This is a soup you can be proud of. No matter how many times you've made it before, a pot of this soup on your stove should (and will) result in a self-congratulatory fist pump. And if you've somehow made it this far in life without making chicken soup from scratch using a whole chicken, then prepare yourself for something truly special. Dinner is going to be amazing.
Don't Be Scared of Simmering a Whole Chicken
I did not grow up in a household where we made chicken soup from scratch, so the idea of plunking a whole, raw chicken in a pot of water and letting it simmer felt equal parts mystifying and nerve-wracking. Why the whole chicken? Why not just shred a few cooked chicken thighs, pour in some broth, and call it good? And do you really leave the skin on?
Leah Koenig, author of Modern Jewish Cooking, coached me through my first time making this soup, and I will be eternally grateful. She describes the perfect chicken soup as "clear goldene yoykh, or golden broth, as it is called in Yiddish." You only achieve this by slowly simmering the chicken — with the skin on — along with some vegetables until the chicken literally falls off the bone. Strain the broth, chop up the chicken and vegetables, return everything to the pot, and you have the best chicken soup in all the land.
That chicken skin is key to this whole endeavor, Koenig told me. I fretted that it would make the soup greasy and overly rich, but she insisted: "Keep the skin on to maximize your soup's flavor. All of the savory, full-bodied oomph that you expect from a good chicken soup comes from the skin."
Indeed, one sip of the finished broth and I was hooked. This soup was richer, more savory, and altogether more awesome than any chicken soup I'd ever made before. Koenig suggested skimming the fat off the top of the cooled soup if I felt the broth was too heavy (the fat solidifies on top), but I didn't think it was necessary — the soup was perfect as it was.
A Word on Mushy Vegetables
Traditional versions of this soup call for simmering the vegetables right along with the chicken so they can flavor the broth, and then eating them as part of the finished soup. Koenig told me, "Super-soft vegetables are definitely a hallmark of chicken soup," but even so, she doesn't like them to be too mushy. (And neither do I.)
To avoid this, Koenig recommends simmering the vegetables in large chunks, which still give flavor to the broth, but cook more slowly. When finishing the soup, just chop the large chunks into bite-sized pieces and return them to the soup.
I recommend taking this one step further and adding the vegetables just in the last hour of cooking. This way, you still get the flavor in the broth, but there's less risk of completely overcooking the vegetables.
How Long to Simmer the Chicken
I found a wide range of cooking times in my deep-dive into chicken soup, from the 1 1/2-hour simmer Koenig gives in her book to as long as overnight in some of my thrift-store community cookbooks. Koenig recommends going by feel rather than the clock, and simmering until the chicken is tender and falling off the bones. Total simmering time will depend on the size of your chicken.
Keep the water going at a slow, steady simmer during cooking. Too vigorous and Koenig says you can end up with a thin-tasting broth. Too slow and it can take forever for your chicken to cook. Aim for a slow simmer where you see bubbles percolating regularly up through the liquid.
Floating Chickens and Other Concerns
Don't worry if your chicken floats in the liquid as it cooks. Since the pot is partially covered, the top will cook just fine. Koenig also says that you can flip the chicken a few times during cooking if you're concerned.
You'll also notice some scummy foam collecting on the surface of the liquid in the first half hour or so of cooking. As the foam clumps together, skim it off with a wide, flat spoon — it's not harmful, but you'll make a better soup if you skim the foam away.
If you have a few extra minutes, you could also sear your chicken on all sides before adding the water. This will give your soup just one more layer of savory goodness, although Koenig says your soup will be incredibly flavorful either way.
When to Add the Salt
Wait to salt your soup until after you've shredded the chicken, chopped up the vegetables, and returned everything to the soup pot. At this point, stir in a teaspoon of salt at a time and taste the soup between each addition until it tastes good to you. Personally, I like between two and three teaspoons of salt for a whole pot of soup.
Serving the Finished Soup
Not for nothing is this soup is called "Jewish penicillin" — it's rich enough to fortify both your spirits and your constitution, but not so much that it would upset a delicate stomach. Serve the soup or even just the broth all on its own, or make it into more of a meal with cooked egg noodles, rice, or matzoh balls.
How To Make Real Chicken Soup with a Whole Chicken
Serves 6 to 8
What You Need
3- to 5-pound chicken
large yellow onions
Handful of parsley stems
Fresh parsley, to serve
Optional extras: whole peppercorns, garlic cloves, parsnips, fennel bulb, leeks
Large soup pot
Spoon, for skimming
Combine the chicken and water in a large soup pot: Remove the chicken from its packaging, drain off any liquid, and pat dry with paper towels. Leave the skin on the chicken, but trim away any large pieces of fat from around the neck or cavity of the chicken. Place the whole chicken in a soup pot (see Recipe Note if your chicken doesn't quite fit). Add enough water to cover by about an inch.
Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Keep your eye on the pot as it comes to a boil, and then reduce the heat to low and partially cover the pot as soon as the water is boiling.
Skim any foam that rises to the surface: For the first half hour or so, you'll see foam and scum collecting on the surface of the liquid. As it clumps together, skim it off with a spoon and discard.
Keep the soup at a steady simmer: Keep the pot partially covered and at a low simmer. You should see slow but steady bubbles and wisps of steam coming from the pot (although don't reduce the temperature so low that the water falls below 165°F or else the chicken won't cook through). Add more water as needed to keep the chicken covered, or if it floats, to allow it to bob in the liquid.
Simmer for at least 1 or up to 3 hours. The chicken is ready as soon as the meat registers 165°F and easily falls off the bone, after about 1 1/2 hours, but you can continue simmering for up to 3 hours for richer flavor — just keep an eye out that the chicken doesn't start to disintegrate or turn the soup cloudy. Add extra water as needed to keep the chicken covered.
Prep the vegetables: While the chicken is simmering, peel the carrots and remove the skins from the onions. Chop everything into a few large chunks.
Add the vegetables to the soup: Roughly one hour before you plan to finish the soup, add all the vegetables, the bay leaf, the parsley stems, and any optional extras to the pot.
When done cooking, transfer the cooked chicken and vegetables to a cutting board: Use tongs to pull the chicken and the vegetables out of the liquid and transfer to a cutting board.
Strain the broth: Pour the cooking liquid — now broth — through a strainer into a large mixing bowl.
Return the broth to the soup pot and bring to a simmer over medium-low heat.
Chop the vegetables into bite-sized pieces: The vegetables will still be quite hot, so handle with care.
Shred or chop the chicken: When the chicken is cool enough to handle, pull the meat off the chicken bones, discarding the skin and bones. Shred or chop the meat into bite-sized pieces. Discard the bay leaf and parsley stems.
Return the chicken and chopped vegetables to the broth, and warm.
Season to taste: Give the broth a taste, and then season with a few teaspoons of salt and a few grinds of fresh pepper. Taste again and add more salt or pepper if needed.
Serve: Ladle the soup into bowls and garnish with fresh parsley. Store leftovers in the fridge for up to 5 days.
If your soup pot is too small for a whole chicken, you can either cut the chicken into pieces to make them fit, or buy chicken pieces at the store rather than a whole chicken.
For chicken noodle soup: Cook the noodles separately, add them to each bowl, and ladle the soup over top.
Freezing soup: This soup can be frozen for up to 3 months. Thaw overnight in the fridge or in the microwave, and then warm over low heat on the stovetop or in the microwave before serving.
Adapted from Modern Jewish Cooking by Leah Koenig