Tips for Building Flavor in Soups and Stews

soupAs we move towards fall, it’s the perfect time to incorporate soups and stews into your rotation. Many delicious seasonal vegetables are available throughout the fall that you can toss into a hearty soup or braise.

One of the things I really like about soups and stews is they are never the same twice. In fact, you can use pretty much whatever you have on hand to create something unique and flavorful. I don’t really follow recipes to create soups and stews, but I do utilize certain techniques to layer flavors and bring out the best in my ingredients.

Techniques – Soup & Stews

Creating soups and stews is pretty easy. In this case, a stew is merely a thickened soup with bigger chunks of vegetables and heartier chunks of meat. Here are some basic techniques.

  • Start by sauteing your protein in a little bit of olive oil using the pot in which you will be cooking your soup or stew. Season the protein with salt and black pepper, and then place in preheated olive oil. You can use chicken, beef, turkey, Italian sausage, bacon, pancetta, hamburger, or other meats you might enjoy in a soup. Remove the protein from the oil with a slotted spoon and set aside.
  • Build your flavor base with aromatic vegetables. I almost always use mirepoix, which is merely a dice of two parts onion to one part carrots and celery.
  • Saute the mirepoix. If you are going to add garlic, do so in the last 30 seconds to a minute before you begin adding other ingredients.
  • If you are making a stew or braise, add about 1/4 cup of flour to the vegetables and oil. Stir for a few moments to remove the raw flour flavor.
  • Add liquid. I prefer adding chicken, vegetable, or beef stock. In stews, I add about a cup of wine before adding the stock, and I stir to thicken it. Then I add the stock. You can make your own stock or purchase store bought; however, if you are using beef stock I recommend making your own. If I do use store-bought stock, I prefer aseptic packaging.
  • Add meat back into the pot, along with any vegetables you’d like to include such as mushrooms, squash, potato chunks, beans, peas, zucchini, etc. Sometimes I also add canned tomatoes or canned kidney beans.
  • Add herbs like thyme, parsley, or sage and a little cracked pepper. For some heat, add a dash of cayenne or red pepper flakes. A little goes a long way.
  • Simmer until vegetables are tender and meat is completely cooked.
  • Taste for seasoning and adjust.

Tips for Building Flavor

  • Fresh and seasonal ingredients taste better than canned, boxed, or jarred. Whenever possible, build your meals around fresh ingredients that are in season where you live.
  • Purchase the best ingredients you can afford.
  • Opt for fresh garlic and onions rather than dried or powdered.
  • When you cook garlic, it is done as soon as it becomes fragrant. Overcooking or using too high of heat can make it bitter.
  • Dried herbs tend to be more potent than fresh herbs, but both impart great flavor.
  • A little bit of salt brings out flavors. Don’t skip it.
  • Other than seasoning your protein before you cook it, don’t season until the end of cooking. Taste for seasoning and adjust as necessary.
  • As you saute your meat, when you first place it in the pan, leave it in contact with the pan for several minutes before you move it in order to develop flavorful caramelization. Once the protein browns (after about 4-5 minutes), turn it and do the same thing.
  • Avoid overcrowding the pan with meat, because it will prevent caramelization.
  • Do the same thing with your mirepoix. Leave it in contact with the pan for 3-4 minutes to develop caramelization before you stir the vegetables.
  • Add even more flavor by adding a tablespoon or two of tomato paste to the cooked vegetables and allowing to saute for 4-5 minutes. This develops a deep, rich, brown flavor.
  • When you add the flour to the oil and vegetables, allow it to get a little bit of color. A slight golden color to your roux (the combination of flour and oil) will add tons of flavor.
  • When you first add your liquid, use a wooden spoon to scrape any browned bits off the bottom of the pan, which has huge flavor payoff. This is called deglazing.
  • If you are making an Italian soup or stew, simmer a little Parmesan rind in with the soup and remove before serving.
  • Tips for Making Your Own Stock
  • Making stock is not difficult. Simmer protein (such as chicken), herbs and vegetables in water for a long period in order to extract as much flavor as possible. Remove solids. Some tips:
  • When I chop and peel veggies, I place the trimmings in a ziploc bag and toss it in the freezer. Then I use those trimmings to make the stock.
  • Since I am going to be removing all solids anyway, I don’t really chop my vegetables. Instead, I cut onions in quarters, cut carrots in half, and toss celery in whole. I also add whole fresh herbs and peppercorns. For your flavor base, make sure you use two parts onion to one part each celery and carrot. Whatever else you toss in there is up to you.
  • For seafood stock, you can add things like shrimp shells, which have a lot of flavor and will be filtered out anyway.
  • Since you’re pulling the flavor out of the meat and into the stock, it’s best not to reuse any meat after you pull it out of stock. It’s pretty flavorless. Because of this, you can buy meat you wouldn’t normally put in a finished dish – like chicken necks or beef bones.
  • I simmer my stock for 2-3 hours. It’s not the classical 8-hour way of cooking it, but for homemade soup, it’s fine.
  • You may have heard that you need to never boil stock and constantly skim it. This is pretty time consuming. For most soups and stews, you can skip this and just pour the finished product through some cheesecloth to remove the worst impurities.
  • Avoid salting stock if it is going into something else. Instead, make it without salt and then season your final dish.
  • For an even more flavorful stock, roast your bones and meat first.
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