As cooler weather begins to set in, nothing battles the increasingly chilly nights like a big pot of steamy soup. Soup is one of the easiest meals to make—although it takes a few hours, it’s mostly hands-off. Making a big pot of soup on a Sunday is a great way to get your meals set for the rest of the week. It also tends to freeze well, so you can store some away for later.
Making a pot of soup follows the same basic process every time no matter what you’ve got in it. Once you’ve got the basic steps down, you can experiment and customize your own soups without so much as glancing at a recipe.
Here’s how it’s done:
Step 1: Consider your liquids
Some of the best pots of soup I’ve ever had were made from rich, homemade stocks, which can be a natural by-product of your soup if you plan correctly. Throw the odds and ends of vegetables in a separate pot as you prep. If you’re making a seafood soup, save the shells and bones as you clean. You can boil all this in water and then strain it to make your own stock ahead of time.
Of course, it may be that you’re using a carton of pre-made broth or even just water, which is all fine. Liquids also can and should also include things like wine, beer, hot sauce, Worchestershire sauce, milk, or cream depending on what you’re going for.
Step 2: Mirepoix and aromatics
Start out with a big stock pot, about 12 quarts—this will ensure you a one-pot meal with easy clean up. Mirepoix (or the holy trinity, suffritto or sufrito depending on which cuisine you’re working with) is a combination of chopped onion, celery, and carrot. If you’re making chicken noodle, vegetable, or even beef stew, it’s a great way to start.
Alter and add as you see fit—leeks, garlic, fresh chile pepper, or bell pepper, can all be great additions. Heat a tablespoon or two of oil, and cook until your mirepoix is softened about six to eight minutes. Add your ground spices (salt, pepper, chile powder, thyme, oregano, and so on), and stir.
If you’re making beef stew, add and cook the mirepoix after you brown the meat.
Step 3: Gradually add
At this point, most of your hands-on work is done. Pour in your liquids, and gradually add whatever else you’d like to include in your soup. Add the things that need the longest to cook first (rice, beans, potatoes, carrots), and add those that need less time as you go.
Fresh corn, fresh herbs, homemade noodles, shrimp, clams, and oysters all need very little time to cook in hot soup and should be saved until the end.
Cook times will vary based on your specific ingredients, but you should plan to let your soup simmer for at least an hour for all of the flavors to combine. Test the doneness of your veggies and meat, and adjust seasoning as necessary. To thicken or reduce your soup, cook uncovered. To maintain the liquid level, cook covered.
That’s all it takes!
Of course, there are endless variations. If you’re making a pureed soup like this Sweet Potato Butternut Soup with Berberé, you’ll need to process your soup in batches at the end. If you’re making Texas Seafood Gumbo, you’ll need to make a roux before you add your mirepoix.
It would be impossible to memorize the details of every soup, and there’s nothing wrong with following a recipe. The difference is, if you master these basic steps, you’ll be able to survey available ingredients and to improvise a soup when there’s no recipe around. And that’s how some of the best soups (like this one with salmon, rice, squash and miso) are born.