Building blocks, my friends. Cooking is all about building blocks.
Today we are going to learn the basics in how to make to soups that are built from the base up and for your taste buds only. Take a recent creation, Healthy Ramen Noodle Soup, for example.
This beauty is bright, has a fun and spicy kick and is full of flavor. Preservative free, low sodium, and chock full of vitamins from the whole foods I handpicked to include. Exactly what my personal taste buds love. The best part? I threw it together without following a recipe– and it still makes me feel like I am sitting in the back of a Chinese hole-in-the-wall, sipping on an authentic, fresh, bowl of soup.
Let me be truthful, though. This lovely didn’t happen first time around. I had to learn to accept that salt was my friend and brought out flavors, that hot peppers could become my enemy if not careful, and that noodles are NEVER something I can just throw in during the middle of the process. And I had to accept these truths after 2 failed attempts.
My sweet hubby. I could laugh and cry at the same time if I think about round one of this soup. That made for an interesting dinner on a weeknight.
Not convinced you want to take this leap yet? Let me explain why you should.
You see, the elements that go into a good soup are anything but happenstance. We cannot throw together a box of broth and some noodles and call it a day. Though the result may be somewhat satisfying, it will not suffice your appetite if you are craving a GOOD soup, and it certainly isn’t nutritious. I first learned this truth while teaching abroad in South Korea.
After college, I was fortunate to land a job teaching English as a Second Language in Seoul. It was a life-changing experience and I certainly learned a few things, one of the most important being that soup is a soulful experience, and anything but just noodles and broth.
A truly good soup has a great base and depth of flavor. It warms you from the inside out with so much more than its temperature. It aims to nurture your tummy and heal your gut. And it never fails in leaving you pleasantly full.
In fact, a good soup if that out-of-town friend that we all could use to be around more, if not every day, at least every week.
Healthy Ramen Noodle Soup is a great start to experimenting in becoming familiar with the ‘easy to make soup’ guidelines. It is based on what I like to call, the four principles of good-soup making: base, sauce, sweat and main. Let’s go into a little detail of what this means.
BASE: Choose a high quality flavor base to make into a broth/stock.
Making your own stock is always going to be your best option. You can ensure that your meat source is organic, locally sourced, and fresh. It will be rich in probiotics and healthy fats. What is more, you can control the underlying flavors of the stock, which can lend great depth of flavor to your overall soup.
It does take time and preparation, but that’s just the way it goes with cooking and quality. Still, if you don’t have access to your own homemade stock or broth, there are options.
I love this chicken stock resource, personally, but it does require that you have an Instant Pot. I love my Instant Pot and can attest that it does shave off quite a bit of time regarding the making of the stock.
You also have the option of using the cubes or powdered bouillon, but you will end up with soup is high in sodium and MSG, and lacking true flavor and nutrition, in my opinion.
Better is to use a moist base made with a high proportion of real meat, like Better Than Bouillon.
You will want about a cup of stock/broth per serving: a little more for a brothy soup, a little less for a hearty one.
Prepare this according to your desired serving amount in a large soup pot, cover and set at a low simmer.
SAUCE: Create an aromatic sauce that compliments your palate.
While your broth is simmering, create an aromatic sauce. This, everyone, is where the true depth of flavor in your soup comes into play. Sadly, this step is often skipped when making soup to save time and that is so tragic! It adds such a depth of flavor that goes beyond the base. Even though it is not “substance” per say, it will satisfy your hunger beyond what 2 pounds of Ramen noodles could.
Whatever aromatics you choose is entirely up to you and what your body’s cravings are calling for. First, understanding your spices can help you decide which avenue you want to take your soup down.
- Cumin is a great all rounder, giving an earthy taste to pretty much most soups.
- For a Thai flavor, adding fresh garlic, ginger and ground coriander does wonders.
- For Indian, cumin, turmeric, Fenugreek or Garam Masala seal the deal.
- Tomato soups can take on a Mexican or Spanish feel with a pinch of sweet smoked paprika.
Don’t be shy to combine your spices, if you add somewhere between a pinch and a teaspoon, they won’t take over but will give you a depth of flavor. As you learn how to proportion, you most likely have left over sauce. I’ve found that this can be used to go with fish, meat, or even as spread. If there is lemon, salt or another natural preservative in it, it’ll keep for at least 3-4 days in the fridge!
My rule of thumb for proportions when making your sauce, based 8 cups of broth :
- Pastes, ground spices, and sugars = 1 tsp each
- Oils, fats, lime, lemon = 1 tbsp each (you may need to add more when blending)
- Raw onion, garlic= 1 small
- Toasted seeds and nuts= 1-2 tbsp
- Chilies, peppers= 1 cup chopped, (with or without seeds, depends on your desired spiciness!)
- Fresh herbs= 1 cup chopped, stems removed.
Still a little hesitant? I have discovered these by playing around with my blender and stirring these lovelies into a fresh pot of broth for simmering. Don’t be too scared. You can go wrong with fresh spices and herbs. As you can see, I like to limit my blend to around five ingredients, to avoid making it muddied with too many flavors.
Here are some of my personal favorite combinations:
- Dill, lemon, organic sugar, chives and butter (w/ chicken broth)
- Toasted sesame seeds, tahini, miso paste, and ginger (w/ beef broth)
- Red curry paste, fish sauce, brown sugar, lime (w/ chicken broth, and 1 c. coconut milk stirred in at the end!)
- Garlic, onion, Thai bird eye chilies, organic sugar and apple cider vinegar. (w/ chicken or veg. broth)
SWEAT: Sweat vegetables to be added to your soup.
Next, your vegetables.We all need vegetables in our life, so don’t skip this step, and certainly don’t cut corners by throwing raw veggies into your soup broth! While your broth and sauce is simmering and starting to meld together, sweat 1-2 cups chopped choice of vegetables with a tablespoon of butter or olive oil: that means heating your butter or oil, dropping in the chopped vegetables, stirring to coat and putting the lid back on. Cook gently, with the occasional stir for 15 – 20 minutes to soften them. And don’t be scared to add in some salad/spinach greens a few minutes before the end to ensure they stay vibrant and tasty. Examples of other vegetables/meat that you can add for texture and flavor to soup: onions, carrots, celery, leek, bacon, and pancetta.
*If you like a smooth textured or hearty soup, then some type of thickener is required. You can coat the vegetables with a spoonful of flour (if you’re GF, use sweet rice flour) before adding the stock.
MAIN: Add your MAIN last.
Finally, what you’ve been waiting for. You MAIN. Whatever you choose- Ramen noodles, gluten-free noodles, rice, meat, cooked beans, etc… make SURE that you follow the cooking instructions and do not overcook-especially if you are using GF pasta! Add your main to the pot raw, so it can release flavor into the soup. Bring it all to a boil, then simmer. You will know it’s done when it’s all tender, anywhere from 25 minutes to 3 hours depending on the ingredients. (Note: Cooked beans generally release starches and flavor after 20 minutes of simmering).
If your MAIN is meat or a vegetable…..well, there are a few more details.
Tips based on particular main meat choice:
- When you can, choose stewing cuts, such as chicken legs, pork shoulder, beef chuck, short ribs or shank. They are rich with good fat and will add body and flavor as they simmer.
- Chicken: Add a 4-pound chicken, cut into 8 pieces, or 2 pounds of boneless chicken. Make sure when you add chicken that there is enough water or stock to cover and simmer until the meat is tender.It will take about 10 minutes for white meat and 45 minutes for dark meat to get tender. Remove the cooked meat from the pot and allow it to cool and then pick the meat from the bones and shred it into bite-size pieces. Add the meat back to the pot and return to a simmer. Use a ladle to gently skim fat off the top of your soup near the end of the cooking process.
- Pork: Add 2 pounds cubed boneless pork shoulder. Add seasonings and enough water or stock to cover and simmer until the meat is tender, about 2 1/2 to 3 hours. Remove the cooked meat from the pot and allow it to cool. Shred the meat, removing any gristle or very fatty bits as you go. Add the meat back to the pot and return to a simmer. Taste and adjust the seasoning with salt.
- Beef: Add 3 pounds of beef shank or cubed short ribs, or 2 pounds of cubed chuck. Cook for about 4 minutes per side until evenly brown on all sides. Discard cooking fat and return pot to stove over medium heat. Add 1 cup white wine to deglaze, scrape thoroughly with a wooden spoon to release all the brown bits, and return the meat to the pot. Cover with water or stock, and simmer until the meat is tender and falling off the bones, about 2 1/2 to 3 hours. Remove the cooked meat from the pot and allow it to cool. Shred the meat, removing any bones, gristle or fatty bits as you go. Add the meat back to the pot and return to a simmer. Taste and adjust the seasoning with salt.
Tips based on a desired vegetable texture:
- For a hearty vegetable soup, add up to 4 cups of diced mixed vegetables, such as potatoes, bell peppers, broccoli rabe, fennel, kale and cabbage. Simmer until all the vegetables are tender. Taste and adjust the seasoning with salt.
- For a puréed vegetable soup, add about 2 pounds of a trimmed, sliced, fresh or frozen vegetable, such as fennel, cauliflower, turnips, butternut squash, corn or English peas. Add enough liquid to cover and simmer until the vegetables are barely soft. Use an immersion hand blender to purée and thin with more liquid as needed to reach desired consistency. For an extra silky soup, strain the purée through a fine sieve, stirring it with a ladle to encourage everything but the fibrous bits to pass through. Taste and adjust the seasoning with salt.
Once you’ve completed cooking your main ingredient of choice in the soup, you are done! Remove your pot from the heat and serve with a fun alternating or bright garnish. Green onions, crunchy croutons, toasted seeds, pickled vegetables, yogurt…..oh the possibilities!
Savor every sip and slurp loudly like it’s your job to do so. (That’s an affectionate way of indicating in South Korea that you LOVE what you’re eating!)
After you’re all finished and cleaned up, let us know how it went by leaving a comment and rating! If you’re feeling ready, post pictures of your own easy to make soups in action on Instagram by tagging your photos, #naturbaker.
Happy soup-making!! 🙂