10 Things Soup Taught Me About Cooking

We've been enjoying a hot and nourishing Soup Week here at The Kitchn, and as we explored good tips and the secrets of really great soups, I realized something. So much of what I know about cooking came from soup. Not braises, not casseroles, not pasta. In many ways, soup taught me the essentials of cooking, and here are ten important things that I learned from making many pots of soup.

  • A little bit of bacon goes a long way. I think it was soup that first taught me how just a wee piece of meat, especially something as fragrant as bacon, could flavor an entire dish.
  • There are patterns in recipes that set you free. The process of making a good soup is slow and there are distinct steps. Heat fat. Sauté aromatics. Build it up with beans or vegetables. Add stock. Simmer. I began to see patterns and processes in the soup pot that taught me how flavor is created and intensified.
  • Emulsification isn't just for salad dressings. You know emulsification, that process by which oil and vinegar can get whipped into a thick, creamy dressing? Same thing happens in soup when you blend it up; you don't need cream to make a creamy soup.
  • Turkey stock is why turkeys exist. Seriously. I don't like turkey meat very much, but turkey stock is liquid gold, worth its weight in brownies gilded with diamonds. Turkey stock is not to be underestimated.
  • Soggy bread is actually very good. If soggy bread grosses you out, that should change when it comes to soup. A little good bread tossed into a pot of mulligatawny or a bowl of chicken broth can plump it out and add flavor.
  • The freezer is your friend. Soup goes in and comes back out for quick meals. The freezer also lets you store up bits of meat and vegetables, not to mention stock (turkey stock) for tossing into soups. After ice cream, soup is pretty much the only reason I have a freezer.
  • It's not the recipe's fault — it's yours. Soups taught me to taste, taste, taste as I cooked. If something seemed off, I learned that it's my own taste that determines the outcome. A recipe only gets you halfway there; after that you need to adjust salt, acid, and other flavors to your taste. If you don't like it, fix it until you do.
  • The pressure cooker is magic. This is a recent discovery, but I am newly in love with my pressure cooker overall, and discovering that I can make incredible perfect stock in 45 minutes in that thing has just cemented the deal. (Guess what kind I just made.)
  • Time is money. You can make food taste delicious in all sorts of ways: Fat, salt, acid, expensive luxury ingredients like truffles and vanilla beans. But if you are poor in money, or just watching your pocketbook, you can make up for it in time. I've made all sorts of "stone soups" out of a few weary vegetables and boxed broth, but made up the flavor by searing the heck out of the vegetables, or letting everything simmer for a long, long time. Time is money, in the kitchen.
  • Just make it up. More than anything else, though, soup taught me that it's not just OK, but delightful to just make it up in the kitchen. Have a bag of broth, some onions, and a pantry full of spices and canned beans? Why even look at a recipe? Get started, add a bit of this and that, and soon you'll have a soup that no one else has ever quite had before. It will be all yours, and all delicious. (Especially if you use turkey stock.)

Those are my own soup lessons, acquired from standing over a pot of soup. Has soup taught you things about cooking and being in the kitchen? I would love to hear!

(Images: Faith Durand)

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