It’s no secret that I love soup. I love soup so much that I might as well introduce myself as such: “Hi, I’m Allysia, and I’m an avid cook, musician and soup eater”. As a natural consequence of loving soup, I’ve learned a few things about making it that I wanted to share with you today, so that we may all enjoy happy soup, which are especially useful for lazy suppers and proving to people that vegetables are, in fact, quite delicious.
1. Start with a Great Broth
I firmly believe that the quality of a broth can either make or break the soup. Whether or not you choose to spend time making a rich homemade broth (always the best), there are definitely better and worse bouillon choices. Some are under-salted, some over-salted, and a good deal contain MSG and other unpleasant additives. Some are just straight-up bland.
My favorite bouillon cubes come from the local health food store, hand-packaged and unbranded, containing only dried vegetables, herbs and salt. I also like the brand Celifibr, who not only makes vegetable bouillon cubes, but vegan chicken and beef ones as well.
If you’re motivated to make your own broth – and power to you if you are – it’s really as simple as throwing a bunch of rough-chopped veggies in a pot, covering them with water, simmering them for a couple of hours and then straining the mixture so you’re left with a clear, golden broth. I find carrots, onions, garlic and celery to be essential, and love adding a bunch of fresh parsley, a couple bay leaves and a small sprinkle of whole peppercorns. Plenty of other vegetables and herbs can be used for broths as well, depending on what’s in season and/or in your fridge. Of course, don’t forget the salt!
2. Feature One or Two Veggies
Featuring just one or two vegetables allows for soups that are always varied and interesting. Maybe it’s spring and thin stalks of asparagus have arrived – what better way to enjoy them than to make a soup that highlights their delicate, pea-like flavor? Or maybe it’s winter and the potatoes and leeks are abundant – few vegetable combinations are more comforting. Maybe you have a fridge full of carrots or came into a large supply of mushrooms. Highlighting one or two vegetables in a soup and letting all of the other flavors play a supporting role is one of the best ways of enjoying the natural and unique flavors of each vegetable.
3. Make an “Everything but the Kitchen Sink” Soup
In direct contrast to the former point, it’s hard to go wrong by throwing in a whole assortment of vegetables into a delicious broth with a fresh herb or two, and it’s a great way to clear your fridge of all those half-eaten vegetables. Virtually all vegetables can be used in an everything soup, including potatoes, squash, beets, carrots, parsnips, turnips, cabbage, zucchini, cauliflower, broccoli, mushrooms, celery, and even frozen peas, corn and green beans. Dark leafy greens such as kale, chard and spinach also make nutritious additions to a good soup.
To make a meal-sized soup, just add a can or two of drained and rinsed legumes and be sure to use starchy, filling vegetables like potatoes and winter squash. Dried pasta also makes a nice addition.
4. K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple, Stupid)
So you’ve got some veggies simmering away in a gorgeous broth, and your house smells like a fancy Italian restaurant. Suddenly you’re inspired by the spice cupboard – what about thyme? And basil? Can’t forget the oregano. Oh, I wonder what a pinch of cumin would be like, and what about some of that tasty Creole seasoning? Before you know it, the flavors that started out so clean and very much their own have become muddled and drowned. You swallow a spoonful of soup and the 5 zillion spices are all fighting on your tongue, competing to get your attention, and the end result is just this big pile of flavors that have been knocked unconscious.
Instead, I find it best to simply accent the naturally delicious flavor of the vegetables by picking an herb or two and using it judiciously. For example, thyme pairs beautifully with wintery root vegetables, as does sage, which can create a deeper savory dimension in a mushroom soup. Basil adds a fresh, licorice-like taste to summery tomato-based soups, and oregano is also well-matched to tomatoes, especially soups with an Italian flair.
There are always exceptions (spicy, highly-charged chili comes to mind), but I find for the majority of soup making experiences, keeping the seasonings simple creates a soup that will dance on your tongue instead of fight on it.
5. Chop the Veggies into Bite-Sized Pieces
As fun as it is to use a gigantic spoon just to fish out the huge hunks of potato the size of several bites, it’s much easier for everyone to be able to eat a piece of vegetable in one small bite. It’s also more fun when you’re able to fit multiple vegetable chunks onto your spoon. In chunky soups, I typically opt for pieces that are no more than an inch around, and often go smaller, especially with slower-cooking veggies like carrots and beets.
This is obviously not so much of an issue if you’re making a pureed soup, but even in that case you’ll want to make sure that the pieces are of a roughly equal size so that you don’t have some pieces overcooked, and others undercooked.
6. Know How Long It Takes To Cook Vegetables
Maybe Granny’s meaty stew needs to be simmered on the stove for hours, but this is rarely the case with vegetable-based soups. The fact of the matter is that virtually all vegetables can be cooked in an hour or less (usually much, much less), especially when they’re chopped into bite-sized pieces. I find that mostly everything will be soft after 20 minutes of simmering, including small-cut potatoes. The exceptions seem to be carrots, unless they’re sliced into thin halfmoons, and beets, which take quite a while to cook through even when they’re cut small.
Greens seem to be the most fragile when it comes to long cooking times, and will often turn from a brilliant emerald green to a grayish shade when overcooked. Because of this, I like to add things like chopped spinach, kale or broccoli towards the very end of the cooking time, usually in the last five minutes, so they maintain their beautiful color.
7. Onions and Garlic, the Dynamic Duo
Sautéed in a little olive oil, garlic and onions form the foundation for a perfect broth to rest upon. They’re worth adding even just for the sweet and rich smell they impart. There are very few vegetable soups that wouldn’t appreciate a beginning with onions and garlic, and an Everything Soup simply demands it. Plus, onions and garlic keep a good long while in the fridge (or in a cool, dark place), so there’s no excuse not to have them handy.
8. Let Thy Soup Cool
As tempting as it might be to taste-test a boiling-hot pot of soup, please don’t. I’ve burnt my tongue enough for all of us, I think. Scalded tongues aside, we’re not so good at judging the flavor of something when it’s really hot (or cold), so you might taste it and think, “hmm, needs more salt”, and then dump in some salt just to realize later, when the soup is at a decent temperature, that it’s too salty. Patience is all that’s required; you will be able to determine any adjustments once the soup is at a temperature that doesn’t require vigorous slurping.
It’s the same concept as eating vegan ice cream when it’s ice cold – it’s delicious! But if you’ve ever tasted ice cream after it’s a little warmed and melted, you know that it becomes almost unbearably sweet.
9. Creamy Soups, Sans Cream
I have a confession to make: I strongly dislike adding (unsweetened) non-dairy milk to soups. It’s nothing against non-dairy milk; I love the stuff, and I’d probably be equally opposed to using the dairy kind if I wasn’t already opposed to using it for other reasons. My problem with it is that it doesn’t offer sufficient creaminess and it’s bland.
A can of coconut milk is totally creamy, though, if you don’t mind a coconut flavor in your soup. I love to blend a handful of cashews with some broth, which creates a thick cream mixture that’s perfect in soups and doesn’t have a strong nut flavor. Making a roux is also another option, which is basically cooking some flour in a bunch of butter and then slowly adding broth while whisking to make a thick, creamy liquid. It’s completely delicious, albeit fatty.
You don’t even need to use cream for a creamy soup – for a smooth cream of asparagus soup, for example, you might cook a potato or two along with the asparagus, which adds a rich, creamy texture to the broth when pureed, and has the added benefit of being fat-free.
10. A Spoonful of Lemon
…Or lime, or red wine vinegar. With chunky vegetable soups (not creamy ones), sometimes a little squeeze of fresh lemon juice into a pot of cooling soup is all it takes to brighten all the flavors and make the whole thing shine. Lemon pairs especially well with garlicky or tomato-filled soups, and lime adds a zesty finish to brothy Asian soups. A splash of red wine vinegar is a nice touch to very hearty soups, especially bean-filled ones.
11. And a Sprinkle of Salt and Pepper
I know that we’ve got to watch our sodium intake since it’s so easy to go overboard, especially in the land of processed food. But just a pinch is all it takes to bring out all of the flavors of your soup and prevent it from being bland. My favorite bouillon cubes are sufficiently salty yet only contain 500mg sodium per 2 cups of liquid, and I tend to find the ratio of 2 bouillon cubes to 5 cups of water ideal, and that usually yields enough soup for four large servings – do the math, and that equates to approximately 250mg sodium per serving.
There is no comparison for a scattering of freshly ground pepper atop a warm bowl of soup, and pepper grinders are inexpensive and totally worth every penny. You’ll never want to go back to the pre-ground stuff, I guarantee it.
There are many reasons I adore soups, like their ease, their diversity, and their appealing comfort value, especially in the winter months. They’re also a great way to get more vegetables into our diets, something that many of us are in dire need of. They can be enjoyed as a first course or appetizer, or enjoyed as a meal in a bowl, with perhaps a slice of hearty bread served alongside it. They can be made to feature the season’s best produce, or as a vehicle for clearing out your fridge. They’re incredibly forgiving and difficult to mess up, especially with these tips in mind.
So happy soup making to you all, and if you have any additional soup-making tips, I’d love to hear about them in the comments.