What Are the Secrets of Surprisingly Delicious Soups?

Soups, more than most other dishes, can carry an air of mystery. Through the magic of browned meat, long simmering, and aromatic herbs, a good soup provokes the question, "What went into this, anyway?" And sometimes you, as the cook, will be pleasantly perplexed as to how much taste was created from a simple mix of vegetables.

Has this ever happened to you? What was the most surprisingly delicious soup you ever created — and, on the flip side, are there soups you are obsessed with recreating? Here are two of my own delicious soup surprises.

The first soup, the one that surprised me in my own kitchen, was the Tuscan ribollita pictured above. When I made it, I scanned through the brief list of ingredients (onions, carrots, celery, frozen spinach) and was a little apprehensive. The addition of bread to thicken the soup held me up, too; it's a classic Italian gambit, but it just didn't sound appetizing.

To my surprise, this soup was vastly satisfying. I ate it day after day, reveling in the tender beans and the way that all the humble aromatics came together in something more rich than the sum of their parts might suggest.

The second soup, the one I'm still obsessed with recreating, was a lamb minestrone I had at a local restaurant. Actually — I didn't have it. My husband had it, as I am not usually a fan of minestrone. I find it's often watery, with mushy vegetables. This one was not, and after a bite, I eyed his soup plate resentfully; it was such a better choice than my salad. The soup was deeply delicious, with lots of browned lamb flavor, and a generous acidity from lemon that kept it from being too greasy or heavy. And there was something else — something I couldn't place, and that now drives me crazy as I try to recreate that dreamy soup.

Since then I've tried to recreate similar flavors, like in the lamb chorizo soup pictured above. (It's very good, but not quite the same thing.)

I think that some of the common elements in soups that taste too good to be true are these:

  • Great stock. That lamb minestrone certainly started with a house-made lamb stock, simmered carefully from fresh bones or meat. Good stock has layers of flavor that can't be easily recreated with lesser stuff.
  • Time. Time is another factor in great soup. It takes time to brown meat, slowly simmer beans and vegetables, and then to be patient as the soup accumulates even more flavor in the fridge overnight. But you can taste time — like in that ribollita, which benefits greatly from a rest in the refrigerator or a long slow simmer all afternoon.
  • Salt and acidity. My favorite black bean soup gets finished with a whopping dose of vinegar, and at first I balked, but then I realized how it balanced the creamy sweetness of the beans. Great soups don't taste too salty or acidic, but those flavors are usually what's missing when you just can't put your finger on what's wrong.

What are the secrets you've discovered, in your soup-making adventures? What makes a soup surprisingly good?

(Images: Faith Durand)

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Faith is the executive editor of The Kitchn and the author of three cookbooks. They include Bakeless Sweets (Spring 2013) as well as The Kitchn's first cookbook, which will be published in Fall 2014. She lives in Columbus, Ohio with her husband Mike.