My grandmother was an excellent cook. Fortunately, many of her recipes and techniques were handed down through the generations.
I've met a few rare people from time to time who were born with the gift of what I call "food chemistry." These talented folks can prowl through any pantry, refrigerator, or freezer, scavenging some of this and some of that, and prepare a dish fit for a king. None of these folks are professionally trained, and most of them didn’t have food mentors to show them what to do. Yet, they manage to create manna out of the most mundane ingredients.
I must tell you right up front that I am not one of them. However, after years of experimenting with soups, I have learned how to make a delicious and hearty soup out of just about anything. I don’t have that elusive "food chemistry" gift, but I have something called "soup mechanics," and you can have it, too.
I make hot and hearty soups from whatever happens to be in my pantry or refrigerator and in my local farmers’ markets. I often start with one of the Manischewitz cello soup mixes, simply because they are so flavorful and nutritious, but you don’t have to. Let your imagination be your guide, and let your willingness to experiment overcome your fear of failure. Believe me, with these soup mechanics tips, you’ll be able to overcome almost any accident or mistake.
1. Start With the Right Pot
Just as a durable house can’t be built on a faulty foundation, a pot of hot and hearty soup can’t be created in a flimsy pot. The long cooking time and low heat required to create a successful soup demand a heavy-bottomed soup pot large enough to hold at least four quarts. Also, make sure your pot has a tightly fitting lid so you can thicken (uncovered) or steam (covered) your soup.
2. When a Soup Recipe Calls for a Stock Base, Make Your Own
Not all soups require a stock base. Onion and tomato soups, for example, do not. But when a soup recipe calls for stock, it's a good idea to make your own. The liquid stocks you buy in cans or paper containers and the soup bases that are powders or pastes are all convenient, but they are also expensive, laden with preservatives and salt, and too predictable in the tastes they lend to a soup.
Stock is easy and cheap to make, and it’s fun. Plus, while you make it, your kitchen will smell heavenly. Here are some of the best stock-making methods I’ve found to meet almost any soup need.
- Beef Stock from Kaylin's Kitchen
- Fish Stock from Group Recipes
- Chicken Stock from the Food Network
- Vegetable Stock from The Stone Soup
While these methods are tried and true, experiment with whatever you have on hand. Keep in mind that early cooks used whatever was available to them, whether the ingredients came from the wild, a seasonal garden, or from scraps of previous meals.
3. Use Lots of Garlic and Ginger
Although garlic and ginger have distinctive and powerful tastes, they are also flavor enhancers, bringing out the essences of other flavors they join. We can use garlic and ginger to create their own signature tastes and aromas, but we can also use them to help blend other tastes and aromas into a unique soup signature.
Garlic, in moderation, complements almost anything, bringing out the best flavors of the other ingredients. Even if a soup recipe doesn’t call for garlic, you can be confident about mincing two or three cloves into the soup without worrying about a garlic taste. The garlic will just amplify the other tastes and aromas.
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Ginger is a slightly different story. I use ginger as a flavor enhancer mostly in vegetable and chicken soups. Like garlic, it can deliver a bite, but also it can also provide a certain sweetness. When using ginger as a flavor enhancer (as opposed to a dominant taste), just ask yourself if you want a slightly sweet and aromatic note in your soup.
4. Cook It Low and Long
Don’t hurry. Slow cooking will give your soup a unique blend of flavors. The longer meats, vegetables, herbs, and spices co-mingle in hot liquid, the more complete their combined flavor will be. Once you get the ingredients up to a boil, lower the heat to the lowest possible temperature just to keep a gentle simmer going throughout the cooking process.
5. Decide Whether or Not to Cover the Pot
You may cook your soup covered or uncovered depending on the outcome you want. Leaving the lid off will make liquid evaporate faster, potentially creating a thicker and more flavorful soup. Leaving the lid on reduces the rate of evaporation, and it's good when the soup ingredients are done cooking but the broth isn't quite rich (co-mingled) enough for your liking. I always cook my soups uncovered, keep an eye on them, and adjust ingredients as needed through a low and long cooking process.
6. Use Fresh or Frozen Ingredients Instead of Canned
Although the concept of soup precludes the idea that almost anything goes, there are some prepared foods that should remain crossed off your list of soup ingredients. Let’s define fresh and frozen. Both terms refer to foods you buy or use that have not been enhanced with preservatives or flavor and color enhancers and have not been already cooked and processed. Fresh and frozen foods may come from either your garden or your grocer.
Canned foods have already been cooked through and through and lend little flavor or nutrition to the wonderful co-mingling of flavors in the soup-making process. There are some exceptions, such as canned tomatoes, which I use from time to time to add texture and taste. But I’m also mindful of what went into the can along with the tomatoes. As far as canned green beans, green peas, corn, carrots, and potatoes go, choose fresh or frozen preparations over these already over-cooked canned versions. The fresh taste you will achieve is well-worth the effort.
7. Give Soup Time to "Mature" in the Refrigerator
Like great stews, curries, and lasagnas, hearty soups taste even better after they've been in the refrigerator for a half a day or so and are then reheated.
8. Fix Watery Soup
I did not inherit the food chemistry gene, and I didn't inherit the one for masterful soup either. As soup was not a staple in our family, I had no early soup mentor. Mostly, I learned from trial and error, making plenty of watery soups along the way. When I say watery, I don’t mean a light, thin, tasty broth, as in a consommé, but broth that looks alright but has no flavor. Rather than throw away a pot of hot nourishment, I experimented with adding ingredients late in the cooking to turn bland and watery into tasty and rich.
Here's what I learned: If you have a lifeless broth, try adding drained canned tomatoes, a cup of finely shredded cabbage, a package of fresh-frozen mixed vegetables or corn, or a cup of cooked kidney or white beans. Or all of the above!
9. Fix Soup That Is Too Salty
I need to say here that I don’t cook with salt, ever. There are so many great herbs and spices, plus natural falvors in foods, that I don’t feel I need to add salt. However, sometimes you may make a mistake, like adding the salt a recipe calls for and then using a homemade stock that you salted. It does happen. Here are three ideas for fixing soup that is just too darned salty.
- Wash and cut up a big potato into about six pieces. They will absorb and pull out some of the salt if you boil the pieces in the soup for about a half an hour, pick them out, and discard them, or eat them if you like salted boiled potatoes.
- As you would do for fixing watery soup, add finely shredded cabbage, cooked beans, rice, or pasta. All of these will dilute and absorb salt in a pleasing way.
- If the soup is still too salty, serve it as a sauce over unsalted rice or pasta.
10. Decant Your Soup If the Pot Gets Burnt
I hate this one! While I was learning to make soup, I would scrape the burned stuff off the bottom of the pot, hoping for something good to happen. Any cook can leave the heat on too high or not attend the pot, and vegetable and meat matter will burn to the bottom. If this happens, don’t stir the pot! Just decant what’s left on top, like you would a good wine to leave the sediment behind, and start again in a fresh pot. If you scrape the burned food into the rest of the soup, everything will taste of burn.