What’s the Difference Between Soup and Stew?

updated Jan 24, 2022
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Soup and stew are so similar in character that it can sometimes be difficult to tell them apart. At their core, both soup and stew rely on the same foundation of ingredients, but there is one important factor that differentiates these two hearty meals.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Anna Stockwell

The Difference Between Soup and Stew

Both soup and stew are a combination of vegetables, meat, or fish cooked in liquid. The main difference between these two dishes is the amount of liquid that’s used for each, with stews generally containing less liquid than soup. While there isn’t really a mathematical way of differentiating these two, the point at which a soup becomes a stew is determined by how long it is simmered and reduced. The thicker a soup becomes, the more likely it is to be reminiscent of a stew.

More About Soup

Typically, soup is primarily made up of liquid, usually some kind of broth, often mixed with cream and/or puréed. The broth or liquid portion of a soup is commonly combined with ingredients like vegetables, meat, or fish that are then brought to a boil and simmered to extract flavor. Depending on the recipe, some soups can cook as fast as 20 minutes, while others benefit from a lengthier cook time.

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More About Stew

A stew is a combination of larger-cut ingredients like vegetables, meat, or fish that are just barely covered with cooking liquid, and simmered over low heat for a lengthier period of time. While a stew cooks, the liquid reduces significantly, making it much thicker than your average soup.

Stews, while good on their own, are often served as a topping for solid starchy ingredients, like rice, polenta, noodles, or mashed potatoes. Some stews, such as chili, are often best served with their own set of toppings such as sour cream or shredded cheese. Also, it’s more common for stews to be thickened with flour and/or a roux. Additionally, adding extra flavor components like wine or beer are popular in recipes for stew.

More About Chili

While you might think of chili as its own league of rich, soup-like goodness, it is technically just a subcategory of stew! Yes, as varied as chilis can be, they fall under the category of stew, since they are traditionally simmered for an extended period of time until very thick. What remains is a dense mixture usually made up of ground meat, vegetables, or legumes surrounded by a small amount of thick liquid.

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