Memorable soups are made with layers of interest and depth – so how can you achieve the same results at home? Follow these tips to take your soups from average to exceptional!
Making a spontaneous pot of soup at home is the epitome of comfort cooking. But, if you’ve ever felt a bit let down by the end result in terms of flavour, there are a few smart maneuvers you can employ to ensure you get the most out of your ingredients and maximize your efforts.
So, where do we start? Maybe you have a very specific craving and happy to pop out and shop for exactly what’s needed. But, what if you felt empowered to launch into soup-making endeavors utilizing what you already have on hand? Of course, the best situation happens when the cravings and the existing contents of your fridge and pantry come together.
Following a recipe definitely helps, but recipes can also act as a starting point, allowing you to riff your way through the process, using what you have available. Maybe you have cauliflower, onions, and some cream or whole milk… Find a creamy cauliflower soup recipe that looks good and let it guide you.
Roast, brown, sear, caramelize
Whether your base component is meat or vegetable, it will undoubtedly benefit from browning or caramelization as the first step to add depth and a nuttier flavour. Just ask yourself, “Can I brown it first?”
For predominantly vegetable-based soups, roast everything! Scatter your veggies on a baking sheet, toss with oil, salt, pepper – herbs if you have them – and throw the lot into a hot oven until browned. This works especially well with squash, cauliflower, cabbage, carrots, mushrooms – even tomatoes, and chilis like jalapeño or poblano.
Tip! Deeply roasted veggies can taste sweeter than raw thanks to all those caramelized sugars, so keep that in mind when using carrots, squash, and onions.
For proteins such as beef or sausage, browning the meat in the same pot you’ll use to make the soup not only adds flavour to the meat itself, but the fond (browned bits stuck to the bottom of the pot after frying), adds SO MUCH FLAVOUR to your meals when deglazed with liquid or the addition of aromatics. Another bonus is the rendered fat from the meat after browning can be used to sauté the aromatics, adding way more flavour than using bottled oil. If you have the opportunity to sear or brown your protein first – take it.
This technique works particularly well in hearty creations such as this sausage, white bean, and kale soup where the sausage is well-browned first, rendering the fat in which the onions are thoroughly caramelized. This results in a substantial amount of fond stuck to the bottom of the pot, which is then deglazed with white wine and aromatics before adding the stock and remaining ingredients.
Use intense aromatics
And use them liberally.
The base of nearly every soup starts with onion, probably celery and carrot too. There are aromatics that lean toward the mild side, such as fennel and leeks, then you have the powerhouses, which are always a good idea to have in your kitchen:
- scallions/green onions
- ginger (consider using some in every recipe to add a little kick)
- lemongrass (fresh is best, but the lemongrass paste in tubes works if that’s all you can find)
Depending on the soup, you might handle the aromatics a bit differently.
Generally, aromatics require “sweating,” or cooking them gently in some type of fat (oil, butter, or those drippings leftover from browned meat) until they are soft. You’ll want a small dice to ensure even cooking so that the pieces become a part of the soup, rather than detectable bites.
However, French onion soup relies on a base of deeply caramelized onions to develop the lion’s share of the flavour. If you merely cooked the onions until soft, you’d end up with a pretty bland result.
Tip! Using deeply caramelized onions works extremely well in most types of soups. If you have the time, caramelize the onions first, then add the other aromatics to soften afterward.
With fresh ginger, garlic, and even lemongrass, consider making a paste in your food processor with a little oil then sauté it briefly to add a spicy zing to your soup.
Another way you might treat the aromatics is to use larger pieces, like halves of onion, crushed pieces of fresh ginger or lemongrass, and halved heads of garlic. The idea here is to simmer them in a liquid for an extended time to impart flavour, and strain out later. This works well for brothy soups that will be ladled over noodles, etc. For example, the elusive and complex flavour of Vietnamese pho soup broth includes large pieces of onion and ginger that are first charred, then removed once their flavour is spent – no sweating of the aromatics here.
Bloom the spices
When using ground spices, keep in mind the flavour compounds are fat-soluble, meaning they won’t release their full flavour potential if added to liquid alone. Cooking the spices briefly with some oil will allow them to “bloom,” adding much more flavour to your soup – just be careful! There’s a fine line between bloomed and burnt.
If using whole spices like cumin seeds, cardamom, clove, peppercorns – briefly dry-toasting them in a hot skillet will deepen and develop their flavours as well.
For your next pot of chili, try frying the ground spices (chili powder, cumin, coriander, etc.) in the pot once the aromatics are softened. Then, when you see the colour deepen and get a nutty aroma from the spices, you can move on with the rest of the ingredients. The end result will have much more character than if you simply put everything in the pot at once.
Enrich with flavour “boosters”
The options are endless here and most are shelf-stable or can last in the refrigerator for a long time. You may have many of these items already, and adding to your inventory will only expand your home-cooking repertoire.
- wine, vermouth, sherry (use to deglaze the pot, or finish a bowl of French onion soup with a capful of dry sherry right before serving)
- Worcestershire sauce
- vinegar (balsamic, sherry, red or white wine – use sparingly to add levity to rich soups)
- tomato paste (add to the softened aromatics and sauté for a minute or two to intensify the flavour)
- hardy herbs, dried or fresh (rosemary, thyme, bay leaves)
- roasted garlic (when puréed will add not only flavour but body to the soup)
- parmesan rind (save your parmesan rinds and add a piece to simmer in the soup for a subtle cheesy flavour)
- nutmeg (freshly grated is best and adds interest to cream-based soups and sauces)
- dijon mustard (adds a savoury, vibrant kick and works well in creamy soups)
- cocoa, coffee (just a little adds depth to chili or latin-inspired soups)
- curry paste* (a good place to start is with a Thai version, red, green, or yellow – sauté with oil and aromatics until the colour deepens and smells fragrant before adding liquid)
- kimchi, gochujang (these can be sautéed with aromatics to intensify the flavour, simply stirred into the hot soup)
- miso paste (for easier blending, add some hot broth or water to the miso paste in a small bowl and stir before adding to the soup)
- smooth peanut butter (particularly good in coconut curry soups)
- citrus (freshly squeezed juice, or even dried lime leaves)
- soy sauce or amino acids (adds saltiness and umami)
- fish sauce (a little goes a long way and can be used in place of additional salt)
- brown sugar, maple syrup, etc. (add a small amount to balance and complement spicy or sour flavours)
- dried mushrooms (cover with boiling water and steep to make “mushroom tea” – add to the soup for a boost of umami)
- tea (steeping a bit of savoury green tea like genmaicha in an asian-inspired broth imparts a complex, nutty flavour)
- good-quality bouillon paste (even the best stocks might need a little help, add a small amount to season your soup if it’s lacking something)
Tip! Since prepared sauces and pastes usually contain a fair amount of sodium, keep that in mind and be conservative with further additions of salt. If your soup ends up overpowered or too salty, simply add some stock or water to dilute.
*Having trouble finding a good curry paste in a store? This fresh and vibrant homemade Thai yellow curry paste is the perfect solution.
Homemade stock will immediately set you off on the right path for the best-tasting soups, but if making stock hasn’t exactly been a part of your home life and you’re suddenly feeling keen, these are a good start:
But wait. Can you still make a slurp-worthy pot of soup with store-bought stock? You bet your bowls, you can. Most good butcher shops make and sell their own, and you’ll find great quality “bone-broth” in the freezer section of stores such as Whole Foods. Those tetra pak broths are fine too – just keep an eye on the sodium level when going that route. In a pinch, plain ol’ water with a scoop of Better Than Bouillon will get the job done, so don’t sweat it – even if you don’t have the motivation or time to make your own stock right now, a totally delicious and satisfying soup is still within reach.
For creamy soups, full-fat is best. Fat just tastes good, so whether you’re using dairy or coconut milk, use full-fat if you can, but add sparingly – just until you get the richness you’re looking for.
Want creaminess without the milk? Purée some canned white beans (navy or cannellini) with some of your soup stock and stir through. Not only will this make your soup velvety smooth, but beans also add an extra boost of protein and fibre.
Pasta, beans, or noodles won’t add notable flavour to your soup, but adding too much or too soon could diminish it – particularly pasta, rice and noodles. The best way to guard against diluting the flavour you’ve worked so diligently to develop is to pre-cook some of these foods and add them to the soup before serving, allowing just enough time to heat through first. This will also help retain the texture so you don’t end up with mushy noodles or pasta.
- barley, lentils, rice (small amounts can be cooked directly in the soup but will absorb some of the liquid)
- quinoa (if cooked directly in the pot, will act as a thickener for chili or heartier soups)
- pre-cooked or canned beans (add after the point where frequent stirring or excessive heat won’t affect the already softened texture)
- various pasta shapes (small amounts of pasta can be cooked directly in the soup, near the end of the cooking time)
- udon, ramen, rice noodles (best cooked separately and added before serving)
The finishing touch
This is it! You’ve carefully and thoughtfully crafted a beautiful soup and ladled it lovingly into bowls, but don’t stop now.
Here’s your chance to add textural contrast and complementary flavours. If you used a spoonful of peanut butter in the soup, add chopped roasted peanuts to the bowl when serving. Did you take the step to roast or caramelized the veggies first? Of course, you did! Reserve a few pieces of beautifully roasted veg to garnish each bowl. This looks impressive in blended soups and adds interest to each bowl.
- soft fresh herbs (basil, parsley, cilantro, chives, dill)
- croutons (store-bought or homemade toasties)
- nuts or seeds, toasted (peanuts, cashews, sesame, sunflower or pumpkin)
- crispy chickpeas or lentils
- greens (shredded cabbage, bok choy)
- shredded or crumbled cheese (cheddar, parmesan, feta)
- sour cream, yogurt
- pesto, chimichurri
- thinly sliced radishes
- thinly sliced or diced onion (white, red or green)
- diced or sliced fresh chilis
- sesame oil
- crispy tortilla strips or chips
An excellent example is Mexican pozole – a rich soup made with hominy corn, dried chilies and some type of meat, usually pork. The soup itself is quite tasty but the real magic comes with the array of fresh toppings added to the bowl when served – shredded cabbage, cilantro, sliced radishes, crisp tostadas, diced avocado, lime – you get the idea. It’s basically a party in a bowl.
Need some ideas?
Now that you’ve got a handle on ways to develop layers of flavour and where to turn for impactful ingredients, here are a few solid combinations to help spark the imagination:
- butternut squash + carrot + ginger + coconut milk
- cauliflower + caramelized onion + cream + dijon + nutmeg + chives
- roasted poblano + potato + corn + cheddar
- beef + garlic + ginger + shiitake mushroom + kimchi + bok choy
- tofu + peanut butter + coconut milk + curry paste + fish sauce + lime + cilantro
Or try these recipes!
Thanks for reading! I hope this post leaves you feeling encouraged to look through your fridge and pantry, and empowered to use what you find. If you need more assistance, shoot me an email and I’ll be happy to help.
If you have other ideas for how to achieve a truly memorable soup or want to share a favourite recipe, please chime in below.
Don’t forget to share your creations on Instagram and be sure to tag #myfamilyfoodlife!