Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Recipe-Free Cooking: Soup

Today's modest agenda is to talk about how to make every soup in the world, without a recipe.

(These are the notes for the class I taught at the Boston Skillshare on Sunday. Here's my PDF class handout.)

I submit to you that just about every soup is made on the same basic formula:

soup = aromatics + hard things + liquid + soft things + seasoning/garnishes



Peel your aromatics and cut them into small pieces. Cook them in a little bit of oil or butter in the bottom of a pot over medium heat, stirring frequently, until they smell nice.

Aromatics are “things that smell good while cooking.” Seriously.

The most simple aromatic is an onion. If you cut an onion into small pieces and start cooking it in a little bit of oil, people will sense that you’re making food. They will wander into the kitchen and ask, “What’s cooking?” Many, many kinds of food (beyond soup) start with cooking an onion.

There are a lot of kinds of onions and things that are like onions: red onions, yellow onions, shallots, green onions, leeks. You can use any of these.

The aromatics are also the flavor base for your soup. If you want to get more complex than just the onion, add other things to suggest a particular cuisine or recipe:

Onion + garlic + chile paste = Thai
Onion + carrot + celery = French mirepoix / American (chicken noodle soup)
Green onion + cilantro stems + ginger = East Asian
Onion + garlic + ginger + Indian spices = Indian

The chief concern when cooking aromatics is that they will burn. Keep your heat at medium, stir frequently, and cook things other than the onion and vegetables for just a moment. (Dry spices like chili powder and garam masala, for example, smell amazing when cooked with your aromatics for 30 seconds or so, but they'll burn after that.)

If your aromatics seem to be in danger of burning, skip ahead in the formula and add the liquid. Phew.


hard things

Wash and peel (if you want) your hard things and cut them into small pieces. The hard things can either go in the pot a couple minutes before the liquid (pro: they brown a little with the oil and aromatics; con: they might burn) or right after the liquid.

Butternut squash is hard, potatoes are hard, multivariable calculus is hard, and all those unidentified rooty things in the bottom of your winter CSA box (parsnips, turnips, celeriac, rutabagas) are hard. Things that take a long time to cook are hard; your hard things are what determine how long your soup will have to cook.

(Dried beans and grains, like rice, are more advanced hard things, because they take more precise cooking times, and they make your soup unpalatable if they're not fully cooked.)

If you're in a hurry: Hard things cook faster if they're cut into smaller pieces. It's not cheating to zap hard things in the microwave for a few minutes to make them softer.


Dump your liquids into the pot. Raise the heat until they come to a boil, then turn it down to a gentle simmer.

The traditional liquid for soup is broth, which you can buy in cans or cartons or as cubes or powder you mix with water (I like these ones). You can also make broth yourself, but, really, I don't know why you're reading this if you're already making your own broth.

Water is also a liquid. I often add water to my soups because I find broth excessively salty. Or because I don't have enough broth.

Other soup liquids: Canned tomatoes usually have enough liquid with them to count as liquid. Liquid from canned beans or any other canned foods you're putting in your soup (yes, essentially salty water with some flavor in it is what we're going for here). Coconut milk. (But note that regular milk and dairy products should be added later, because they don't like to cook at high temperatures.)

How much liquid? Enough to completely cover all your hard things (with room to add your soft things). After that -- as much as looks right to you. It is not cheating to add more liquid later.

soft things

Wash your soft things and cut them into small pieces. Once your hard things are mostly cooked (taste one), put the soft things in the pot.

Soft things are the things in your soup that are not hard. The things that do not take very long to cook. Hard things would survive being dropped out a third-floor window. Soft things would not.

Vegetables that are better undercooked than overcooked (green beans, asparagus) are soft. Delicate greens (baby spinach) and fresh herbs (basil, parsley, cilantro) are soft. Anything that is already cooked (canned beans, prepared rice, frozen vegetables or vegetables in a can) and just needs to be warmed up is a soft thing.

Soft things generally need just a few minutes to cook, so put them in the pot when your hard things are nearly ready to eat to prevent them from being overcooked.


You can actually add seasonings at any step (and you might have already, with your aromatics or in your liquids), but now you should taste, experiment, and add more as desired.

Copious garnishes are a good way to help (or save) a boring soup. A pretty dull carrot soup I made for practice this week became a pretty good soup with rice, frozen edamame, and cooked shredded chicken sprinkled on top.

This is an area where, if I'm trying for a certain effect or to make something fancy-looking, I do consult recipes. Many, many Epicurious soup recipes, for example, follow this basic formula and then add a fussy coulis/relish/drizzle on top.

A note on one particular seasoning: Be conscious that some soup ingredients (notably broth and anything from a can) are already quite salty, but as Tony Bourdain tells us, the difference between your food and restaurant food (not to mention canned soup) is that restaurant food has a lot more salt.


A couple ways to make your soup a little different.

Puree it. Soup is somehow more elegant if you can't see what's in it. This is also usually a good save for an unattractive soup or one that has a funny color. I love our immersion blender for pureeing right in the pot, but you can use a food processor or traditional blender or food mill.

Add dairy. Make a creamy soup or chowder by adding cream, butter, half and half, or milk. (This is often done in combination with pureeing.) Dairy ingredients can get weird if you let them boil, so add them at the very end of cooking.

last thoughts

Don't spend too much time worrying about which group an ingredient is in -- think more of a spectrum than of discrete choices. Carrots can be an aromatic, but they can also be hard things. The scale is also relative: zucchini is a soft thing when you cook it with potatoes, but it's a hard thing when you cook it with frozen peas.

If you have trouble getting the sequence in which you add things to your pot exactly right, congratulations -- getting everything cooked at the same time is one of the major challenges of cooking. Most soup ingredients, however, are pretty forgiving about being undercooked or overcooked. Pretend you intended it that way.

Any ingredient that you're uncertain about cooking can be cooked separately and added at the end. Cooking chicken in a soup requires some timing and skill. Dropping cooked chicken pieces into a finished soup requires neither. Cooking pasta in your soup? Tricky. Stirring cooked pasta into a bowl of soup? Yes!

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