How to Make the World’s Best Soup without Going to the Store
Soup and stock can seem daunting, but the cold weather charmer can be the simplest thing—and economical, to boot. Here, tips from a pro.
Soup cookery, at its best, can be as leisurely and meditative as baking, but it can also come together in a snap: There’s no shame in using bouillon cubes or the knobby odds and ends of vegetables and bones kicking around your fridge and freezer.
So says Tamar Adler, the talented author of An Everlasting Meal: Cooking With Economy and Grace—a book as satisfying and soothing as chicken noodle soup on a blustery day. Adler exhorts readers to use every stem, root, and scrap, and knows that having an egg on hand can manifest a meal from nearly nothing. I reached out to her to learn more about getting from stone to soup without breaking a sweat.
Can I make stock from a leftover (cooked) chicken carcass?
Bones being cooked is a wonderful thing. Now they’re caramelized. On one hand, you could put it in a pot right now, just barely covering it with water. Put in a handful of herbs, a little piece of carrot, onion, a bay leaf, and simmer it till it tastes like something, then strain it. Or freeze it, wait till you have 4 or 5 carcasses, and make a substantial quantity of stock.
This is heresy, but I’m also a great proponent of mixed carcass stock. Freeze the carcass, wait till you have the bone of a T-bone steak, the shin bone of a lamb leg, the little bones from a quail, and put them all into one pot. Make a really exciting, flavorful broth. The only thing I’d say not to do is combine species that don’t get around the same way. I wouldn’t combine fish and quadrupeds or bipeds. Keep footed things with footed things.
Is it a problem to mix cooked bones with uncooked bones?
It doesn’t matter It’s gonna cook for a while. Nothing has to be perfect.
What’s your go-to chicken soup approach?
I think the best way to make a chicken soup is to take a whole chicken or legs and thighs and poach them in broth you already have frozen, or cook a whole chicken or legs and thighs in water. Don’t use so much water that the chicken is swimming around, and cook them till they’re done. You’ll have a mild chicken broth. You’ll be worried: “This doesn’t taste like chicken soup; it tastes like water.” You can [remove the chicken, and then] cook the broth over higher heat till it does taste like something.
What else should be in there?
Chicken that had been well-seasoned, ideally overnight, with whatever aromatics I had: Carrots, celery, leek, onion, a bunch of parsley stems if I have them. A star anise.
Do you add salt if you’re just making a stock?
I don’t add salt if I’m just making a stock with bones. If I were then to cook anything else in there that was seasoned it would be too salty.
Do cooks need to chop vegetables for stock?
I wouldn’t chop them, I would just put a piece of it in. It’s literally just giving its flavor to the liquid and being strained out. Also, it’s absolutely true in home cooking that the perfect is the enemy of the good. The fact that you made it yourself will probably compensate for any imperceptible [problem]. You’ll be happy because you made it. I don’t do anything that takes a long time. Any impediment is too great an impediment.
And do you skim off the foam that rises to the top?
Yeah. Anything that bubbles to the top is kind of weird stuff—little fatty protein bits. That only happens once, when it comes to a boil. Bring to a boil, then simmer until it tastes good.
Should Parmesan rinds go into a basic stock?
You only want to add Parm rinds to the finished dish. [If you’re just making a broth] it’s important to maintain versatility and relative clarity and simple flavors.
Any vegetables you wouldn’t use in a vegetable broth?
I don’t use the brassicas: broccoli, cabbage, kale. But since my book came out, hundreds of people have told me they had their lives changed by adding broccoli stems to their vegetable broths, so probably people should do what they like and see if they like it. I use onion or leek, celery, carrot, herbs, and probably garlic.
What are the easiest soups you make?
One is polentina. I talk about in my book; it’s when you sauté a bunch of garlic in olive oil and a lot of broth, and add polenta to make a thin gruel. It relies on having good chicken stock and having garlic and polenta around. Another that I make all the time now that I really love is with sautéed onions, sometimes garlic, warm spices like cinnamon and ground coriander, canned chickpeas and water and a lot of olive oil. I cover the chickpeas with water, add a really impossibly huge amount of olive oil, and puree it. It’s what I make when I’m holding my 15-month son in the kitchen and it all has to be done in half an hour.
That sounds close to hummus, but as a soup?
Any last bits of soup wisdom?
I don’t think everybody always has all the ingredients for a soup in their house. I wouldn’t go out and buy them—certainly not until you’ve gotten comfortable and confident in making a soup with what you have, at all moments, even if you don’t have chicken carcasses to make a stock. You certainly have those Knorr bouillon cubes, and could make some slightly salty and not ideal chicken broth. But make it, throw in pasta, spend time chopping onions and carrots, add pasta, and you have soup! I do not in any way frown on any of those things that any of us can do to make it possible to cook at home. You can make soup from rotisserie chicken carcasses. You don’t have to start from a place of purity. You can start from wherever you are. And there will always be a soup in reach. Every culture has a few really meager peasant soups. They’re a great place to look for inspiration because one of my most common soup ingredients is very, very stale bread, something you can’t even buy. You’ll kind of find the right path to make it economical and easy.
(Note: Interview edited and condensed for clarity.)
Alex Van Buren is a food and travel writer living in Brooklyn, New York whose work has appeared in Gourmet, Travel + Leisure, New York Magazine, Martha Stewart Living, Bon Appétit, and Epicurious. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter @alexvanburen.