Seven secrets to making scrumptious homemade soup, no recipe required

There's nothing like a bowl of soup to boost the spirits. Follow these tips to make yours even more flavourful

11 June 2020 - 00:00
By Hilary Biller
Butternut soup remains one of SA's favourites according to Google search trends data.
Image: 123RF/Brent Hofacker Butternut soup remains one of SA's favourites according to Google search trends data.

When the weather turns cold, one thing's for certain: homemade soup is going to be on the menu.

According to Google search trends data, the most-searched for soup recipe in SA over the past 30 days has been that perennial favourite, butternut. Another classic, chicken soup, came in second place, followed by vegetable soup. Tomato soup and lentil soup round out the top five.

But no matter what type of soup you're making, if you follow these golden rules it'll turn out brilliantly:

1. PICK THE RIGHT POT

A big heavy-based pot with a lid is a must. The heavy base means even cooking with little chance of the soup burning at the bottom. A scorched soup cannot be saved because the burnt flavour permeates the whole batch.

2. BUILD A GOOD FOUNDATION

The standard foundation of a good soup are onions, garlic, carrots and celery and these four ingredients should be softened in a little vegetable oil before adding any other ingredients.

Why? Because this brings out their flavour; the onions and garlic caramelise offering a pleasant sweetness and together with the carrot and celery create depth of flavour.

3. WASTE NOT, WANT NOT

Soups are traditionally a great way of using up vegetables that may be a little past their prime. Think spinach, kale, cabbage, beans, brinjal, peppers, baby marrows, sweet potato and potatoes. Your family may turn their noses up at eating them as a side, but buried in a flavoursome broth, now that’s different story.

Wash and peel the veg if necessary; by shredding or cutting into smaller pieces they'll cook quicker and, in the case of potatoes and sweet potatoes, will help to thicken the soup.  

I like to add the vegetables to the foundation ingredients once they have been softened. Stir through before placing the lid on the pot and allowing the vegetables to "sweat" for three minutes. This too brings out the melange of flavours.

Then, a tip is to sprinkle over 15-30ml (1-2 tbsp) of flour, depending on the volume of soup you'll be making; this will thicken the soup nicely without making it gloopy.

4. CHICKEN, BEEF OR TOFU?

The beauty of a soup is a little protein can go a long way and intensify the flavour.

Think stewing beef cuts, like shin, because long slow cooking breaks down the connective tissue, releasing the flavours and enriching the soup with the bone marrow. You can use other stewing cuts too, just ensure you remove most of the fat before adding them to the soup.

Chicken on the bone is better than breast portions, which become stringy after long cooking.

Brown your chosen protein in a little oil first, before the foundation vegetables, and seal the meat on both sides. Remove from the pot and set aside before softening the foundation veg, adding a little extra oil if necessary. Return the protein to the soup before adding the stock.

For vegetarian or vegan options, leave out the meat and add blocks of tofu or another meat replacement towards the end of cooking.

4. STOCK TAKE

For every 3-4 cups of vegetables, use 2 litres of liquid.

This could be homemade stock or water with the addition of an instant stock cube (1-2 cubes to 1 litre of boiling water), or a vegetable extract like Marmite, Bovril or miso (soy paste) — dissolve 25ml (5 tsp) of your chosen flavouring in 1 litre boiling water.

Adding hot or boiling liquid will hasten the cooking process, but remember that a good soup takes time and a long slow simmer will nurture all those wholesome flavours. In fact, most soups taste even better the next day.

If you need to top up the pot with extra liquid throughout the cooking process, ensure it is hot or boiling so you don't reduce the cooking temperature.

5. ADD A PUNCH OF FLAVOUR 

A broth of vegetables (and meat or chicken, if using) needs to be enlivened with flavour.

For Mediterranean-style soups, I add dried or fresh herbs like thyme, oreganum or rosemary, and for those leaning towards Asian spectrum, chilli, coriander and fish sauce.

Good options to liven up a dull soup are Worcestershire or soy sauce, fish sauce, chilli sauce, salt and freshly ground pepper, and spices like cumin and coriander and curry paste.

Keep in mind, however,  that stocks and vegetable extracts can be salty, so taste the soup before adding additional salt or other salty ingredients like soy sauce.

6. STREEEETCH THE SOUP

A handful of pulses or grains will bulk up the soup and add a pleasant thickness, even creaminess. Favourites are lentils, barley, dried peas and beans, or a ready-made mix of dry soup ingredients you can find in the supermarket.

7. THICK OR THIN

You can leave the soup as it is or you can blend all the ingredients for a creamier version using a blender, stick blender or food processor; just remove the protein first to return to the soup after blending.

I like to blend half the soup, leaving the rest, resulting in a blend of creaminess and chunkiness.