Chicken Soup Secrets

A couple of weeks ago, my brother came over and we cooked up a big meal for our parents. Among other things, we made chicken soup. When my mother saw how the soup was cooking, she exclaimed that it was genius. Why? I was using a pasta pot with a built in colander. The vegetables and chicken (bones and all) were in the removable colander. Take it out, and you have broth left in the pot. Chicken meat and vegetables that you might want to add back into the soup are now easy to separate. I also use this method for other soups and stocks. Until my mother commented upon it, I assumed that this was commonly done in people's kitchens. Maybe it is, and my mother is simply out of touch. Maybe it isn't, and I was just making a weird assumption. It is hard to tell what goes on in other people's kitchens.

Nevertheless, the pasta pot is a great tool for soup-making. Smaller pasta pots are fine for just making pasta, but larger ones are better for making soup. If you're not picky, they can be picked up for about $25. For just a bit more, you can pick up a nice one that will last you a good long time. So... how do I make chicken soup? I start with chicken. I rarely just toss a whole chicken in. You can do that, and it won't be bad, but I like a bit more substance to my soup. That means more bones and more connective tissues. I usually use a package of chicken backs. They have the added benefit of being really cheap. My brother uses chicken feet, a practice I endorse and may adopt. Either way, these are in addition to a whole chicken (brined or, at least, salted) or equivalent parts. Cutting through some of the longer bones (like drumsticks) with a pair of kitchen shears may help release more chicken-ness into your soup. Then you add your vegetables. My must-haves include carrots, onions (yellow - including the onion skins will help your soup get that lovely yellow color that you want), celery, parsnips, and turnips. My other must-have is a chopped up apple or pear. It works. Leeks are nice, sometimes. If I'm feeling crazy, I might add some tomatoes, and if I want a very thick soup, I'll add a sweet potato. For herbs, I generally go with parsley, sage, and dill. I go light on the dill. Sometimes I add a bit of thyme. Spices? Pepper is the obvious choice (more on that later this week), but we can play around with other spices like nutmeg, allspice, and mustard seed. Turmeric adds a nice richness in both taste and color. A wee bit of sichuan peppercorn can provide a great counterpoint to the other spices you use. If I have some parmesan rind sitting around, that might get tossed in, too, to boost the umami flavor. Add your salt. Don't be shy with it. Now you have to add your liquid. Unless you want this to cook all day, don't just add water. I usually use vegetable stock from my freezer. I'll also, invariably, add some wine (and/or apple cider if I have it). If I want my soup to be extra-thick, I may pull out some of the cooked vegetables and broth part way through, puree them in my blender, and then add them back into the pot. Remember, though, that with all the extra stuff that you are putting in here it is possible to overpower the flavor of chicken. You don't want to do that. Always make sure your ratio of chicken to other things is high. Go ahead and use that strongly-flavored spice... just don't use too much of it... or add some extra chicken wings if you do. These are my chicken soup secrets. Use them wisely.


I have never thought of doing that before, but that's a really good idea!

That's a really good idea! I never liked a pasta boiler for boiling pasta but using the colander from one to contain things you want to remove from soup is a darn good idea and getting some use out of chicken feet is a good idea. I would have done backs or wings. Lord knows the Chinese are nutso for them but I don't get it at all. (And yes, I've had them in one of the best dim sum places in Manhattan Chinatown and I live just outside of Flushing, aka Queens Chinatown....)

An alternative is to take the parts you want flavor from but plan to extract and put in a cheesecloth bag. This trick I got from my friend Mike in Australia, who uses it to make fish stock. Chicken bones aren't nearly as nasty as fish bones, which can be downright hazardous to your health!

BTW, do you have my old pasta boiler too? :) I know you got a lot of my old kitchen items.

Stuart Broz's picture

Nope. I don't know what happened to your pasta boiler.

Well no big deal, I just know you had my stir-fry pan and maybe my old electric skillet. I got rid of a lot of things when I left Champaign in '07. My kitchen (such as it is) is 99% new.

Mushrooms seem like a classic source of umami. I'm making chicken soup (as I am home with a cold, so it's traditional) and decided that 8 oz of portabella would do a pretty good job of adding that umami. Alas, no easy source of chicken backs or feet were to be had though I suppose I should have gone to the nearby Korean market rather than the grocery store for that. I did three chicken breasts (with rib) and a package of chicken wings, celery, carrots, onions (skin on), a pear, a parsnip, 2 red potatoes, one bottle of beer, 4 tbsp of Sherry vinegar, pepper, salt, some herbs? What's the deal with the pear?

Sorry about the multiple post... internet hiccup.

Stuart Broz's picture

The pear? I've found... through trial and error... that pears and apples work well in chicken soup. The sweetness helps to offset potentially-bitter ingredients, but it blends well and is far from cloying.

It seems hard to notice but maybe it's just one of those things I can't taste right now. :( The apple cider goes nicely. Turmeric seems to be the source of the classic "gold" color.

Anyway, this batch is pretty good but in the future I think I'll just get good chicken stock and skip the wings as they seem more trouble then they are worth.

Stuart Broz's picture

Historically speaking, I've heard that the classic color is due to yellow onion skins. Having used turmeric, I'm not sure that I believe this.

I don't buy it. It's definitely the turmeric, of which you need a lot. Yellow onion skins on, the soup looked no different than the dozens of times I'd made chicken soup before without the turmeric....

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