end of the article):
lugubres January 23, 2019
Hi Can I ask where one can buy the measuring glass in the video?
Kristen M. January 23, 2019
Hi lugubres, our art director is always collecting fun vintage props/kitchen gear like this. I'd keep an eye out in flea markets and antique shops, or you could try searching on Etsy—there are similar ones here:
Jun January 23, 2019
Eep, so so honored that this little recipe is Genius-worthy! Thank you Kristen! <3
Eric K. January 23, 2019
Kristen M. January 23, 2019
SO Genius! Jun, I can't thank you enough for sharing it with us.