The Not-so-Secret Formula for Soup

Let’s talk about formulas for a minute. Formulas have made words like quadratic, sonnet, and symphony part of our educated cultural lexicon. Formulas also favor certain numbers: one and four-hundred nine, for example. There are some formulas that are secret, which conjure up images of mad scientists and chemistry sets or wizards and potions or witches and brews. And there are other formulas that are marketed en masse to mothers feeding their babies the world over. In all, formulas represent time-tested summations of long-observed patterns of success, adding to our lives convenience, consistency, satisfaction, and the occasional groan from 8th grade algebra students.

It may come as no surprise, then, that almost all soups follow a basic formula. This was probably the second thing I learned when I took that life-changing, extra-curricular culinary arts class back when I was a college girl. The beauty of understanding this formula is that you can, theoretically, cook up whatever soup you want conceptually, rather than by following a specific recipe. 

Too complicated, you say? You’re scared, you whisper? Let’s take a closer look at what Chef had to say about the anatomy of a soup. 

Base Flavors
Arguably the first step in composing your soup is to create a foundation by cooking up some flavorful vegetables. Which vegetables you use will largely depend upon what style of soup you are making, but generally, the most trusted combinations are:

Onion, carrot, celery: Known in French cooking as the mire poix (meer pwah), I usually dice half a large onion, 2 carrots, and 2 celery stalks, for the average soup. 

Onion, peppers, celery: Known in American cajun cooking as the trinity, this is a good combination when you’re building a spicier soup like a gumbo, or just when you want to give your soup a little bit of an edge. It’s not that you can’t use carrots in Cajun cooking or that you can’t use peppers in French cooking–these are just the classic foundations.

Garlic, fruits, ginger root: Okay, maybe this is not a classical combination. But I mention them because they can serve as a foundation in some Asian soups, and also because they may be added to the above ingredients (in smaller quantities) for additional flavor enhancement. For example, I almost always add two cloves of minced garlic to a mire poix.

Whichever base you elect to start with, pay attention to the way you are chopping these ingredients. Think about what will be on the spoon when you go to eat the soup. If the base is sharing spoon space with other ingredients, you’ll want to chop the ingredients small enough that at least one of everything can find its way onto the spoon without much fishing from the soup-eater. (If you’re making a soup that’s going to get blended up later, exact chopping sizes doesn’t matter quite as much).

Once your base flavors are sizzling away, it’s a good idea to add some additional herbs and/or spices to, as they used to say, pump up the volume. Think about your finished soup and add things that make sense (e.g., thyme in chicken noodle, chili powder for chili, bay leaf in almost any broth-based soup, etc.) or even things that are a little more edgy (e.g., tarragon in onion soup, cinnamon for fish stew, etc.).

Remember that herbs that have been cooked taste slightly different than herbs that are fresh. This means that if you add herbs during the early stage of cooking, you’ll want to add fresh herbs just before serving for an extra fresh layer of flavor.

Ah, the other arguably first step in composing a good soup. Broth, stock, water, cream, milk, and even juice are all liquids, yes? Therefore, any of them may be used in your soup. Generally, your selected liquid is added after your base flavors have cooked. Whichever liquid you use, it is important to bring it to a boil and then reduce to a simmer to cook. We’ll go into the differences between stock and broth later, as well as how to make your own. (But if you’re roasting a whole chicken anytime soon, save the remains! You can freeze it until you’re ready to make your broth or stock).

Good Stuff/Garnishes
And that’s pretty much a soup. Anything else you add is, technically, a garnish. Noodles, rice, chunks of meat, veggies, anything that actually goes in the soup, is called an intrinsic garnish. Naturally, there are other garnishes as well – a piece of crusty bread with melted cheese floating on top, a snipping of chives or other herbs, a drizzle of oil, a dollop of creme fraiche – these garnishes are used more as a finishing touch, to hint to the soup-eater what flavors s/he can expect in the soup.

So now that you understand what a soup is, let’s dissect the chicken noodle soup I made a couple weeks ago when Alex had a cold.

Base Flavors – 1/2 a large onion, 2 carrots, 2 celery stalks, diced; 2 cloves garlic, minced. Sautee in a bit of olive oil over medium heat until fragrant and softened, about 10 minutes. Add some salt and pepper.
Aromatics –  a bunch of fresh thyme and a bay leaf. Add to the base.
Liquid – pour in 1 liter chicken broth. Bring to a boil.
Garnishes – While the broth is boiling, add a couple big handfuls of egg noodles. Leave the soup to simmer rapidly so that the noodles will cook, about 10 minutes. Reduce heat then add in shredded, cooked chicken (I picked up a rotisserie chicken at the grocery store, but you can certainly chicken that you have cooked at home). Stir it up for a few minutes to warm through. Just before serving, add in another sprinkle of fresh thyme leaves. Correct seasoning with salt and pepper.

Surprisingly or not, there are no big, mysterious secrets here, right? I simply followed the formula. For an extra burst of flavor, I added the cooked chicken wings to the broth since there’s so little meat on them anyway. The extended cooking time helped to melt some of the meat off the bones and otherwise give the chicken broth some extra chicken-y flavor.

One of the nice things about the formula for soup is that it is specific enough that you can’t really go wrong (really, if you just sauteed some onions and then added some chicken broth, you’d still have a soup…), but the formula is also flexible enough that you can be creative if you want to. You can create something completely refined and bourgeoise, or you can use up your leftover vegetables and call it rustic and hearty. If you’ve ever been shy about experimenting in the kitchen, a soup is forgiving enough that you don’t really need to follow exact measurements from a recipe.

(But if you are a by-the-recipe-book kind of person, next time you are reading through a soup recipe, see if  you can identify which ingredients are serving which purpose: base flavor? aromatic? liquid? garnish?)

Well, hop to it. What soup will you think up today? Happy simmering!

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One thought on “The Not-so-Secret Formula for Soup

  1. […] Multi-purpose Mirepoix Onions. Carrots. Celery. As you may have learned from my recent soup adventures, these guys are best buds. Ladies and gentlemen, the Mirepoix […]

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