basic soup recipe

A friend has asked for my base recipe for a basic, generic soup, the soup that I can make in half an hour on a weeknight without much thought. So here it is. This’ll be a bit long and rambling, because I’m not really giving you a recipe, I’m giving you a process. I make a lot of soups when I have a kitchen, and I tend to just buy whatever looks and sounds particularly good on the day, or if I happen to have a garden, whatever’s ready in the garden.

If you’ve never done much cooking, you might like to keep notes of what you’ve added and when, in case you really like what you did and want to be able to repeat it.

Basically, I almost always start with the onion, garlic, or leeks or whatever. Mince them if you want a more oniony flavor that melts into the soup, or chunk them if you want more texture and a more direct but sweeter taste, etc. Add just a teaspoon or two of your chosen oil into the bottom of your pot. Place the pot over a medium heat.

Choose your oil according to the taste you want and also how well it does at the temperatures you’ll need to properly cook your onion or garlic without breaking down. Minced garlic cooks quickly, but onion usually takes a bit longer, so choose accordingly.

Once the oil is hot, add however much of your onion or garlic or whatever as you please. Stir it until it has reached either the fragrant stage, or if you prefer a more “cooked” taste, until it has browned lightly or darkly, depending on the flavor you want. (People are often surprised at how long it takes an onion to actually cook. Do not fall into the temptation to turn up the heat to make it faster, or you’ll risk turning the onion bitter.)

Also, there’s no such thing as a tear-free onion. It may help to slice rather than chop, dice or mince, as onions don’t actually release their tear-causing properties until the cells are actually cut — less cutting, less tears. They say that refrigerating your alliums can help, too, but freezing it means that your onion will cook up very poorly with a poor flavor. (If you have never been actually shown how to chop, dice, or mince an onion, just Google it — there’s a jillion vids out there on how to properly do so.)

If you’re adding curry spices (you’ll have wanted to use more oil if you’re using curry), add them now, stir, and cook ’til the spices are fragrant. (All curry spices need to be cooked before the rest of the food is added, to “open up” the spices. This is true for making a curry as well.)

If you’re cooking a meat for the soup, add it now and brown it quickly. (There are actually very few cooking processes that need heat over med/high, which is also better for your cooking equipment — less burning means less sticking means less scrubbing.)

Next, chop up the requisite amount of potato (if that’s what you’re using for a starch, as potatoes generally need slightly longer to cook than most veggies), add hot water OR stock ’til the potatoes are just covered. (If you want to use a bay leaf, you’d add it now.) Bring to a gentle boil or fast simmer. (Treat carrots much like the potatoes.)

You can also use lentils (yellow or red or green ones don’t take very long to cook), or beans, or quick cooking pearl barley, or any other starch for your base, or don’t use any at all. Totally up to you and what you have to use.

I generally figure out how much potato and veggies to add by figuring out how many servings I need. One med/large potato per person is usually enough, especially if you’re adding other veggies.

Once the potatoes are fork tender or the beans are cooked through, etc., I add my other roughly chopped veggies. Add more hot water or stock to just the level of the veggies. Continue to simmer until all veggies are cooked to tender.

IMPORTANT NOTE: TAKE THE BAY LEAF OUT OF THE SOUP NOW. Especially if you intend to puree the soup.

Once everything’s cooked through, take the pot off the heat. If you want a smooth, creamy soup, using an immersion/stick blender, zap the whole thing until it’s pureed finely. Add hot water or broth a quarter cup at a time if it seems too thick. (You don’t want it too runny, either — it should be a bit thinner than you want the finished soup, at this point.) If you used lentils or other beans, you may wish to remove a bit of the beans before zapping to add back later, which will lend a little more texture to your soup. You can puree the entire thing, or only puree partially, or you can puree just your starch and add the other veggies to cook in the puree, etc. Totally up to you. (Guess what! You can even not puree at all!)

If you want to add herbs of any sort (fresh is almost always best!), return the pot to heat, add the herbs or spices, and cook until the flavors are mingled throughout.

Herbs are an entire, huge subject all on their own. I suggest two things: one, take a trip to the spice cabinet of your kitchen and sniff all of it. (I wouldn’t bother tasting it, though, as a direct hit of a herb or spice often won’t tell you much about what it’s like in your cooking.) Two, spend some time on the Net and just Google up the spices you’re interested in learning about. Many were/are used medicinally as well as for more culinary interests, and there are many classic combinations that you should find out about. (Rosemary with lamb, sage with chicken, basil with tomato, etc.) Take note of how recipes use herbs and spices, especially the classic recipes.

Actually, there’s a third thing: now try using herbs and spices. Nothing beats direct experience!

Once everything is pureed/cooked sufficiently, take the pot back off the heat, add a small dollop of Greek yoghurt, or few teaspoons of any kind of milk, maybe some grated cheese, whatever strikes your fancy. This will give your soup a better “mouth feel” as the pros say. Some people will stir in a teaspoon or so of olive oil at this point if they want that flavor to be a bit stronger. Stir it in and taste. Add more if you think it needs it, working from too little to just right.

Balance your seasonings (fancy chef talk for “taste the soup and add more salt or pepper or other spices until it tastes right to you”), plate the soup, and maybe add a small dollop of yoghurt, a few croutons, or a sprinkling of your herb/spices, or just garnish with a sprig of parsley.

If you’re cooking for more than one person, remember that your feed-ee can add salt or pepper, but it’s impossible to remove it. Better to err on the side of less seasonings than too much. (Especially important if someone’s on a low-sodium diet. In that case, I make the soup with no salt and hand ’round the salt shakers to everyone else.)

The fun part is coming up with your own combinations of veggies and other ingredients. Classics are Potato Leek, Potato Broccoli, Tomato Parmesan, Spinach with Curry and Coconut Milk, Pumpkin or Carrot Coriander, Lamb and Collards, and way more. (I even know someone who made a Lettuce Dill soup once when that was all she had in her garden. She liked it. He didn’t.)

For summer, think of light, fresh soups (which generally means less starch, less dairy product, and sometimes a cooking time of only a few minutes), and in winter, glory in thick, rich soups-that-are-almost-stews that will fill you up and warm you up. You can go entirely veggie, or completely carnivorous.

Serve with an appropriate bread. (Heartier breads for heavier soups, more refined breads for lighter soups, etc.) Or crackers of one sort or another. (I like water crackers, and sometimes I get a craving for oyster crackers. And there’s nothing wrong with Saltines!)

You can’t really make a mistake, although you may make something you don’t particularly care for! If you pretty much stick with really fresh, ripe ingredients and keep it simple, it’s almost foolproof. So go for it. And have fun!

2 Comments Add Yours ↓

  1. 1

    I love thinking of food in this way – use what you’ve got and try new things rather than the same exact recipe every time. A pinch of this and that often results in something brilliant.

    Your point is well taken about making some notes. All too often I’ve made something well loved without the ability to truly replicate it again!

  2. Zina #

    Oh, if only I couldn’t relate. But it’s happened far too, too often. Dammit. :) Sometimes recipes and sticking to them are good just for that reason.

    I think it’s a bit like knitting. It’s great to free form, and it’s great to make whatever mods take your fancy, but also sometimes it’s great to just follow the freaking pattern and have the thing fit, because you don’t want to have to think that hard!

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