Making soup from scratch seems relatively simple — you throw ingredients into a pot and let it simmer away. But small mistakes, like adding too much salt or putting all of your ingredients into the pot at once, can ruin the taste and texture. And, since soups take so long to make, it can be frustrating when the final result is a salt bomb or super bland.
To help us make stellar soups this fall and winter, we’ve turned to professional chefs, who have graciously shared some of their cooking wisdom with us.
Mistake #1: Oversalting … or undersalting
If a recipe tells you to use one teaspoon of salt, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll come out tasting perfectly seasoned. The most important thing is tasting and seasoning as you go, and freeing yourself from the notion that you have to follow the recipe exactly.
Getting the salt level just right can be tricky when making homemade soup, because as it simmers the liquid evaporates (if you have the lid off) and the saltiness of the soup increases. For best results, our chef experts recommend gradually adding salt throughout the cooking process.
“Salt should be added a little in the beginning, some along the way and again at the end when the soup is almost done,” said Einav Gefen, a chef at the hospitality company Restaurant Associates.
If you’ve accidentally added too much salt, there are a few ways to fix it. Lisa Brooks, executive chef of Heart and Soul Personal Chef Services, recommends adding potato chunks to the soup and letting them absorb the salt.
“This should work in most broth-based soups,” Brooks said. Gefen recommends adding more liquid (like broth), or fat (like cream) if the soup already has some in there. As a last resort, you can add in a little bit of everything that’s already in the soup to help change the salt ratio.
Mistake #2: Dumping in all your ingredients at once
At its core, soup is simmering a bunch of ingredients in broth. But that doesn’t mean you should just throw meat and vegetables into some boiling liquid and call it a day. If you’re using onions, for example, don’t just boil them in a pot.
“Onions need to be sautéed at least somewhat before adding liquid,” said Ben Goodnick, executive chef of Coastal Soups (a seasonal soup concept run by Summer House in Chicago). He recommends sautéing onions until translucent for a brothy soup, or browned for more hearty soups. “This makes the flavor sweeter and more mellow and complex,” he said.
It’s all about building flavor. “Sauté your aromatic base (onion, garlic, carrots, celery, ginger) and sear the protein (sausage, chicken, beef, pancetta, bacon),” Gefen said.
She recommends adding hearty herbs like thyme, rosemary and bay leaf early in the cooking process for maximum flavor extraction, then fine herbs like parsley, basil and cilantro toward the end. “Sometimes I use the stems of the parsley as a flavor booster early on and the parsley leaves towards the end,” she said.
Mistake #3: Not cooking it for long enough
Good soup takes time, and when making it, “low and slow” is the way to go.
“A gentle simmer is best, giving all ingredients time to infuse flavors and create a balanced, delicious soup,” Gefen said. There’s no hard and fast rule about exactly how long you should let a soup simmer, because that will depend on the ingredients you’re using.
Gefen notes that vegetable soups can come together in as little as 45 minutes, while soups with beans and legumes will need about an hour to an hour and a half. Beef-based soups made with tougher cuts typically need one to two hours for the meat to become tender.
“‘Low and slow’ is not only for the key ingredients to fully cook, but also for the flavors of all components to release into the liquids and create a delicious concoction,” Gefen said.
Mistake #4: Always leaving the lid on
To cover, or not to cover: That depends on the soup. In general, Gefen covers legume-based soups to minimize evaporation and avoid getting a soup that is too thick. She leaves most brothy soups uncovered and controls how much liquid evaporates by cooking over low heat.
Goodnick does this as well, noting that leaving the lid off so water can evaporate intensifies and concentrates the flavor.
Mistake #5: Cooking all the ingredients for the same amount of time
To ensure everything in your soup is cooked to an ideal consistency (aka no crunchy potatoes or mushy carrots), add ingredients into your soup according to their cooking time.
“If I am making a seafood chowder, I start stewing the harder vegetables like potatoes first,” Brooks said. “Any softer or frozen vegetables can be added later, and the last thing that should go in is the fresh seafood, since it takes mere seconds to cook through.”
Gefen said legumes and pulses take longer to cook than pasta, so they should be added first.