How to Experiment with Soup

Part of what makes soup so incredibly versatile and easy is that it is almost always a simple formula. Like I said in my first post on this blog, there is a basic formula that can be adapted to fit whatever ingredients you have on hand and whatever flavors sound good. In this post, we’ll go over the basic formula and terms so that you can learn how to easily experiment and always end with a good outcome!

#1: Build flavor

First, your soup needs a solid base of flavor so that every ingredient you add is delicious. Generally speaking, what this looks like in soup is sautéing aromatics. Aromatics are ingredients that have intense, distinctive flavor which will develop in the cooking process–these include but are not limited to onions, shallots, garlic, celery, and carrots. In a large pot with a little oil over medium-high to high heat, add finely chopped aromatics, salt, and whatever spices, seasonings, and dried herbs you desire. There should be enough oil that the ingredients do not stick to the bottom of the pot but not so much that they are drenched; furthermore, the heat should not be so high that the ingredients burn within a few minutes. The goal is to “sweat” the aromatics so they release any bitter flavors and begin to cook and brown nicely. You should stir the ingredients every 30-60 seconds depending on how finely chopped they are and what type of pot you are using (smaller pieces need to be stirred more often; thicker pots heat up more slowly and ingredients will need more time to cook). Do not stir so much that the ingredients do not brown–only stir enough to ensure the ingredients do not burn.

If cooking with meat, this step will usually include searing the meat in oil over high heat, only cooking for a few seconds on every side, to get a flavorful brown crust on the outside while leaving the inside raw enough that the meat will cook perfectly when boiled in liquid.

This is also the time to add any alcohol that is used in cooking the soup–French Onion Soup requires vermouth and many vegetable or beef stews benefit from red wine, whiskey, or beer. Make sure there is plenty of cooking time for the flavors to soften and develop.

#2: Add long-cooking ingredients

This step may not always be necessary depending on the ingredients you are using and your preferences. I prefer an intermediary step to add ingredients like turnips, radishes, kimchi, lemongrass, broccoli, bell pepper, mushrooms or flavorful liquids like salsa verde–there is a lot of flavor in these ingredients and they all benefit from longer cooking times, however I do not want to overpower the aromatic base by adding them too early. Add these sorts of ingredients after the aromatics are nicely browned.

#3: Add short-cooking ingredients

Short-cooking ingredients are ingredients that do not necessarily need to be sautéed before they are good to eat–tomatoes, beans and legumes, corn, hominy, precooked or seared meat, softer or starchier vegetables like squash or potatoes, and zucchini. I also like to include more spices and seasonings at this stage to taste.

#4: Add liquid

The liquid you choose is the most important part of the soup because it’s the primary ingredient people will taste. Good quality bone broth or stock–especially homemade–will bring very full flavor to the soup. If that’s not available, bouillon or powdered stock like Dashida is a good substitute. Make sure to taste the broth once mixed with the ingredients and assess the flavor profile–does it need more salt? More acid, like red wine vinegar, lemon juice, or lime juice? More sweetness, like a spoonful of honey? Make any necessary adjustments and bring the soup to a boil; once boiling, bring soup to a low simmer and cover. Cook for at least 20 minutes, probably 30-40 or until all ingredients are cooked through.

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