22 Ways to Make Better Soup Today

French Onion Soup

You’re probably like me when it comes to cooking – always looking for ways to make things better. When it comes to soup, there are lots of ways to improve preparation, presentation, flavor, texture and final results. Here are 22 suggestions for how you can start making better soup today.

  1. Filter your water – Let’s face it, much of what goes into making our soups is water, from broths and stocks to the water used for soaking dried beans. The better quality your water, the better your finished soup will be. I’ve read that humans cannot taste water, only the minerals and other substances in it. The water used to cook soups should taste like nothing – it is used only as a cooking liquid in which the other ingredients infuse their flavors. If the water has off flavors your soup will certainly suffer. I always use filtered water to give my soups a clean, pure flavor. There are many filter options on the market. This faucet-mounted Powpro water filter is highly recommended. It is without doubt the most important soup-making tool in my kitchen.
  2. Save the carcass – Roasted chicken helps make a rich and deeply flavorful chicken stock. As the chicken cooks, it releases all sorts of lovely fat and flavor. Keep the chicken carcass and use it again for stock. Add a few quarts of water, a quartered onion, a bay leaf or two, your favorite herbs and let it simmer. You just made chicken stock!
  3. Dry beans make cool beans – although they don’t yield instant results, the texture and flavor of dried beans is superior to canned beans. When you have the time, cooking beans low and slow produces a more flavorful and creamy bean. You can also cook dried beans in a slow cooker and get excellent results, too.
  4. Toast seeds and spices for an instant flavor boost – One of the easiest ways to enhance the flavor of your soups is to toast seeds and spices before adding them to the mixture. Toasting brings out the earthy aromas and flavor undertones of your favorite flavorings. Toasting is a technique that works great for black peppercorns, caraway seeds, mustard seeds, fennel seeds and other similar seeds and spices. Here’s how to do it. Take a small skillet and place it over medium heat. Add your spice or seeds and stir continuously or shake the skillet to keep everything moving. You should see a slightly darkened product that gives off a nice fragrance. Be careful, however, not to toast too long or your seeds and spices will burn.
  5. Cook with ingredients you like to eat – The great Cajun chef and TV personality Justin Wilson was fond of saying the kind of wine to drink with a certain dish is the kind of wine you like. This may seem obvious, but many of us get hung up on “food rules” and are afraid to make changes in a recipe. If there’s something in a recipe you don’t like, leave it out. Likewise, if you want to take it over the top with an additional flavor, by all means do so. For example, I really like celery. I think it adds a nice extra dimension and crunch to many soups, so I’ll often add a couple stalks of diced celery to soups that may not traditionally call for celery. If a recipe calls for chipotle peppers and you don’t like the smoky flavors of dried jalapenos, don’t put them into your soup. Think about what might work as a replacement. How about red bell pepper or if you want spice without the smoke? Or for some heat without the smoky flavor, try a fresh jalapeno or serrano pepper.
  6. Cutting it fine – A good chef’s knife makes chopping and dicing vegetables and herbs a breeze. The best knives are well balanced, have some heft and feel good in the hand. I bought this Victorinox Chef’s knife on the recommendation of Cook’s Illustrated and have been happy with it. You get a taste of how higher-end Chef’s knives perform at a fraction of the price. You don’t have to chop as if you’re in the food Olympics, but having a chef’s knife with a sharp blade is key to making safe and consistent cuts. When you’re dicing vegetables for soups, it’s ideal to chop them into pieces of approximately the same size. That not only helps the vegetables cook at an even rate, it also makes them look nicer in the bowl and easier to eat.
  7. Looks matter – Before you taste that first spoonful of soup, your eyes have already done a flavor assessment based on how the dish is presented. When you dine at an expensive restaurant, you expect white-linen service with attention to details that many of us neglect when serving food at home. It only takes a couple minutes to spruce up a table setting with a cheery napkin, colorful table cloth and a bit of imagination.  Good-looking soup just tastes better.
  8. Season your soups to full flavor – when I first started cooking at home regularly, I relied on cookbooks for guidance on how to prepare nearly everything. I can’t tell you how many times I made a dish that sounded great on paper, but failed to excite on the plate. That’s because they were woefully under-seasoned. Think about a half-gallon of soup – that’s 64 ounces of liquid. Now, think about the amount of seasoning required to make that liquid not only taste like something but taste good. It’s likely more than you think. That’s why it’s important to ABT (Always Be Tasting) your soups as you cook them.
  9. Save the acid for later – Tomatoes and other acidic foods can actually prevent foods such as dried beans from cooking as quickly as they can. So if you’re cooking a ham-and-bean soup that will be on the stove for 2 to 3 hours, don’t add the tomatoes until the final half-hour or so.
  10. Go Dutch or go home! – I actually have two Dutch Ovens, one for smaller jobs and a larger one that I use almost exclusively for soups. Another benefit of having a Dutch Oven is that it can be put into the oven if you need to. A 6-quart Dutch oven is my go-to soup pot. It has the depth and diameter to easily make soup for 4 people. Larger sizes are available if needed. The 6-quart Enameled Cast-Iron Round Dutch Oven by Lodge is an affordable workhorse that can serve as soup central. Mine has lasted for years and is easy to clean. Le Creuset is another highly respected brand, and though more expensive, the Dutch Ovens and other cookware from Le Creuset are often passed down from generation to generation because they are built to last.
  11. Puree soups the easy way – I don’t know about you, but the idea of pouring hot soup into a blender to puree it before pouring it back into the soup pot is a step and inconvenience that I don’t want to take. A handheld immersion blender is an incredibly handy tool that can make short work of blending chunky soups. Plus, you can control how smooth you want the final dish to be. Being able to see the soup as you blend it is also a bonus, as you can monitor the consistency until it’s just right. And, finally, a handheld immersion blender is much easier to clean than a traditional blender. This model from Cuisinart is what I use. It makes pureeing and blending a breeze, and it’s a snap to clean.
  12. Boost your broths with tea – here’s a “sneaky” way to add subtle flavor to soup broths. Take a couple of tea bags and let them steep directly in hot broth, just as if you were making a cup of tea. Think about dunking a couple Lemon Ginger tea bags into chicken broth for an Asian twist, or even brew up a cup of the same tea to use as the liquid for prepackaged Ramen noodles. Mint tea for lentil soup? The only caveat is to use tea bags that actually have flavor. There are dozens of truly tasteless teas on the market, and I think I’ve tried them all. My favorite brand is Yogi. Every variety of tea I’ve tried by this company has been flavorful and worth buying and I recommend it without hesitation.
  13. Clean your beans and grains – Canned beans should always be drained and rinsed thoroughly with cold water before using. With dry ingredients, it’s still a good idea to rinse them before using and pick out any strange-looking bits that might be in the mix. A collapsible colander with large capacity makes rinsing, straining and storage super easy.
  14. Don’t add garlic too soon – many soup recipes call for cooking garlic with other vegetables as a first step, and the result can be burnt garlic. I prefer to add it after I’ve sautéed onions, celery, bell pepper and the like for 5 minutes or so. Toss in the garlic and cook for a couple minutes. You’ll still get the garlic aroma and flavor without overcooking it.
  15. Pepper it fresh – without question, the most used item in my kitchen is a pepper mill. I reach for during nearly every meal and can’t imagine making soups without it. The perfect finish to numerous soups – from bean soup to chowder and chili – is a couple grinds of fresh black pepper. My search for the perfect pepper mill ended when I bought the Unicorn Magnum. It’s easy to adjust and offers a wide range of grind sizes. If you’re still pouring pepper from a shaker, it’s time to make the move and get a mill. Freshly cracked black pepper is not a luxury, it is a necessity.
  16. Cutting board – A good cutting board is a worthwhile investment, but there are so many choices that it’s difficult to know which one to choose. I look for three things in a cutting board: size, knick-resistance and clean up. The Vettore non-slip cutting board has good size, stays put on the counter when you’re cutting, doesn’t dull knives, resists knicks and cuts and is less than $20. A great buy.
  17. Get a culinary education for a song – the Culinary Institute of America is probably the best-known cooking school in North America and has turned out many of today’s most recognized chefs. Not all of us have the desire, money, time or are in stages of our lives to enroll as a full-time cooking student. The Everyday Gourmet – Rediscovering the Lost Art of Cooking brings CIA instruction directly to your TV. This series features Chef Bill Briwa and it’s the best cooking tutorial I’ve ever seen. Chef Briwa is a natural teacher and gives detailed but always interesting explanations on not just how to cook but why certain techniques work with certain ingredients and vice versa. This 4-DVD set (and companion hard-cover book) contains 24 lessons, each 30 minutes in length. Two of the lessons focus on soups – making white and brown stocks and other soups from around the globe – but you can apply something from nearly every lesson here to make your own soups better. The basics never go out of style.
  18. Top it off – there are very few soups that can’t benefit from a little extra love, and one of my favorite ways to make a terrific soup even better is with a final top-off for extra flavor, color and texture. Hard-Boiled or Soft-Boiled Eggs – Diced, Poached Eggs, Chopped Parsley, Chopped Cilantro, Chopped Dill, Diced Bacon, lemon juice, lime juice, toasted nuts and cheese are all great soup finishers.
  19. Buy whole spices and grind your own – Another of my “can’t-live-without” kitchen tools is a spice grinder. It’s nothing more than a coffee grinder that I use for grinding herbs and spices only – we don’t that cup of French roast tasting like curry powder! I use a small pastry brush to clean any residue from the grinder after use.
  20. Go crackers – Oyster crackers are classic complements to clam chowder and other cream-based seafood soups. However, these and other saltine-style crackers can get a little boring after a while so I’d like to recommend some of my favorite crackers, the ones my wife and I most frequently have with our soups. Finn Crisp’s Siljan Swedish Crisp Bread comes packaged in wheel-like rounds and is, as you might expect, it’s super crispy. Finncrisp’s Caraway Crisp Breads are wafer thin and have a slight tang that hints at the flavor of being baked with a sour starter. Add caraway to that and you have an amazing cracker. Walker’s Highland Oatcakes are another great option. These aren’t as crisp as crisp bread but have a nice resistance to them. The flavor is old world and perfect.
  21. Salt and pepper matter – So many of us take salt and pepper for granted, but we shouldn’t. There’s so much more than just old table salt and tired ground pepper. I discovered Himalayan salt, which is mined directly from the Himalayan Mountains and has a cool-looking pinkish hue. It’s my go-to salt for nearly everything. The flavor is cleaner and, in my opinion, just better than regular table salt. Indian Tellicherry is my favorite black pepper. Tellicherry has a nice, rich peppery bite that makes the pre-ground stuff taste weak by comparison. The whole peppercorns are great for making stock. I like to toss in a half-dozen or so for added flavor and spice.
  22. Control the burn with dairy – OK, you just made a big of pot of 3-alarm chili and went a little strong on the hot peppers. You taste it, and…. it’s spicy – I mean, like 5-alarm spicy! What to do? There are a number of ways to reduce the heat. Introducing a dairy product such as sour cream or plain yogurt can take a raging inferno and bring it down to a gentle simmer.



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