How to make a simple chicken soup worth crowing about


For every cook who knows from real chicken soup, there are probably six others who think it's fine to simmer naked chicken breasts in canned broth and call it a day. Convenience has its place in the kitchen; that's what modernity demands. But in the matter of homemade vs. expedient, the latter settles for less.

Restorative and magic-cure powers aside, a bowl of real chicken soup satisfies at almost any time of year because it's the lightest comfort food around. Its aroma is as complex as that of handcrafted coffee, with a hint of sweetness and grassy herb. Its vegetables are crisp-tender, the phrase food writers reach for when describing a plant texture that yields to a gentle bite. Some noodles, maybe a planetary matzoh ball, may have been introduced just long enough to absorb a broth whose surface must shimmer with diaphanous fat. The chicken itself ought to taste like . . . chicken.

All of that doesn't happen in 30 minutes. However, it can take less work and less time than you may think. Through testing and tips from experts, we have developed a method for making chicken soup that fits the description above. Hopefully, it can convince the canned broth-ers and the takeout-reliant to go an extra step or two, and it might even budge more-experienced hands to tweak their own favorite recipes. The perfume of this soup on the stove could do that all on its own. 

Onions provide the underpinning for a well-built and well-colored broth. Saute several in chunks till golden, and the ensuing liquid will respond in kind; char the cut sides of unpeeled halves, and the broth will approach the roasty brown of a beef-mushroom blend.

For three quarts of straight-up, deli-style chicken soup, you need a whole chicken, cut up, because the combination of meat and bones and fat will give you the best shot. A medium-size organic bird or one from the farmers market is worth the cost here. But keep in mind that a few extra dollars will not guarantee consistent results. 

"Chickens come different, kind of like people," says chef Guy Brandt of Brooklyn's Deli in Potomac. "Sometimes they are fatty, or just don't taste as good as the last one." It's the kind of thing you would notice, making vats of soup week after week. (He has a solution; read on.)

You will strip away and reserve all its skin except for what's on the wings. In this, you will be able to render the chicken skin to crispy, can't-eat-just-one bits to top the soup with. A benefit. Here are a few more: a pot that doesn't need skimming and chicken meat that's tender.

Parsnips, leeks, tomatoes and fresh thyme or parsley can all join the bird for a swim. They can deepen and sweeten the broth's flavor. Carrot and celery are musts. With enough water to cover, everything cooks in well under an hour, brought first to something less than a full boil, then reduced to a stovetop heat that promotes lazy surface bubbles. (A long spell in a slow cooker can achieve the same result.) Skimming's not required, but if you do, there won't be much to offload.

At this point, you would taste for the essence of chicken, Brandt suggests. If that is not so pronounced, then it's time to stir in a dollop of prepared soup base or bouillon concentrate - a kind of reverse kitchen engineering that makes sense to us. 

Turn off the heat and let the mix cool down, then cover and refrigerate overnight. This is an important infusion step that makes a night-and-day difference in flavor. The next day, or the day after that, discard the vegetables and double-strain the broth. Shred the chicken and refrigerate it in some of that broth; that way, the meat won't dry out or cause the broth to become cloudy. (You can store it for an extra day or two, and it's also good for a quick protein snack or house-cat reward, not to mention chicken salad.)

When you're ready to serve, you can saute new chopped carrot, celery and onion, or just toss the first two, along with the shredded chicken, into the strained broth as it reheats. Cooking any noodles separately and rinsing them will help keep the soup clear; add them and a handful of chopped fresh dill or tarragon and warm through. 

Soup kugel's an old recipe with a modern sensibility. Beaten eggs and simple seasonings go into just-cooked fine egg noodles and are baked in a pie plate. Sliced into thin wedges and served at the center of a steaming bowl, what you get is an elegant, freezable alternative to mushy, waterlogged pasta.

Before you season your chicken soup with salt, taste and add a generous splash of lemon juice - it will brighten and heighten flavors more than you can imagine. 

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Chicken Soup With Benefits

8 servings (makes about 12 cups), Healthy

If you started with a chicken that didn't yield a lot of flavor, stir in a teaspoon or two of a chicken-flavored soup base, such as Better Than Bouillon. For a darker broth, see the VARIATION, below.

MAKE AHEAD: The broth can be strained and used right away, but it tastes even better when it's refrigerated overnight - right in the pot. The shredded chicken can be covered with broth and refrigerated for up to 3 days. The fried chicken skins can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for a day.

From deputy Food editor Bonnie S. Benwick.

Ingredients

2 teaspoons olive or safflower oil, plus 1 cup for the chicken skins

4 small or 3 medium onions, cut into chunks

One 3- to 3 1/2-pound whole chicken

12 cups water, preferably filtered

2 ribs celery, preferably with leaves, cut into a few large pieces, plus 3 more ribs, chopped or sliced, for serving (may substitute or augment with 2 stems Chinese celery)

1 large carrot, cut into a few large pieces, plus a few more peeled carrots, thinly sliced on the diagonal, for serving

Kosher salt

Low-sodium chicken soup base (optional; see headnote)

Cooked and rinsed flat egg noodles (Amish style) or Grandmother's Soup Kugel, for serving (optional; see related recipe, below)

Fresh dill fronds (may substitute coarsely chopped fresh tarragon)

Juice from 1 lemon (3 to 4 tablespoons)

Steps

Heat the 2 teaspoons of oil in a large Dutch oven over medium heat. Once the oil shimmers, stir in the onions. Cook for about 10 minutes, stirring a few times, until some pieces have browned edges and the onions have picked up color.

Meanwhile, use kitchen shears or a sharp knife to remove the skin from the chicken. Don't worry about the skin on the wings, which is trickier to remove; it will give the soup a little needed fat. Reserve the skin, and cut the chicken into a total of 12 or 13 pieces, including the neck (cut the breasts in half). 

Shove the onions aside in the pot so you can add the chicken; the goal is to have as many pieces as possible come in contact with the bottom of the pot so they brown a little. You may add them in two batches; cook for about 10 minutes, turning them as needed. 

Increase the heat to medium-high; pour in the water and toss in the celery and carrot, making sure the chicken is covered. Once the liquid comes to a full boil, reduce the heat to medium-low and cook for 45 minutes. You don't need to skim.

Meanwhile, heat the cup of oil in a skillet over medium heat. Cut the skins into 1- or 2-inch pieces, stretching them as flat as you can. Carefully place one in the oil; if the oil bubbles around them, add half the remaining pieces of skin and fry for about 8 minutes, turning them until they are crisp and evenly golden brown. Drain on paper towels and season lightly with salt.

At this point, taste the broth. If it's not chicken-y enough, stir in a teaspoon or two of the chicken soup base.

Remove from the heat. Once the pot is cool enough, cover and transfer to the refrigerator to rest overnight.

Uncover; skim and discard the congealed fat on the surface (or reserve for another use). Transfer the chicken pieces with meat to a bowl. Discard the vegetables, chicken back and neck pieces. Strain the broth through a cheesecloth- or flour-sack-cloth-lined fine-mesh strainer, discarding any solids. You should have about 10 cups.

Pour the broth into a wide pot; add the chopped or sliced celery and carrots. Warm through over medium heat. 

Meanwhile, shred the chicken, placing some of it (to taste) in the broth, along with the noodles or slices of soup kugel, if using, the dill fronds and lemon juice. Taste, and season with salt, as needed.

Once the chicken has warmed through and the vegetables are barely tender, ladle into individual bowls. Garnish with the fried chicken skins.

VARIATION: For a darker broth, cut the onions in half instead of into chunks. Sear in the oil, cut sides down, until charred, before adding the remaining ingredients.

Nutrition | Per serving: 90 calories, 12 g protein, 4 g carbohydrates, 3 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 30 mg cholesterol, 200 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 3 g sugar

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Grandmother's Soup Kugel

12 to 16 servings (makes one 9-inch round kugel), Healthy

Freezing chicken noodle soup often means the pasta reheats to a mushy state; here, a simple baked noodle pudding solves that issue in a rather elegant, Old World way.

It's best to bake this in a clear, deep-dish, 9-inch Pyrex pie plate; that way, you can tell whether it's cooked through on the bottom.

MAKE AHEAD: The kugel can be cooled, cut into slices and frozen for up to 1 month. Defrost and let come to room temperature before using.

From Shira Levin.

Ingredients

One 12-ounce package dried fine egg noodles

1 tablespoon kosher salt

1 tablespoon sugar

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, or more as needed

3 large eggs, beaten

Steps

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat.

Add the noodles and cook according to the package directions (al dente); they take just a few minutes. Drain and immediately transfer to the pie plate, then add the salt, sugar, pepper and eggs, stirring quickly to incorporate. Sprinkle the top with more pepper, if desired.

Bake (middle rack) for 30 to 40 minutes, until the top is lightly browned and crisp, and the bottom looks set. Let cool for a few minutes before cutting into slices.

To serve, place one slice in each bowl of hot chicken soup. 

Nutrition | Per serving (based on 16): 100 calories, 4 g protein, 16 g carbohydrates, 2 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 60 mg cholesterol, 230 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 2 g sugar

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Chicken soup FAQs

- Why a whole chicken?

The combination of fat and gelatin-rich bones therein will give you the best shot at the most flavorful broth that, ideally, should have a little body to it. The bird can be whole or cut up. In the accompanying recipe, the meat from the chicken does not cook for a long time and therefore can be used as a soup component. About 2 pounds of chicken wings could be used instead. For the accompanying recipe, though, it's easier to detach the skin for that fried-chicken skin benefit.

In a SeriousEats.com kitchen test, the thinnest and lightest-colored broth was made with boneless skinless chicken breasts.

- Why not start with a commercial broth?

Lots of home cooks do, of course. But some products have lots of additives, including potato flour, yeast extract and "natural chicken flavor," and those who are wheat-, dairy- or gluten- intolerant need to read the labels closely to see whether the broths were manufactured in a facility that processes those ingredients. And some of those additives make for a cloudy broth.

- What makes a broth cloudy?

Generally, tiny protein particles will make a DIY broth cloudy. This happens often when the broth is brought to a full boil, so a state of "barely bubbling" is the way to go for clear broth. If cooked noodles or chicken sit in refrigerated broth for more than a day, they can start to break down into particles, too.

- Why do so many store-bought broths and soup bases contain yeast extract? 

It's commonly used to add an "umami" characteristic, and it contains some naturally occurring monosodium glutamate (MSG).

- Why no skimming?

The chicken spends less time in liquid in this recipe than in others. Without the skin, there's less fat and fewer impurities to rise to the top. Also, we're taking a tip from chefs here: Instead of skimming, we let the broth and its components cool in the pot, then cover and refrigerate overnight. This enhances flavor and makes for easier straining the next day.

- Why add lemon juice?

A squeeze of fresh lemon juice is a guaranteed flavor brightener that's good for almost all soups. And it may help reduce the amount of salt you'll add for flavor.

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Video: Flavorful broth, tender chicken and fried chicken skins are a few of the advantages this simplified recipe offers.


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