General tips for making soup: 20 secrets that never fail

Despite it being May, we had a hailstorm today! Can you believe it…?!

When the outside is dark, wet and grey, nothing beats a bowl of homemade soup for lunch.

One advantage of making soup yourself is you can get the consistency and flavours right. There’s nothing worse than a thin over-salted shop-bought gruel when what you’re after is a hearty, nutritious and tasty bowl of goodness to fill you up and warm you up from the inside out.

I’ve made my own soup for years and recommend the following tips for making soup. Or call them principles for soup making, if you’d prefer.

Closed pots give better flavour. Putting a lid on your sturdy soup pot or pan traps in all those lovely flavours. However, occasionally, if your soup is too thin, you may need to let some of the water evaporate. Which means you do need to take the top off for a while. But, try to keep the lid on as much as possible.

Don’t bother using up extras if it is going to make your soup taste disgusting. I’m all about not wasting food. But, sometimes, what you have left at the bottom of the cupboard just doesn’t work well together. Beetroot doesn’t always play nicely with others, for example. (Although, by itself, after you’ve boiled it to death and mixed it with a bit of Dijon mustard and balsamic vinegar, it’s delicious.)

Saute the spices. Warming your aromatics allows them to release the delicious fat-soluble flavours trapped inside the plant. This traps the flavour inside the fat and spreads it throughout your soup. Just stirring in a spice at the end doesn’t have this effect, and you’ll miss some fabulous flavour.

And it’s always a good idea to saute veg before adding your liquid. I like to do this not long after adding the spices. Butter usually tastes the best, and adding a drop of oil to it can prevent it from burning.

Bite-sized veg works best. This makes sure of a more uniform cooking time and that some ingredients don’t cook faster than others. And if you don’t want to puree after cooking, using bite-size ingredients means your meal is ready to go – no extra chopping is required. Winner.

Stagger addition of veg. It’s always best to separate hearty and delicate vegetables from one another as the cooking times vary. If you cook the delicate veg first, you may lose its flavour as it turns into a disintegrating boiled pulp in your soup! So, cook the hearty vegetables first – they need a headstart.

Avoid soggy old herbs and vegetables! Only use fresh ingredients for the best flavour. Old plants can taste and smell rotten and ruin your soup. Try peas, beans, mushrooms, champignons, parsnip, carrot, beetroot, turnip, garlic shallots, and onions. Slice an onion and cook it in butter and flour, with older dry onions adding more flavour. Other ideas include leeks, cucumber, celery or celery seed with a pinch of sugar. Cress seed, parsley, thyme, lemon thyme, orange thyme marjoram, sage, mint, winter savoury, or basil are all delicious additions.

Never use stale meat. Just no! It’s common to use up extras when making soup. However, bear in mind that putting old meat into soup doesn’t make the meat taste any better. Always use fresh, lean, succulent, juicy meat like beef, mutton and veal. When I use meat in a soup, I often brown/sear my meat first, too, to get the Maillard reaction going and give that distinctive cooked meat flavour and aroma. (I’m salivating just thinking about it.)

Always make sure one favour doesn’t dominate over another. Depth of flavour is good, but a dominant one is not always ideal. Sometimes brassicas like broccoli can be fairly strong-tasting, so it’s good to mix them with other strong flavours (like stilton cheese, for example!). Delicate herbs should always be cleaned to remove all remnants of mud and soil. And, if you’re using meat, make sure you use a well-proportioned water-to-meat ratio, roughly one-half litre (1 US quart) liquid to one-half kilo (1lb) meat for soup.

While we’re on the subject of liquid, use good broth. Save animal bones and carcasses and make your own stock. It’s far tastier and more nutritious than the shop-bought equivalent.

Save your parmesan rinds! One of my favourite tips for making soup. Don’t throw rinds away. Chucking one of these in a soup while it’s cooking adds a delicious salty flavour and helps to thicken a thin soup. They’re fabulous in pea soup.

Don’t boil, simmer! Yes, the soup takes longer to cook, but the extra time allows the vegetables and/or meat to absorb the flavours of the seasoned liquid while providing their own essence, in a beautiful exchange of flavours in the pot. And a slow simmer also breaks down fibrous meat, producing tender morsels. (And boiling always reminds me of my Grandmother’s boiled cabbage she used to feed us when we visited…) That said…

Boil only to evaporate any unwanted liquid. Alternatively, you can add other ingredients to make a thicker soup. These include noodles, starch, potato, arrowroot, breadcrumbs, flour, butter, barley, rice, or even oatmeal in a little water. Older generations also used beef pounded with butter and flour and rubbed it through a sieve. I’ve not tried this, preferring to keep my meat as meat, but it sounds good. Egg yolk mixed with a little cream also works well in some soups.

Watch your cook time. Some ingredients don’t work well when they’re boiled to death. Others do well being left for a while.

Add acid! Yes, seriously. If you’ve made a meaty or beany soup, add something acidic towards the end of the cooking time, such as a squeeze of lemon, or Seville orange when in season, a dash of apple cider or wine vinegar, or even a drop of wine or sherry. It really enhances the flavour. Give it a go! Sherry in vegetable soup is particularly delicious.

Avoid scrambled eggs! Stir in dairy produce at the end of cooking time, and don’t heat it too quickly, or it can curdle.

Season before serving. I often use salt in my soups, but then I don’t eat much processed food, or eat out often, so I’m not worried about adding salt to my cooking. That said, too much salt can ruin a great soup, so go easy. If you’re avoiding salt, other seasonings t use include bay leaves, tomato, tarragon, chervil, burnet, all-spice, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, clove, mace, pepper, anchovies, or lemon peel.

To blend or not to blend? That is the question. I often like my soups silky smooth, so I decant them into my blender and whizz for a couple of minutes. However, sometimes it’s nice to leave some chunks. In this case, an immersion blender, that can be used in the pan, is a very useful gadget to own.

Make extra. If you’re going to the effort of making a soup, you may as well make a huge batch and eat it for lunch over the next few days. You won’t regret it.

Make it the day before eating. I don’t know of a soup that doesn’t benefit from being made the day before you want to eat it. It’s also easier to remove any fat when the soup is cold if that’s what floats your boat. Soup can easily be cooled, portioned and stored in batches in the deep freeze.

Tips for making soup FAQ

Here are some common questions I’m asked about making soup:

  • What are the 7 steps to making soup? 1. Saute your aromatic vegetables, e.g. onion, leek etc., in a fat. 2. Add your spices and cook gently for a minute. 3. Add your chopped fresh vegetables. 4. Season. 5. Add stock and simmer. 6. Puree if desired. 7. Add a garnish, e.g. cheese, sour cream, or plain yoghurt.
  • How to make can soup better? I generally detest canned soup. But there are times when it’s a necessity. My husband swears by adding hot sauce to just about anything, and it may work here, but if, like me, you’re a hot sauce wuss, then adding fresh herbs and/or black pepper can help to add real flavour. Adding something acidic helps, too. Think lemon, Seville orange, or balsamic vinegar, for example.
  • What are the basic principles of soup making? Read my blog post!
  • What makes homemade soup taste good? It’s not slimy and over-salted, for a start! Homemade soups really bring out the flavour of the ingredients, especially if they’re fresh. The texture also is good.
  • What order do you put vegetables in soup? 1. Aromatics, like onion, leeks and celery. 2. Starchy veg, such as carrots, parsnip and potatoes. 3. Tough green veg – broccoli, greens etc. 4. Vegetables that don’t need much cooking, such as spinach and other delicate veg.
  • How can I deepen my soup flavour? Adding some mushrooms to soup always enriches its qualities. Other options include caramelised onion, tomato puree or soy sauce. Adding celery to a vegetable soup always gives a great base note, too.
  • What are the qualities of a good soup? Great soup is fully flavoured with no overpowering or off-taste, uses fresh ingredients and has the right consistency.
  • What are the five basic types of soups? I’d include broth, chowder, consomme, puree and bisque.
  • What are the 4 components of soup? A base, thickener, liquid and the main vegetable/protein.
  • How to make soup with water. It’s exactly the same as using stock. Just make sure your ingredients are really fresh, and you may find you make a superior soup! (You may also need to add a little more salt to replace the stock, depending on taste.)
  • Give 5 tips for reheating soups. I generally reheat mine in the microwave. However, if you’d rather do it on the stove, then use medium heat with an occasional stir until it’s hot. If the soup contains dairy, make sure to heat it slowly, or the dairy will separate. It’s also correct practice to thaw frozen soup slowly in the refrigerator to minimise bacterial growth. However, I usually thaw mine in the sink on the day I use it.

Any other tips for making soup that I’ve missed? How do you make your soup?

P.S. If you want a copy of my FREE printable US/UK cooking conversion tables, fill in the form below, and download them straight onto your computer.

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