Every year, just when I’m in the middle of mourning the end of summer tomatoes, wearing my black band and draping my windows with the evidence of my sinking tomatoless spirits, a brisk shiver of cool air brushes across my skin and I drop the banners the flags and the weeds of loss as a single word crosses my mind in a kind of breathless joy:
Suddenly I have forgotten all about the tangy sweet tomatoes I’ve been in love with for weeks and I am happy again. Soup! Soup is absolutely one of the very best dishes on earth. It is everything humble, simple, nourishing, inexpensive, hearty, healthy, uplifting, and homey. I am aware that a soup can be made of $100 a pound lobsters and mushrooms that people have been shot for. This doesn’t change its humble nature. Its simple entreaty to nourish yourself and heal your spirit when the winds are howling and the wolves are baying outside your door.
Soup is a chameleon, changing into whatever you need it to be: you can devise a torturous 20 step soup that calls for 17 hard to find ingredients and takes 24 hours to make; you can make a soup with 5 ingredients in just a half an hour; you can use up all manner of old-ish vegetables from the cellar and feel like a king. It’s what you want it to be. It’s whatever you need it to be.
I’m not sure how old I was when I learned about the magical powers of soup but I do know that it was the first thing I learned to make completely on my own. Split pea soup is one of my favorites and I have been known to make it when I feel low simply because making it uplifts my spirits, infuses me with renewed hope and calm. The scent of the garlic and fresh dill is intoxicating and improves my health before it ever reaches my mouth. Making soup is like saying a prayer in the kitchen. It is the only kind of prayer I know.
Soup is not only the first food I learned to make completely on my own, it is the first dish I learned to make by instinct and the first dish that my reputation for being an excellent cook was built on.
I have heard many a novice cook express the opinion that soups are difficult or a mystery to master. I disagree in spite of the fact that someone once asked me for my recipe for vegetarian split pea soup and reported back to me that it didn’t turn out. When this curious person described what had happened I realized that there are many things about soup making that I take for granted and therefore don’t think I need to explain. I learned a lot from that exchange.
I am going to break down some of the components of successful soup making here for anyone who needs a little courage and knowledge. These are merely my soup making rules and truths. If you are learning to make soup and you have an excellent soup maker offering to teach you their own magic- trust them and let them teach you! I am only putting my own soup philosophy here in case someone out there doesn’t have a best friend or a grandmother to help them out. I will be your guide if you need me.
In the beginning…
There is no soup in my kitchen that doesn’t begin with a tablespoon or two of olive oil and an onion. I saute the onion until it is slightly browned and transparent. I often saute it with celery. The reason I do this is because I often don’t use a stock and browning an onion and celery at the start adds a little depth to whatever soup I’m making.
That’s how all my soups begin. If you don’t like onions you can do exactly the same thing with leeks, scallions, or skip the alliums all together if you don’t like them or are allergic to them. If you’re making a soup with many vegetables you can saute them all together at the beginning to get the same effect of deeper broth flavor. Only do this if you aren’t going to add beans or meat that needs a long cooking time.
The order of all things…
One thing to understand about soup is that most of them take between an hour and two hours to cook so it pays to be mindful of what vegetables should be added and when. Some vegetables hold their shape longer than others.
Once you’ve sauted your onion and celery you add some water or broth. If you’re going to add beans to a soup that aren’t pre-cooked then you will want to add the amount you need to the broth and cook them until tender. You wait to add the other vegetables until they are tender so that you don’t over cook anything. Onions and celery can take the long cooking times.
Here’s the order of things as they get added to my soup:
1. Onions, celery, bay leaf, garlic.
2. Carrots, potatoes, celery root, dried herbs, turnips, yams, rutabagas, parsnips, winter squash.
3. Broccoli, Cauliflower, green beans, pasta.
4. Summer squash, leafy greens.
Those lists may not be complete but they illustrate the hierarchy of ingredients and what order they should be added based on how quickly they cook and risk turning to mush. Some things can be added at any time like fresh herbs. The only fresh herb that should never be added until the very end is cilantro which tends to lose its flavor when cooked too long.
Liquid Assets: broth or water?
I have been making excellent soup for 20 years and it was only recently that I learned to make my own vegetable broth to use in soups. You will read absolutely everywhere that using a broth of some kind is so essential to making soup successfully that if you use plain old water you will suffer such a deep disappointment that you will go into an immediate decline. This is patently untrue.
I promise you: if you don’t have any broth of any kind or any bouillon cubes to add to your soup you can still make soup that everyone will remember for a long time to come.
Don’t be afraid. Broth is generally made up of many of the same ingredients your soup will have in it anyway. sauteing vegetables or meat and then deglazing with water will help deepen the flavor. Use excellent quality herbs because these will also add a lot to the overall flavor. Using the right amount of each different herb is something you develop an instinct for with experience. Fresh is often the best. Garlic is an excellent flavor enhancer in soup (be sure not to use so much of it that it overpowers everything else).
Having said that, I will say that it’s absolutely true that using stock is ideal. If you have a choice of using broth or using water: always use the broth! I made two versions of the same soup in one week last year, one using no broth, the other using my homemade stock. Everything was exactly the same except for that one detail. Without knowing of my experiment my husband liked the batch made with the stock best. So it does make soup better. But he loved the other batch too- just not as much.
If you don’t have broth a close second is to use a bouillon cube or two. You can get them in beef, chicken, and vegetable flavors.
Then there’s the question of how much to add. Soup i so flexible that if you add too much liquid to it at first you can cook it a little longer until it steams off and thickens. If your soup is too thick- add more liquid. You get a feel for how much to add as you get more experienced but when you’re still a new soup maker it’s wise to add water in 1 or 2 cup quantities. It is amazingly difficult to translate a soup recipe so that it tells you exactly the right amount of liquid you’ll need to add. Never assume that the amount the recipe calls for is correct just because it’s printed on paper. So many factors can influence this such as how hot you’re stove is, how large your vegetables/meat are, and how long you cook it for.
Always add more liquid when you feel the soup has gotten thicker than you want it or let it cook down when it’s too brothy for your taste. You are in control of this. Get comfortable winging it.
Size always matters…
The larger you chop your ingredients the longer it will take to cook them.
The smaller they are the faster they cook.
The issue with size is that if you are making a soup that’s going to cook for a long time and you chop all your vegetables really small they will eventually break down into specks. So if you want them to hold some shape and have a presence…cut them chunky.
For quick vegetable soups it is appropriate to dice your vegetables very small. This is true of any soup you plan to puree. No need for chunks then cut them small.
Cream in the pot…
Always add cream to soup as a last step. If you simmer cream it will curdle. Curdled soup has little charm. When you make cream of potato leek soup you cook everything first then you puree it using your blender (not recommended) or an immersion blender (totally recommended) and then you add the amount of cream you want. To warm it up later be careful not to bring it to a boil. Heat it up gently stirring frequently.
What substitutions fail?
I’m not sure how many times in this article I have already mentioned the flexibility of soup but it needs saying again. If you see a soup recipe that sounds great except for one particular spice or one ingredient it is almost always possible to leave it out or substitute it for something you like a lot more. I would say that this is more true of soups whose whole character doesn’t depend on one particular ingredient. If you don’t like potatoes you should probably not try to make cream of potato soup…then again…you can substitute the potatoes with celery root and get the same type of soup…so never mind. Don’t be afraid to experiment. Experimenting is the very best way to develop your soup skills. Herbs and spices are like color- develop your personal palette!
A very long time ago I thought lentil soup was always curried or cumined up to its neck and since I am only an occasional curry fan I almost never made lentil soup. Then one day I was reading a French vegetarian cookbook (yeah, I know! Crazy!) and it had a recipe for a lentil soup that used thyme instead of curry and it sounded so good. I made it and it was a revelation! I loved it so much I have never made a curried lentil soup since because I am in love with thyme as a soup seasoning.
To get a good idea of what kinds of vegetables-meats-and seasonings go well together read a lot of recipes. I read cookbooks for the joy of it. It’s where I get a lot of my food inspiration. Though I rarely follow recipes in them explicitly any more I turn to them to give me ideas of things to pair together and new flavors to try. There are a gazillion great food blogs online that you can read for free and if you like the old-fashioned feel of paper and enjoy the sound of turning pages- go to your local library and see what they have. I have collected many cookbooks over the years but I can rarely afford to buy them now and I depend a great deal on my library which has a great cooking section. Explore yours!
When the love grinds to a halt…
This is my last bit of soup philosophy to offer for the day: if you make a soup that fails to please on every level, do not let this ruin the magic of soup for you. Soup is a lot more flexible than gratins, souffles, or bread. You will have more successes while learning to make soup than you will with any other food but there will still come a soup that stumps you. I’ve had a few of my own colossal let-downs over the years but I think the most depressing one was a curried cauliflower soup I made that unbelievably ended up having NO flavor. It’s almost impossible to achieve a flavorless soup- yet I did it. How is it possible to put curry in a dish and then not at least taste curry? I don’t know. I will probably never know how that happened. You just have to toss it to the pigs or lump it and eat it (this one was really inedible) or pour it down the drain. I am poor enough now that I would probably eat it anyway. Or make Mr. Williamson eat it.
The point is- for any failed soup experiment there are hundreds of successes to be had. Everyone is capable of making a great pot of soup.
When everything else in life feels poor and hopeless, as long as you have a bowl of soup you can be sure you’re going to pull through!
Yam and Kale Soup with Coconut Milk and Curry Recipe Try this great warming soup!