Techniques for Fancy but Cheap Soup

caramelized onions and mushrooms

Soup is an incredible dish because it demonstrates how much different cooking techniques affect the overall flavor, texture, and experience of the meal. This makes soup an excellent dish for low-budget cooking because very inexpensive ingredients can be prepared in different manners to create luxurious meals.

Caramelizing: This is the technique that gives French Onion Soup its iconic, indulgent flavor. It can be done with any carbohydrate-heavy produce though it is most often used with onions to bring out a rich, sweet flavor. It will work best with low water content ingredients ┬áThe trick to this technique is low heat and a lot of time so that the sugar in the ingredient oxidizes. In a large saucepan over low heat, add thinly sliced onions or whatever produce you want, a few tablespoons of your preferred oil (I usually use a mix of butter and olive oil but whatever you have will do), salt and pepper, and whatever other spices and seasonings you want–thyme is excellent for onions, cayenne pepper or paprika for sweet potatoes and butternut squash, rosemary for mushrooms. You can also do this technique in an oven using a Dutch oven or a casserole dish. Cook the ingredients over low heat with minimal stirring for one to two hours.

Braising: This technique is used in many Chinese noodle soups. It is essentially caramelizing with an extra step in the beginning to get even richer flavor. Over high heat, sear meat or vegetables in oil for no more than a minute till they have a clear brown crust. Only flip the ingredients once to make sure that they do not overcook! Then, add water or stock to about halfway up the ingredients and bring to a boil. Once boiling, lower the heat to a low simmer, add any additional aromatics and seasonings like garlic, herbs, or shallots, and cover with a lid. Let cook until the ingredients are fork-tender, adding more liquid as necessary to maintain the same level. This should take about one hour for vegetables and 1.5 to 3 for meat. This can be done on a stovetop or in a Dutch oven at 350 degrees.

Charring: This technique is useful for Italian and Mexican recipes, especially. It gives a deep, smokey flavor to the vegetables that infuses the entire soup. It’s best to use high sugar content vegetables like sweet onions, bell peppers, and tomatoes that won’t become bitter when burnt. Using a gas stovetop or a broiler and a foil-lined baking sheet, put the vegetables close to open flame–keep a close eye that they don’t catch fire or burn too, too much! It should only take a couple of seconds to get a nice, blistery char.

Once you master these techniques, you can use them to improve nearly any soup you want, and basically every recipe too!

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