Chicken soup is one of the most painless and pleasing things to make in a home kitchen. But do modern cooks know that?
During America’s inexorable march toward processed food, chicken soup became something to buy, not something to make — Campbell’s alone produces more than 50 varieties — and many cooks simply don’t know how satisfying a project it is.
“So what comes first, the chicken or the soup?” Ashley Aguilar, a radiology technician in San Jose, California, asked after spotting an online photo of my homemade chicken soup.
It is a very deep question, beyond the scope of this column.
But I can confidently state that chicken soup will carry even the laziest cook through a long, cold season.
“It’s literally the easiest thing in the world to cook,” said Leah Koenig, the author of “Modern Jewish Cooking.” “You just put stuff in a pot and walk away.”
Not quite. There is a method to producing a fragrant, golden, savory soup you want to eat all winter long.
The chicken soup with root vegetables (carrot, onion, leeks, celery) that we recognize as the American classic was first a staple across Northern Europe. Egg noodles, the perfect filling addition, ranged from the thinnest of white threads to fat yellow twists.
The formulas were carried to the U.S. by cooks from Scotland (cock-a-leekie), from Poland (rosol) and from all the places in between where Mennonites, Amish and Jews lived. Jewish families in villages across the region raised chickens instead of the more usual pigs, which may explain why Ashkenazi Jews are so connected to chicken soup here. In Yiddish, chicken broth is called goldene yoich, golden broth — much as America was called the goldene medina, the golden land — with all the same connotations of richness, sunshine and good fortune.
The first thing to do — apologies in advance — is to ignore the ancestral recipes.
There’s much kitchen wisdom to be found on old index cards and in vintage cookbooks, but chickens (and chicken recipes) have changed. Not so long ago, cooks had the knowledge to choose between pullets and capons, broilers and fryers, spring chickens and stewing roosters — each one best suited to a particular treatment in the kitchen. Our most recent basic chicken soup recipe in The Times, from 1995, calls for “a big, old hen,” 5 to 6 pounds, including the neck and giblets.
Today, even if I were to become deeply familiar with the life cycle and gender transitions of the modern chicken, I couldn’t easily provision any of those.
Many old recipes also assume that soup is a dish of last resort, designed to wring the final drops of flavor from a valuable piece of protein that has already served its purpose. So Old World chicken soup is often made from an already-cooked carcass, or simmered for many hours, or boosted with onion skins and carrots to mask a lack of flavor and color.
But thriftiness is no longer the only thing we want to see reflected in our bowl of chicken soup. Instead, we want real ingredients that promise a wholesome dinner (or lunch or snack), floating in a clear golden broth.
To devise a recipe that reflects modern reality but provides a profound, traditional taste, I established some ground rules.
Recipes that call for carcasses or rotisserie chicken cannot be trusted.
Recipes that demand constant skimming are to be ignored.
And recipes that instruct the cook to remove the skin are to be laughed out of the kitchen.
“Chicken skin is not pure fat, as many people seem to believe,” said Jennifer McLagan, the author of cookbooks including “Fat” and “Bones.” It’s also rich in collagen, which gives the soup its silky unctuousness. In the absence of parts like feet and necks, she said, the skin provides most of the collagen in modern recipes and is, therefore, crucial to the soup.
Koenig provided an elegantly simple starting point: a whole bird.
Using the entire chicken, which once would have seemed impossibly extravagant for soup, provides the perfect balance of fat and flavor. It doesn’t need to be cooked for very long, as the plentiful skin, meat and collagen quickly yield to the heat. That shorter cooking keeps the broth clear, so long as the pot is not allowed to boil.
Boiling every molecule of protein out of animal bones is a key step in making some traditional soups. But McLagan points out that chickens (like all birds) have light, hollow bones with very little marrow, and there’s little to be gained by cooking them endlessly. And poaching the bird at low temperature yields bountiful tender white meat to float in the soup and plenty of dark meat to save for another meal, like chicken potpie.
Since the whole bird is the foundation of the soup, how to choose one?
Sold at a uniform 3 to 3 1/2 pounds, today’s commercial chickens are raised and labeled in many different ways. Some eat only organic feed but are still raised in crowded barns; others have an all-natural diet and have the run of the farm; others are slaughtered according to strict kosher laws but have been treated with antibiotics.
Since making soup includes the bones and tissues of the bird, it is particularly reassuring here to use the highest-quality poultry you can afford. Buy minimally processed birds from sources you trust that provide transparency about how the animals are raised, processed and packed.
For the best end result, follow a two-step process: First, use that chicken to make a plain but perfect broth; then, bring the add-ons that turn that broth into soup.
The vegetables from cooking the broth are tasty but not bright and fresh enough to be appetizing in soup. Strain them out before proceeding with fresh ingredients. (Those cooked vegetables are a nice dividend for the cook; eat them with your favorite vinaigrette.) Celery is a key flavor component for the broth, but an unscientific poll revealed that the usual bits of cooked celery in the soup are unpopular. Keeping the carrots, I added on leeks for their pretty pale green color, and extra allium flavor. (I do not believe in garlic in chicken soup — that’s just how I was raised — but some cooks do add a couple of cloves to the broth.) Parsley root, which looks like a creamy white carrot with parsley sprigs shooting out of the top, is a key flavor component in Eastern European soups, worth finding for its fragrant sharpness. A parsnip is a worthy substitute.
Older recipes are very stern about skimming soup as it cooks. This is supposed to remove nameless “impurities” from the soup, much as twisting in yoga positions is supposed to wring out “toxins.”
But skimming is not really necessary to remove the inevitable bits of coagulated protein and collagen that form (as they do in any meat soup). When using a whole chicken and a slow poach, there is very little of this stuff to contend with. Whatever iffy bits do rise to the top are removed when the stock is strained. And the fat does not need to be painstakingly skimmed off because it will be removed — quickly and neatly — when the broth is chilled and it has turned solid. A nice trick is to save that fat and use it to cook the vegetables for the finished soup.
The clear, clean broth can now flow in many directions. Whatever is not to be imminently converted to soup should be frozen for future use. For the most basic chicken soup, this recipe will work beautifully with or without a starchy component such as noodles, rice, matzo balls or dumplings; they all absorb fat and flavor from the soup. And if the finished soup seems lackluster or too clear — no golden bubbles winking at the top — stir in spoonfuls of the reserved chicken fat until the situation is remedied.
“Chicken fat is everything when it comes to soup,” Koenig said. “You just have to embrace it.”
Chicken Soup From Scratch
Yield: 6 to 8 servings
Total time: 2 hours, plus chilling
For the broth:
1 chicken, 3 to 3 1/2 pounds, with skin, cut up
3 stalks celery, with leaves, cut into chunks
2 large carrots, cut into chunks
2 yellow onions, peeled and halved
1 parsnip or parsley root (optional)
About 1 dozen large sprigs parsley
About 1 dozen black peppercorns
2 bay leaves
2 teaspoons kosher salt, more to taste
To finish the soup:
3 tablespoons reserved chicken fat, more if needed
3 leeks, trimmed, halved lengthwise, rinsed and sliced crosswise into thin half-moons
3 large carrots, peeled and cut into small dice
Kosher salt and ground black or white pepper
Egg noodles (fresh or dried), such as packaged wide noodles, spaetzle, fettuccine or pappardelle cut into short lengths
Finely chopped herbs, such as parsley, scallions, dill or a combination
1. Place the chicken, celery, carrots, onions, parsnip (if using), parsley, peppercorns, bay leaves and salt in a large soup pot and cover with cold water by 1 inch.
2. Bring to a boil over high heat, then immediately reduce the heat to very low. Adjust the heat until the soup is “smiling”: barely moving on the surface, with an occasional bubble breaking through. Cook until the chicken is very tender and falling off the bone, 1 to 1 1/2 hours.
3. When cool enough to handle, use tongs to transfer chicken from the pot to a container. Taste the broth and continue to simmer it until it is concentrated and tasty. Strain broth through a fine sieve (or a colander lined with cheesecloth) into a separate container. Discard all the solids from the strainer (or reserve the vegetables, chill and serve with vinaigrette, if you wish).
4. Refrigerate chicken pieces and broth separately for at least 8 hours (or up to 3 days), until a thick layer of yellow fat has risen to the top of the broth.
5. When ready to finish the soup, use your fingers to separate chicken breast meat from bones and skin. Discard bones and skin. Use two forks to pull the breast meat apart into soft chunks, or use a knife and cut into bite-size pieces. (Reserve dark meat for another use.)
6. Skim chicken fat from top of broth and set aside. Place 3 tablespoons of the fat in a soup pot with a lid. Add leeks, stir to coat, and heat over medium heat until leeks begin to fry. Then reduce the heat to a gentle sizzle and cook, stirring often, until slightly softened, about 3 minutes.
7. Add carrots, sprinkle with salt, stir, and cover the pot. Cook until vegetables are just tender, about 5 minutes more. (Keep in mind that vegetables will continue to cook in the soup.) Do not brown.
8. Pour broth into pot with vegetables and heat to a simmer. Add noodles and simmer until heated through, soft and plumped with chicken broth. Add the breast meat, then taste broth and add salt and pepper to taste. For best flavor, soup should have some golden droplets of fat on top; if needed, add more chicken fat one teaspoon at a time.
9. Serve immediately, in a tureen or from the pot, sprinkling each serving with herbs.