I make a lot of soups. Although I am an omnivore, we eat vegetarian at home, so most of the soups I make are vegetarian, and can easily become vegan with a few tweaks.
Because it’s what we do with social media, sometimes I post pictures of the soups I make on places like facebook and instagram. Sometimes people ask for a recipe. I’ve decided to start putting some of those recipes up here, in case someone finds it useful.
When I started to write down the recipes, though, I noticed that it can be hard for me to capture just the one magic list of ingredients or techniques. I’m pretty intuitive in my soup-making, and so there are all sorts of substitutions and alterations that show up. Even when I set out to make one of my regular soups, the North African red lentil soup, the actual recipe shifts from time to time, just depending on what I have in the fridge.
Every time I make a soup, it’s a little different. But there are some general principles that help me to edit and create new soups.
A general strategic theory of soups: ingredients
- Every soup is basically liquid, fat, aromatics, and 2-6 other ingredients
- The liquid is water, broth, stock, or sometimes cream or milk. I rarely make cream-based soups. I think they’re just too heavy. But the basic idea is this: you put stuff in water and heat it until the stuff changes. It’s alchemy.
- Boxed or canned stocks are fine. It’s pretty easy to make your own stocks, though, and they are nearly always better.
- The fat depends on the cuisine you’re soup is imitating: butter for French soup, olive oil for Mediterranean, vegetable oil for Asian or Mexican. But don’t worry too much about it. The flavors are different, but the point is the same: before you add the liquid, it helps the aromatics to sweat [sweat? See below in techniques] without sticking together.
- Speaking of aromatics, this is the next bit. Aromatics are the foundational flavors and textures and show up in nearly every soup.
- Most importantly are the alliums, so called because that’s the botanical class to which they all belong: onion, garlic, leek, or some combination. Nearly every soup I’ve ever seen has onions, garlic, or leek. From there, things diverge based on the cuisine
- Standard groupings of aromatics depend on the cuisine. In french cooking, you’ll make a mirepoix, which is 2 onions, 1 celery stalk, 1 carrot, all diced and sweated in butter. In Italian or Spanish cooking, you’ll make a soffrito or sofrito. Using the same ingredients as a mirepoix, but diced more finely, you’ll cook them over higher heat in olive oil, to caramelize them. In Asian cooking you’ll often begin with onion, garlic, and ginger.
- Other contents are pretty much up to you, and nearly anything can work in a soup. You need only pay attention to flavors that work well together, and to the characteristics of the foods themselves. Here’s a basic rule: if you can eat the ingredient raw, you will probably only need to cook it for a little while, 5-10 minutes (things like peas or green beans). If the thing is pretty tough, it’ll need to simmer for longer (things like larger chunks of carrot or parsnip or potato). Pick 2-6 ingredients that you think might work together. Pick some herbs and spices that might work with them. Experiment.
- Add a little salt.
A general strategic theory of soups: techniques
The contents of soup are pretty easy: liquid, aromatics, extra contents. There are a few simple techniques involved, too. Here they are:
- Sweating and caramelizing. Often, before you add the liquid, you begin with the aromatics and you’ll cook them in the fat. Sometimes a recipe book will tell you to sauté the onion, but generally what you’ll want to do is sweat them. But sometimes you’ll want to caramelize them.
- sweating is cooking in the fat over low heat. You want the onion and carrot and celery to get soft and to release delicious-smelling juices, but you do not want them to be turning brown! To do this make sure you use enough fat (butter or oil), keep the heat low, and be patient.
- caramelizing cranks the heat up a bit, but just a bit. When you caramelize your aromatics, as you do in an Italian soffrito), you’ll cook them in the oil for a long time, as much as an hour. They will turn brown and develop a rich and sweeter flavor, but not a bitter flavor that you get from scorching or burning things. Again, the keys are patience and frequent stirring, enough oil and a low flame.
- Roasting. If you want to, you can roast soup ingredients before adding them to the soup liquid. This will change the flavor, as you will know if you’ve ever roasted anything. Sweetness will develop. Umami, or that hard-to-describe “meaty” flavor will develop. Basic roasting: cut things up so they’re smaller than 1″; toss in vegetable oil (better than olive oil for handling high heat…); season with salt, pepper, and herbs or spices; put in 350-400°F oven; stir and flip ingredients a few times; roast until soft, which will be like 45 minute for potatoes or Brussels sprouts. Check with a fork.
- Boiling and simmering. Plain water at sea level boils at 212°F, and simmers around 180°F. Boiling is turbulent; lots of bubbles charge out of the liquid, making the surface of the liquid a roiling chaos. Simmering, on the other hand, gives you a fairly still surface that is broken by bubbles regularly rising up and popping. Nearly all soups want to come up to a boil to get started, and then back off to find that sweet simmer spot. Simmering is the natural state of a cooking soup. A simmer can go for hours with just a little stirring.
- Blending. Sometimes you’ll want to blend out the chunks of stuff in your soup and have something nice and creamy. If you want to make life hard for yourself, you’ll let the soup cool, ladle it a little at a time into a blender, blend it, and then pour it into a separate pot. If you want to make life much, much easier, get yourself an immersion blender, also called a stick blender. It is worth it.
A general strategic theory of soups: equipment
Soup is simple. You don’t need much.
- Big pot. 6 quarts at least. Stainless steel or cast iron or enameled iron. Don’t do aluminum. Make sure it has a lid. And handles on the side.
- Chef’s knife and cutting board. Me, I’m a Henckels man.
- A stove. Gas is better, I think.
- An immersion blender, otherwise called a stick blender.
- A little tool that I hope to pick up soon is a Japanese simmering lid called an otoshibuta. This is a wooden lid that is smaller in diameter than your pot, and it floats directly on top of the soup. Steam can still escape out the side, which is important to keep the temperature from climbing too high.