The Main Components to a Great Soup
Let’s break down a soup into its parts.
- Liquid ( this will always be a stock now that we know how to make a great stock )
- Aromatics – Vegetables and Herbs
- Thickeners such as roux/slurry, cream, starchy ingredients ( bread, rice, potatoes )
- Signature Ingredients
Signature Ingredients to Great Soup
The signature ingredients are the ingredients that make every soup unique. Without this component we would basically have a more intense version of a stock.
Signature ingredients in some classics may vary slightly depending on the region in which it is made. Some argue that a chowder must have bacon and potatoes and others say it just needs the potatoes to make it a chowder. Some regions will make a chowder very thick whereas others will make creamy but very thin.
So there are your aromatic vegetables and herbs that combined with any thickeners, if needed, and your stock. On top of that you have your signature ingredients which take the stock into the realm of soups.
The Initial Method, Starting the Soup
The way we put the components together can determine how the soup’s flavors develop. If we add clams, cream, stock, mirepoix, bacon, potatoes, and parsley to the pot all at the same time, it will taste completely different from adding everything in the proper stages.
I once had a cook that had trouble understanding this concept. I had a signature chili recipe ( I know, who doesn’t ) and its resulting flavor depended greatly on the steps taken to make it and performing the steps in the right order. So the cook, we’ll call him Jim Dirt, refused to follow the proper method. Dirty thought we could get the same result just by adding all the ingredients into the pot at the same time and let it simmer long enough. Everyone could tell that the chili wasn’t the same and asked if we changed the recipe. I’ll explain why this happens.
I would brown the meat first and then remove it from the pot. Second, add bacon fat, onions and peppers to pot with the fond that remained. Then cook the vegetables until they begin to caramelize. They start to turn an amber color. This step will give you a deeper flavor and sweeten the onions. There is a somewhat romantic relationship between sweet and spicy, so we have the sweet tasting onions and the spicy peppers. If I were to just add the onions and peppers without this caramelizing process, we would have the strong flavored onions and peppers and none of the romance. See what I’m getting at?
No matter what your intentions are with the soup you are making, a little cooking of the vegetables initially is essential. You don’t have to caramelize your vegetables but at the very least sweat them a little. Depending on what other signature ingredients you are using, I may add them in with this step. This mostly is dependent on the cooking times. If you are using shrimp, you only need to add them in the last few minutes of cooking otherwise they will overcook. In a restaurant, we tend to cook these ingredients separately and them add them together for the pickup ( the moment the server is ready to take the dish to the guest or when the chef calls to put the entire order in the pass ).
Try some different recipes to practice:
- New England Clam Chowder
- French Onion Soup
- Southwest Style Chicken Tortilla Soup ( because chicken noodle soup is getting a little boring )
When going through the recipes, see if you find any places that ask for broth, water, or bouillon cubes. Can you replace any of these with your homemade stocks? I picked these recipes because they are very close to the very same way I would make these soups. As for the Chili Recipe, that one is exactly how I would do it.
Ways to Thicken a Soup (or sauce)
There a few different ways to thicken a soup. Sometimes you want to get a very rich and thick soup. You may want to use roux to accomplish this. There are different types of roux depending on how long you cook it. This also translates to thickening power. For all roux you combine equal parts of fat and flour. You can use any type of fat but mostly you will use butter.
- White Roux: This has the most thickening power and is cooked just until the flour and butter is combined and is smooth like wet sand.
- Blond Roux: This roux is cooked a little longer and has slightly less thickening power.
- Nut Brown Roux: Great for beef demi glaces and gravy. You can smell the nutty aroma.
- Chocolate Roux: Or Dark Roux. This roux is great for recipes such as gumbo.
A slurry is similar to a roux, it consists of flour, cornstarch, or arrowroot and a cold liquid ( typically water but I have used juices and stocks in the past ). Whisk the starch and cold liquid together until smooth. Now you don’t want to have too much of the guts in your soup otherwise it will be hard to incorporate the slurry without it beginning to clump. Bring your soup up to just under a boil and begin to whisk the soup briskly. Slowly pour the slurry into the vortex of the whisked soup and watch it thicken.
Other starchy foods such as bread and potatoes can thicken a soup. Sticking with the clam chowder example, there is a version from the Outer Banks called Hatteras Clam Chowder. This version does not have cream or tomatoes like its counter parts. It is a broth base soup and the only thickening agent is the potatoes. Not to say that the soup is thick, the potatoes lose some of their starch into the soup as they break down and give a little body to soup.
You could add a lot more thickness by pureeing the potatoes into a soup. This is how I like to make a loaded baked potato soup, or potato chowder. This works with any soup ingredients to some or lesser degree. You can take part of the soup with all of its ingredients and puree them in a Vitamix blender or food processor. Then add the ingredients back to the soup.
Rice will add a little thickness to a soup but I avoid this because the rice can overcook and blow up like balloons in the soup. When using rice in my soups, I usually cook the rice separately with the broth from the soup or the same stock as the soup. When it is time to plate the soup, I add the rice (already hot) to the bowl and ladle the soup over top.
Cold Soup, Really?
I want to cover a small section on cold soups. If you have never tried this before, prepare for your mind to blow. Every so often as chef or culinary enthusiast, we stumble upon things that totally change our perspective on how things work. Ever take a french fry and dip it in a milkshake. No? Go try it now. Cold soups are one of these things.
You can make a lot of different cold soups and they are great when you find yourself missing soup but it is too hot outside to want something like a Beef and Vegetable soup. A lot of common cold soups use fruit for signature ingredients and yogurts as the base. Basically a parfait in soup form but it is delicious.
Go make some great soup!
Remember to always use a good stock for your base. Don’t just add all the ingredients and let the whole thing simmer; get more flavor out of your ingredients by doing things in steps. A great soup has depth of flavors not just a bunch of different flavors sitting side by side. If you need to thicken a soup, use whichever method feels right for that type of soup. Cook every signature ingredient accordingly to how it needs to be cooked. Does it need to be cooked near the end? Should you cook it separately and add it in later?
So now you have the basics to making great soup. If you need some inspiration, take a look at some cookbooks that I always keep on my shelf. I use the Soup cookbook quite often even if only as a launching point for my own creations.