Often the starting point in a meal, soups set the tone of a dining experience, and a preview of a chef’s creativity and expertise. Soups are as simple as a clear broth or as complex as a Vietnamese pho. Based on the number of ingredients and the heartiness of the preparation, they often blur the lines between appetizers, entrees, and even desserts.
Soups generally fall into two broad categories – clear soups based on stocks, and thick soups emulsified with starches. Beneath these two categories are subcategories that further define soups. These include broths and consommé's in the clear category, and cream and pureed in the thick soup category. Specialty soups, including regional and ethnic favorites, constitute an often-cited third category, but these soups can be grouped into the two broad categories of clear and thick varieties.
Broth and Stock-Based Soups
Broth or bouillons are prepared by simmering meats, aromatic vegetables, herbs, and liquids together to achieve a flavorful balance. Prepared in a way that is similar to a stock, the meats and vegetables may also be browned first for added color and flavor. Unlike a stock, a broth or bouillon is intended to be used as is, so it should be properly salted and seasoned. Although the liquid can be served simply as is, it is often accented with additional garnishes of vegetables, meats, starches (noodles, rice, barley), and herbs.
When preparing fish broths, lean, white-fleshed fish, including sole, halibut, or cod, produces a light flavor. Shellfish broths are often prepared by cooking the seafood in the shell. Because most fish and seafood are naturally tender, cook these items minimally to bring out their best qualities.
Vegetable broths, when prepared improperly, have the ability to become overpowering and bitter, so balancing the types of vegetables and the ratio of ingredients is important. Mushrooms and tomatoes add a savory depth, while cabbages tend to be strong-flavored and therefore should be used minimally.
Broths are prepared in a way that is similar to stocks, so always start with cold liquid. A remouillage or prepared stock may also be used in place of water to make a double-strength broth. Simmer gently, and regularly skim the surface of impurities to obtain a clear liquid. Season the broth using creative flavor profiles through a variety of spices and herbs. Add salt to taste during the cooking process. Strain the broth through a chinois. Add garnishes of cooked meats, herbs, vegetables, pasta, grains, or legumes.
Clear Soups Based on Prepared Stocks
Related to broths but more common in commercial kitchens are clear soups prepared with stocks. These soups are faster and easier to produce because they use prepared stocks enriched with aromatic vegetables that are first sautéed in oil or other fat. The stock is added after the vegetables are translucent, and seasoned with salt, pepper, and a sachet or bouquet garni. Additional herbs, spices, and condiments are added for variety. If meats, noodles, or other starches are included, they are usually pre-cooked and added at the end of the preparation process.
Preparation Guidelines for Clear Stock-Based Soups
- Cut vegetables uniformly
- Add a minimal amount of oil or fat and sweat the vegetables until semi-soft
- Add cold stock and seasonings; simmer until the flavor is balanced
- Skim the surface periodically to remove impurities and excess fat
- Use cooked proteins that are cut uniformly and add at the end of the cooking process
- Starches, including pasta, rice, and other grains, are best when fully cooked and added at the time of service so they don’t swell and become waterlogged
- Adjust seasoning to taste with salt, pepper, and avariety of spices and herbs
A consommé is a refined soup made with a stock or broth that is clarified with a clearmeat raft, a mixture of ground meats, poultry, or fish along with mirepoix, egg whites, tomato, and seasoning. The raft is combined in a stockpot with cold stock and slowly brought to a simmer. As the consommé cooks, the meat will coagulate with the mirepoix and egg whites and rise to the surface absorbing excess particles and impurities to create a crystal-clear liquid. The consommé is further simmered for an additional period of time to enrich the flavor. Care must be taken not to break up the raft while it is cooking, as this will result in a cloudy soup. The consommé is then carefully ladled out and strained without disturbing the raft.
The consommé is usually identified first by the type – chicken, beef, or pheasant, for example – and then by its garnish. A garnish includes vegetables cut into brunoise or julienned shapes, starches or grains, royale custards, dumplings, and quenelles. Fortified wines, including Sherry, Port, or Madeira, are added at service to finish the soup. Escoffier lists almost 150 garnishes for consommés in Le Guide Culinaire. Make sure that the garnish is not precooked in fat, because when the garnish is added to the soup the fats will riser to the top, creating a greasy appearance.
Guidelines for Consommés
- Start with a well-flavored stock, or reduce the stock prior to concentrate the flavors
- Use a pot with a spigot for ease in straining the consommé
- Prepare the raft with lean meats, mirepoix, egg whites, and tomato
- Add an oignon brulé to the raft for color and flavor
- To save time and steps, grind the herbs and spices with the meat and mirepoix
- Salt the raft to start
- While bringing the consommé to a simmer, stir the bottom periodically to loosen any particles that may be clinging to the bottom of the pot
- Once the raft has formed, press a hole, referred to as a chimney, so the steam can escape and to add additional seasoning
- Simmer the consommé for about one hour to extract all the flavor from the meat and mirepoix
- Don’t allow it to boil because the raft will break apart and cloud the consommé
- A cloudy consommé can be rescued by straining and re-clarifying it with a simple raft of egg whites, vinegar, and salt
- Strain carefully to avoid breaking the raft
- Remove excess fat from the surface of the consommé. This is done by chilling and allowing the fat to congeal. If the consommé is warm, skim the fat from the surface with a ladle, or run a piece of absorbent towel over the surface to collect it
Thick soups use a roux or other starch, such as dried legumes, grains, or vegetable purees, to add body and substance to them. These soups are heartier and richer by nature.
Cream and Velouté Soups
In classic French cuisine, thick soups were classified as cream soups, which used a béchamel sauce; velouté soups, which incorporated velouté sauces; puree soups; and bisques. Using grande sauces for soup preparation streamlined mise en place, execution, and service in the kitchen. Soups today are prepared without these sauces, and velouté soups have morphed into the cream soup category.
Classic cream soups begin with a main garnish (for example, mushroom, broccoli, or carrot), and aromatic vegetables (onions, celery, garlic), that are cooked in a small amount of fat or oil until they begin to soften. Flour is added at this stage as a thickening agent or a prepared roux also can be used if desired. Stock is typically added once the vegetables are sautéed and the mixture is brought to a simmer. A sachet d’epice or a bouquet garni is added and the mixture is cooked just until the vegetables are tender. The soup is pureed and strained, if desired, and returned to the pot. Cream is added and the seasoning is adjusted and the soup is served with a garnish.
Cream Soup Prep Variables
The use of flour or a prepared roux is standard in classic cream soups but there are other options available including potatoes or rice. Some vegetables, including root vegetables, winter squashes, and cauliflower have sufficient starch so that no added thickener is needed. Other options for thickening agents include the use of refined starches, potato starch, cornstarch, or arrowroot diluted in liquid to create a slurry. These starches are usually added at the end of the cooking process because they can break down when cooked for prolonged periods of time.
Flavor and Texture Variations
There are endless variations of cream soups but the preparation is basically the same. A starting point to consider is whether the soup is meat or poultry-based, prepared vegetarian-style (implying the use of dairy products), or even vegan-style. These considerations will determine, for example, whether butter or oil is used to sweat the vegetables, and whether to finish the soup with coconut milk instead of cream.
Different flavor profiles also determine the style of the soup, whether to incorporate curry spices to create mulligatawny, basil in a corn soup, or cheese in a broccoli soup, creates different flavor profiles. Cream soups are pureed and strained for a refined texture or left chunky for a rustic consistency.
Guidelines for Cream Soup Preparation
- Cream soups begin with a main garnish (mushroom, broccoli, carrot), and have common elements that include stock or water, cream or milk, seasoning, and a thickening agent
- Dice vegetables to an appropriate and uniform size; reserve the best part for the garnish
- Eliminate the roux and use starches that are naturally occurring in vegetables to thicken the soup
- Create depth and complexity by roasting vegetables or adding spices like dried chilies that provide warmth on the palate
- Serve the soup as-is for a rustic presentation, or puree it and strain though a china cap if desired
Puree soups are prepared with dried legumes, including beans, peas, and lentils, and root vegetables of potatoes, carrots, or celery root. Other starchy vegetables, including butternut squash, pumpkin, corn, and cauliflower, make excellent puree soups. Puree soups are often served coarse for added texture and interest. By either mashing or partially pureeing some of the ingredients, the soup becomes more viscous yet retains a rustic heartiness. Pureeing and straining the soup through a sieve provides a smooth texture and a more refined presentation. Pureed soups tend to be hearty but often become too thick and should be adjusted to prevent this problem. The soup consistency should be loose enough to easily be poured from a ladle.
The base of puree soups centers on a primary ingredient including dried legumes of beans, peas, and lentils. Beans are often soaked to speed the cooking process but soaking can be eliminated since it adds only about 20-30 minutes to the cooking process. Other dried legumes, including lentils and split peas, do not need soaking. Root vegetables and squash varieties should be diced uniformly for even cooking.
Puree soups usually include aromatic vegetables, onions, celery, carrots, garlic and fresh or dried chili peppers. Tomatoes are often incorporated, along with salted pork, bacon, or ham. The cooking liquid is frequently a poultry, pork, or vegetable stock, but water may be used. A lager or pilsner beer also adds complementary flavors to legume soups. Pureed soups that incorporate starchy vegetables, rather than dried legumes, are prepared in a similar way to cream soups but don't require the addition of a thickening agent. Some acidity in the form of vinegar, citrus juice, or wine brightens the flavors and lightens the starchy taste usually as a finishing touch to the soup.
Flavor profiles vary based on preference, but consider ethnic combinations of an Indian curried lentil soup, a Middle Eastern chickpea soup, or a Tuscan bean soup.
Guidelines for Puree Soup Preparation
- Use dried legumes, dense roots, gourds, or other starchy vegetables
- Presoak dried beans prior to cooking
- The natural starches in the vegetables will thicken the soup
- Use any type of liquid desired, including poultry, pork, and vegetable stock, or water
- Smoked meats, bacon, or pancetta provide a savory finish to the soup
- Dried or fresh chilies add warmth to the palate
- Puree part or all of the soup as desired; strain through a sieve if it is fully pureed
- Cream is added to some pureed soups, particularly those prepared from root vegetables
- Acidity (vinegar, lemon, tomatoes) will lighten the dull starchy taste on the palate
- Adjust consistency with water or stock
Bisque's are thick soups marked by their refined smoothness and rich flavor but are essentially either cream or puree soups based on the ingredients and techniques used to create them. Bisques are commonly prepared with shellfish such as lobster, shrimp, and crab. A bisque may also refer to vegetable soups, including tomato, squash, and pumpkin, prepared in a similar fashion to a puree soup. Although Escoffier’s recipe for bisque used rice to thicken it, today roux is a more common thickening agent in shellfish bisques. Vegetable varieties of bisque are thickened through natural starches in the ingredients in the same manner as puree soups.
Shellfish bisques begin by sweating the shells or bodies of shrimp, crab, or lobster in butter with aromatic vegetables, including onions and garlic. If whole shellfish are used in the preparation, once the meat is cooked it should be pulled from the bodies and reserved, and the shells returned to the pot. Tomato and paprika are added and caramelized in a technique known as pincé. Flour is then added to create a roux using the singer method. As with cream soups, a prepared roux or cooked rice are other options for thickening the soup. The soup is deglazed with white wine and brandy and the stock is added. The soup is pureed with an immersion blender to break up the shells, allowing more flavor to be released from them. A sachet is added, and the soup is simmered and skimmed while it is cooked. When the desired flavor is reached and the ingredients are properly cooked, the soup is strained through a chinois. It is returned to the pot and finished with cream. Sherry is added at service, and the soup is garnished with the reserved shellfish meat.
Vegetable bisques follow the same guidelines used in the preparation of a puree soup. To enrich the soup, deglazing the ingredients with wine is an option. The soup is pureed and strained to create a smooth texture. Cream is added and some acidity (lemon, vinegar) may be added as a finishing touch to the soup. The soup is garnished as desired.
Guidelines for Shellfish Bisque Preparation
- Start with a well-flavored stock
- Use clarified butter to sweat shells and vegetables
- Add paprika and tomato paste and pincé to develop color and flavor complexity
- Add the flour to the shellsto create a roux, using the singer method
- Deglaze with brandy and white wine
- A prepared roux may also be used in place of the flour
- Bisques were originally thickened with rice, but today are thickened more commonly with a roux
- Strain the soup through a chinois
- Add the cream and garnish with sherry
Gazpacho, vichyssoise, and jelled consommés are cold soups that are especially appealing during warm summer months. Almost any soup can be reimagined as a cold soup. Fruits make excellent cold soups served as starters, intermezzos, or dessert courses. Chilled soups of cucumber, melon, or strawberry are a few examples.
Gazpacho, of Spanish origin, is often defined as a cold tomato soup with chopped vegetables including bell peppers, cucumbers, and garlic. It is thickened with soaked bread and finished with vinegar and olive oil. There are many gazpacho variations from different regions of Spain. These include tomato as a base, but other varieties contain no tomato. A white gazpacho includes dried fruits, and green varieties use fresh herbs for their distinctive color, while others incorporate fresh fruits, including strawberries and melons. Gazpachos have common ingredients of garlic, bread, olive oil, and vinegar. Gazpacho may be served as a starter, main dish, or tapa.
Vichysoisse is a puree soup of leeks, potatoes, chicken stock, and cream served cold. There is some debate about the origin of the soup, but French chef Louis Diat at the Ritz-Carlton in New York City is most often credited with its popularity.
Borscht is a popular soup in Eastern and Central Europe, with its origin in Ukraine. There are many varieties, but the most popular are the ones prepared with beets. The two main variants are whether they are served hot or cold. Hot borscht usually contains beef and cabbage, while cold borscht is a vegetarian soup with sour cream or yogurt. Raw chopped vegetables are added, including radishes or cucumbers, and the soup is garnished with dill and chopped, hard-cooked eggs.
Specialty and Ethnic Soups
Soups with strong ethnic identity use ingredients native to their place of origin. These soups fall into either category of clear or thick soups. Many are hearty varieties that can also be considered as stews.
Chowder – A hearty soup of French origin with a strong New England identity. The term chowder, from the French term faire chaudiére, refers to the preparation of a fish stew in a cauldron. Chowders are prepared with clams or other seafood, but there are also vegetarian varieties, including corn and potato. They are traditionally cooked with salt pork and include potatoes as part of the garnish. Although often made as a thick soup with cream, chowder variations use tomato or a clear broth as well.
French Onion Soup (Soupe à l’oignon) – Recipes for this soup date back to the 17th century in France. The soup was often thickened with a little bread or flour but today is usually served as a clear soup with a cheese crouton gratinée. Cooking the onions until they are golden brown and caramelized lends incredible complexity to this soup.
Miso Soup (Misoshiru) – A traditional Japanese soup that incorporates dashi (stock), tofu, and miso. The dashi stock is prepared with niboshi (dried baby sardines), kombu (dried kelp), katsuobushi (thin shavings of dried and smoked bonito, aka skipjack (tuna), or hoshi-shiitake (dried shiitake). Although it is often prepared as a simple first course, miso soup may also include mushrooms, potatoes, seaweed, onion, shrimp, fish, and grated or sliced daikon.