I have a confession. I grew up on canned chicken soup, and I loved it! It was so familiar, predictable, comforting and ready in five minutes. Can after red-and-white can, it always tasted the same: pale yellow broth, little square pieces of chicken meat and mushy, stringy noodles. No big, fat, nasty vegetables to get in the way. "Perfection!" thought I.
Then, as a young adult, came a moment of culinary enlightenment. I happened to read an essay about a Jewish family's celebration of the Sabbath, or Seder. The writer gave sentimental and loving descriptions of the foods she ate each Friday night as her family gathered for the observance of the Holy Sabbath.
I was mesmerized by her description of her Grandmother's chicken soup. The writer reminisced with a sincere passion about the intense chicken flavor of the deep, golden broth. The soup was clear, without any cloudiness or discoloration. The tender chicken was shredded in bite-sized pieces and never over-cooked. The vegetables were toothsome and not mushy, still full of flavor and color. A few small droplets of fat shimmered brightly, suspended on the surface of the broth. A hint of green herbs graced each spoonful.
In that moment it became clear. My childhood definition of "chicken soup" was grossly out of line! Good gracious-grief, what had I been missing? Not only did I want a bowl of chicken soup, no, I wanted a bowl of THAT chicken soup! In fact, I wanted an entire stockpot of her Grandmother's chicken soup. And, I wanted to be able to prepare a batch of soup THAT GOOD in my own kitchen, whenever my heart desired. It was then and there I dedicated myself to the noble quest for a chicken soup that measured up to a Jewish Grandmother's Standard!
I share with you now five main nuggets of wisdom I've gathered over the last 25 years, in the hope that you will come to appreciate a great bowl of chicken soup as much as I have.
#1. Don't use water!
How do you make soup without water? Well, one of the secrets to great chicken soup is to use homemade chicken broth to simmer the ingredients rather than plain water. Think about it: if you BEGIN with good, homemade chicken broth and add more chicken, vegetables and seasonings, how intense and flavorful will the final soup be? Like nothing you've ever eaten!
#2. Get the right chicken (and plenty of it!).
When making a great chicken soup, you have many choices of what type of chicken to put in the stockpot. In a pinch you can use a package or two of leg quarters, but nothing will approach the flavor of what is termed a "stewing chicken". A stewing chicken is older and larger (usually 4 to 7 pounds) and has a lot more flavor than the young hen typical of most supermarkets. Use at least four pounds of chicken for four quarts of finished soup. There is no substitute for plenty of chicken if you want the best results.
#3. Skim the foam!
When the raw chicken comes up to a simmer, you must be ready to skim off the white foam and any impurities that rise to the top of the pot. As the chicken simmers, it may take 15 minutes to 45 minutes before the foam and impurities are done rising. This step is essential if you want a clear, golden broth. Use a fine mesh sieve about three inches in diameter and remove the foam from the surface of the broth as it rises. Keep doing this until the foam stops rising. Then, and only then, add the vegetables and herbs you will use for the long simmer.
#4. Never allow the soup to boil!
In order to maintain a clear broth and get the best flavor from the chicken, the soup must never be allowed to reach a full, rolling boil. This is ESSENTIAL, and can't be emphasized enough. Experienced cooks know flavor must be coaxed gently from a chicken, not driven out with force! Simmer long and slow. There is no substitute for 8 to 10 hours of cooking time on a low simmer.
Maintain a simmer where the broth just barely moves at the surface of the soup. The cook must take care to control the heat level and maintain a bare simmer.
#5. Season properly.
Which vegetables, herbs and seasonings you add will be critical to the final outcome. Adding quartered onions with the skins still on (washed before being added to the simmering broth) will give the soup a nice golden hue. Too many carrots will make the broth too sweet. Celery gives a nice balance, and most traditional recipes include it. Some cooks love the flavor of leeks and parsnips in the soup, but I suggest using a simple combination of onions, carrots, celery, and bay leaves, at least until you fine tune the basic recipe to your liking. Then you can add other vegetables to the mix and experiment with different tastes.
Fresh or dried dill is a fine addition, and can balance the sweetness of the carrots.
Wait until the end of the cooking time to add salt and pepper. Taste the soup and adjust the seasonings according to your taste.
Use these tips and your recipe for chicken soup will be brought to a whole new level. It may sound like a lot of work, but the end result is definitely worth it!
Imagine bringing a shimmering tureen of this soup to your family's table on a winter's eve, when there is a bit of a nip in the air. Or, if you would like to bless someone in a way they will never forget, bring two quarts of great homemade chicken soup to someone who is a bit under the weather. They will be deeply nourished and your kindness and caring heart will be remembered for a long time to come!