11 Must-Know Tips and Tricks for Your Best-Ever Soups and Stews

A super soup or stupendous stew can be a blessing during cold, dreary winter months. Here’s how you can help yours reach peak levels of taste and comfort, no matter the take or recipe.

There's something primally pleasurable about slow-simmered soups and stews in these both literal and figurative dark days of winter: the rich, savory aromas in dry, hot air; the texture of the liquid base as it clings to your taste buds; the fattiness of rendered fat and collagen from bones steeped for hours; the feel of the meat or beans as it softly collapses on your tongue before you even have a chance to set your teeth down fully.

Then there's the tangible sensation of comfort—they're called comfort foods for good reason—that comes with the soothing feeling of warmth sinking into your belly, like a hug from the inside as it warms you up to the tips of your fingers and toes. Whether you're making a soup or a stew, a chowder or a puree, this guide to improving any soup or stew will help you capture that feeling in all its homey goodness.

The basic principles of soup-er soups and stew-pendous stews

Time and patience are the primary bases of any excellent soup or stew. Sure, a pressure cooker like an InstantPot can magically extract immense flavor from your soup or stew vegetables and proteins like nothing else, but you still have to take the time to chop it all up—and there are plenty of exclusions to the time and patience rule.

All soups and stews must have three major components in order to be tasty: an undercurrent liquid, aromatics, and volumizing ingredients. In every case, they're layered together until all of the flavors meld together in a harmonious, silky balance. Before we get into hot takes on how to make your best-ever soup or stew, first, let's decide which one of the two you're making. Soup is a broad category of food—it can be thin and clear like consommé, or as hearty and dense as a chili, which is technically a stew.

But really, there are only a few criteria to differentiate between soups and stews, and proportion of liquid to other ingredients lies at the crux of it. It doesn't matter whether you make your concoction in a stock pot, Dutch oven, slow cooker, or pressure cooker—it literally just boils down to the proportion of solids. Those solids can include anything—part of why soups and stews have long been the province of thrifty cooks worldwide since the beginning of time. (Stone Soup, anyone?)

At its simplest, a soup requires that its ingredients be boiled to cook through before simmering, whether in water, stock, or broth. At the end of its cooking process, there must be liquid enough to require eating it with a spoon. A stew will typically have larger chunks of ingredients—predominantly protein—that peek just over the surface of the liquid they're simmered in, as opposed to submerged, as they get tender and thicken the broth, stock, wine, beer, tomato, or curry base to a gravy-like consistency.

Whichever route you choose to take to slurp satisfaction, the following tips will help you get there.

01 of 11

Pick the right tools

There are few things as important to any cook as having the perfect tool for their task. One simple invention can take minutes of aggravation or work out of your cooking, and in the kitchen, that's a lifetime.

The immersion blender is one such tool no soup-maker should be without, but there are even simpler basics you'll want to make sure you have on hand in their finest form. For one, a good stock pot. By that, we don't even mean the best and most expensive one—we mean the best for you, able to hold as much soup as you might want to make at a time, that can stand up to potential staining from overzealous browning, and that you can clean easily after hours of stewing. Tall rims provide flexibility in utility, prevent splashing, and allow you to layer nicely, while a narrower diameter holds on to heat longer and slows down liquid evaporation to safeguard against scalding.

You'll also want a good ladle: plastic or silicone for nonstick cookware, metal for metal and cast-iron. Don't bother looking for wood or bamboo—they're not meant to sit in liquid and can expand and crack. They will also most certainly stain from your stew. But even if your material options are limited, ladles do come in different sizes and shapes, including single straight-angle; with pouring lips; deep; long-handled; and others.

Finally, you definitely want a good skimmer, especially if you're making soups and stews with meat and bones. When whole ingredients are cooked together over a long period of time, it's inevitable that their components may start to separate. The bad news is that it can create an ugly foamy scum, an unappealing slick sheen of grease, or loose bits will litter your hard work with detritus. However, the good news is that all of these things tend to rise to the top, and with a fine-mesh skimmer, you can just swirl to catch debris, scoop across the top, and chuck it.

02 of 11

Use up extras

Soups are budget-friendly inventions of necessity, taking on the flavors of whatever you add to the pot and whichever direction its ingredients feel going. Bits and pieces and odd and ends can all do their parts to enhance your soup or stew, making any variation dish a great way to get rid of leftovers and scraps—even the unexpected!

For example, Frank Palermo, owner of Claws Seafood Market in Sayville, N.Y., likes to save his bacon fat for an outrageous New England clam chowder. "It may not be the healthiest soup," he says, "but neither is all that cream, so you may as well add that grease for an over-the-top, smoky, rich flavor that will level up your soup like nothing else." Instead of using butter or oil, just sauté your aromatics like onions and celery in it when you start—this will infuse the vegetables with that savory flavor.

Got an extra can of beer? Some leftover wine? Don't stew over it—dump it right in instead, and let those liquids add their character to your dish. Need to get rid of some extra potatoes, random vegetables in the crisper, meat that's about to turn? Soup can give them all new life. Lobster, shrimp, clam shells, and fish heads? Bisques and seafood stews could be in your future. And if you have big bones from a family rib roast, turkey dinner, or ham, even more soup and stew options await. Thrift has never tasted nor felt so good as when it takes the form of a hearty stew or a fragrant soup.

03 of 11

Save your bones

Skip the boxed, bouillon, or canned broth or stock, and just boil down bones from other dishes to make your own. Bone broth has been a lasting trend, with many people spending as much as $12 a quart for it. But it's easy enough to make yourself and well worth the benefits, says Erica Belk, chef and owner of the Frozen Sin Truck on Long Island, N.Y.

"Stock seems scary to people, but it's so easy to make and freezes well," Belk says. "Health has taken center stage. Additives and chemicals are in everything, as well as a ton of sodium. We'd rather know exactly what we're giving our customers, especially since a large portion of our savory foods are ordered by more mature ones."

To make bone broth or stock, you start just by filling up a pot with water, tossing in the rinsed bones—preferably a mix of nutrient-dense, collagen-filled scrap-types, like oxtail, knuckles, marrow bones, feet, even chicken wings. You can also use short rib, shoulder, and meatier types. (Chef Philippe Corbet of Lulu Kitchen & Bar in Sag Harbor, N.Y., makes a broth with marrow bones, short ribs, chuck, and flatiron steak for his favorite stew, Pot au Feu.) Next, cook it down, low and slow, for 12 to 48 hours, depending on how rich or thick you want it to be—closer to broth, stock, or bone broth in texture and consistency.

"The key step is to drain the liquid from the meat and vegetables and reduce by half to create a rich, concentrated base for your stew," Corbet says. Leave more if you're making broth or stock for soup. But there's no need to go too nuts on your base liquid for stew—you'll braising meat in it anyway, and if you use bone-in cuts, you'll get the benefit of the bones the meat will fall off of without extra effort.

04 of 11

Brown your ingredients

We've already discussed cooking with bones, but did you know you can roast them first, to amplify their flavors? Blanch them, then throw them in the oven at 450 degrees, along with any meat that may have crisped up on the bone or even dried onto the sheet pan, before you add it to your pot. Splash some water on the baking sheet to help you scrape it off; add this water and the salvaged bits in your stockpot for added oomph.

Also, brown your meat before you stew! It's not as necessary for soup, but if you want your meat to stay moist, taste nuanced, and impart maximum flavor, unlock the power of the Maillard reaction. This buzzword is the technical term for that lovely chemical phenomenon that causes amino acids and certain simple sugars to rearrange and thereby transform into deeper, more complex flavors while the food takes on a pleasing, toasty aesthetic. Don't cook it all the way through; just seal it with a high-heat sear, enough to change the surface color, and then pull it out for the next small batch. Use the same pot for your soup later to reap all the benefits of the layers of flavor you'll have created at the base.

Don't ignore your vegetables, either, especially when you're starting with an evenly chopped mirepoix base, "the holy grail of us culinary school folks," Belk says. A blend of 50 percent onion, 25 percent carrots, and 25 percent celery, these three veggies are magic and the foundation for flavor, she says. To fully unlock that, browning is a must.

The sugar in onions, carrots, sweet potatoes, and their like caramelize and get sweeter while gaining depth. Sweated veggies like celery and bell peppers and melted down ones like tomatoes, leeks, and garlic go through chemical changes as you sauté, and all for the better. Everything just integrates more smoothly when you make browning in your stock pot your soup or stew's foundation, opening up further in the stewing or simmering process. Think of this step as your ingredients' orientation to one another: if you just threw them in without a proper meet and greet, it's a cold shock and they won't know how to work together as well as if they had some time to find their company culture.

05 of 11

Always add acid

The single downside of having your ingredients working perhaps too cohesively together is that it can start to feel homogenous. But giving your soup or stew a little edge is as easy as just dropping a hit of acid. By this, we mean ingredients like citrus juices, vinegars, tomato paste, wine, coffee, and beer. Adding these during cooking brightens up the flavor profile significantly, which will make your soup or stew feel less heavy, even as it remains delectably savory.

You can also opt to do it at the end, as a finisher. Apple cider vinegar, sherry vinegar, and white and red wine vinegars are all great choices to splash on right before serving. A spritz of lemon or lime juice can work wonders—think about how lively Mexican tortilla soup or pozole and Thai coconut soup (Tom Kha Kai) get immediately after a quick squeeze—as can cool, tangy dairy, such as crème fraiche, Greek and plain yogurt, sour cream, and crema. Be sure to let the soup cool first, though, as dairy can (and most certainly will) break as thinly as your patience did.

Finally, season with zest—and we mean this both literally and figuratively. For hearty stews, use ingredients like orange peels, which will help to counteract the richness of the fat rendered from the meat and highlight the sweetness pulled from the vegetables.

06 of 11

Use seasoning all-stars

For most chunky soup recipes and dinner stews, the components are pretty obvious—even right in the name, such as with chicken noodle soup, beef stew, or tomato soup. But layering is what gives these foods such comfort, making the background players of the soup or stew just as important. And for that layering, we need herbs, spices, and other seasonings.

Belk swears by fresh herbs, saying they really help bring the flavor out of all of the other components. "In fact, customers often mention how flavorful just our broths are and ask me what my secret is," she says. "Honestly, it's because I use so many fresh herbs and spices! If people saw the amount I add, they would think I was losing it. But using these herbs and spices gives so much flavor without extra fat."

Whole spices impart a lot into stews and chilis, particularly; cinnamon, star anise, and cloves come quickly to mind. Bay leaves do the trick for soups. (Just remember to scoop these out before serving.) Finer spices that can remain in your bowl include parsley, oregano, marjoram, basil, thyme, cilantro, garlic and onion powders, and of course, salt and pepper.

But as good as these classics are...you can do better. Add a little more heat to your hot soup with chili powder, cayenne pepper, or smoky paprika. Boost your chicken soups with some turmeric to add a lovely golden color as well as antioxidants. And don't be afraid to venture outside of western staples! For example, fish sauce is the secret ingredient for many Asian soups; my retired chef father, You Feng Lin of Yangtze Kitchen, swears by Three Crabs brand fish sauce to add a salty accent that doesn't taste at all of fish to his vegetable-laden soups. It works particularly well for pork accented recipes, and as a complement for umami flavors like black shiitake mushrooms. For more umami, use of miso has also been on the rise. And fresh ginger, lemongrass, and coconut milk are also worthy enhancements to play with if you have a global palate.

Additionally, think about enhancing the natural flavors of your ingredients. For instance, Palermo only uses fresh shucked clams from his shop for his Manhattan clam chowder. "Using fresh clams eliminates the need for salt since they are loaded with sea water to begin with," he says.

07 of 11

Make it #chonky

Stews are chunky by nature, but soups have two major categories: thin and thick—or, more accurately, broth-based and cream or pureed. The former include obvious clear soups like consommé, bouillon, Japanese onion soup, and pho broth, but adding ingredients enough to make it "eat like a meal" doesn't make it any less a thin soup. Minestrone, chicken rice, Hong Kong noodle, ramen, French onion, bouillabaisse, cioppino, and others fall into this category. However, as you can see, you can chunk up a soup easily by packing it chock-full of ingredients.

To do so, the most important thing you can do is to make your soup in steps. We've already taken stock of making stock. We've talked about browning meat and your soup or stew's aromatic base. We've jumped to finishing it with acid, and seasoning heavily. These are the foundations of any good-tasting soup. But now, we're shifting to texture, which is just as important.

As Belk puts it, "no one wants baby food in their soup," and we agree—mush in your clear soup just muddies that water. Her advice is to layer the flavor: "Don't add everything at once. Certain veggies take more time than others." Be aware of their cook times. For example, carb-heavy, hardy additions, like potatoes, yams, daikon, and other root vegetables; winter squash; and raw peas, corn, and carrots will need much more time than zucchini, tomatoes, spinach, and other water-based ingredients. And although they're also starchy, noodles and rice can get unappetizingly soggy if added from the start. Instead, wait until closer to the end of the soup-making process to do so.

Cook time aside, though, "cut everything around the same size" regardless, Belk says, to try to level out the times as well as make the soup easier to eat. That includes your meats, too—you want every spoonful to be a perfectly balanced bite from first to last. These two principles apply to stews, as well.

RELATED: How to Make an Easy Old-School Irish Stew

08 of 11

Try immersion

Chunky soups don't have to remain so. Going back to the thick soup category, this broad range includes soups as diverse as corn chowder and loaded baked potato to lobster bisque and broccoli cheddar or vichyssoise to butternut squash and cream of mushroom.

Invest in an immersion blender if you're partial to these types of soups, and you'll thank us time and again. Transferring batches of hot soup to a regular blender can be a pain, and it's easy to burn yourself during the process, whether it's by accidentally popping the top of the lid with its heat (and forgetting to take off the plastic stopper—guilty!) or just the back and forth ladling and pouring for a big batch. An immersion or stick blender, however, makes simple work of pureeing carbohydrate-heavy based soups such as lentil, bean, pea, chickpea, cauliflower, pumpkins, and potato types. With this tool, you'll thicken up your soup in an instant.

09 of 11

Pick the proper starch

Whether it's soup or stew you're making, it likely won't feel complete without some kind of carbohydrate base or something to sop it up with. In fact, the word soup itself came from "sop," which in Old English referred to bread soaked in liquid. But fun etymology aside, you do have a wide range of choices to pair your soup or stew with, and your final decisions should come from thoughtful analysis of complementary flavors and textures.

Noodles and rice are obvious and traditional mix-ins; egg noodles, thick cuts of semolina or wheat pastas, and wild and brown rice stand up better to longer immersion. Alternately, you can cook your soup's rice and noodles in the broth and store it separately to entirely avoid the risk of them breaking down before you're ready, as white rice is susceptible to disintegration as it absorbs liquid beyond capacity.

For longest range, you have flour dumplings and matzo balls, which can act as increasingly dense sponges as they absorb the soup liquid and its flavors as you cook or store it. To go even more global, you can consider adding tortellini, ravioli, wontons, dumplings, or spaetzle to your soup to give it a more expansive heft sure to fill your belly.

Of course, for both soups and stews, it's hard to go wrong with hardy potatoes. Incorporate them into your recipe and let them become tender yet toothsome fluffy bites that take on the flavor of the main dish, or, for stews, boil or mash them to make a welcoming bed for your meal. Alternatively, mash potatoes for a topper and bake your servings a la cottage or shepherd's pie.

But for thick soups—or to ante up on carb-y goodness or avoid potential potato redundancy for stews and thin soups—good quality bread is the perfect mate. Hearty, crusty bread gives your teeth something to work on and break down, providing textural interest against the fluidity of your creamy or pureed soup. According to Corbet, one of the most important accompaniments to stew is a delicious baguette, and we're hard-pressed to disagree.

Saltines, buttery crackers, and oyster crackers can substitute in a pinch, too, but there's a reason "soup and a sandwich" is a classic feel-good combination.

10 of 11

Rethink your opinion of leftovers

Any home cook will tell you—the reason their food tastes so good is because it's made with love. This is especially true with soups and stews as time, care, and effort translate directly to acts of service in love languages speak. And like love, soup matures with time.

"Never, and I mean ever, eat the soup the same day it's prepared," Palermo says. "Soup takes on more complexity and flavor when it's had a chance to blend flavors and develop."

Barry Frish, market specialist in culinary development at Baldor Specialty Foods, echoes this sentiment. "Soups and stews really need to simmer for long periods to allow the ingredients to meld together. Taking that a step further, most soups and stews are better if you prepare them the day before serving. Allowing them to cool and then reheating them really helps bring out the flavors and textures."

Plus, in the case of thin soups and thick stews, overnight refrigeration will give the fat a chance to rise to the top. Any excess you didn't skim off the day before will coagulate in a solid mass, even conveniently attaching to the lid of your storage ware, making it child's play to just spoon it off.

As the adage good things come to those who wait is proven in the case of soup and stew, another case is made for letting your concoction sit. In other words (and to the tune of Blue Oyster Cult): Don't fear the freezer.

Go ahead with that big-batch prep. Boldly go for that bulk buy. If you see soup or stew in your future, you can plan to prepare ready-to-go raw ingredients in freezer bags—separated by step to help you with your mise en place, then bundled back together in a bigger bag or coded and labeled as part of one recipe—or freeze cooked soup. Doing this is easier than you think. If you have large whiskey block/ball ice forms, popsicle trays, silicone ice cream containers, or even freezer bags you can fill and lay flat to solidify, you can simply save your soup or stew for later. Just wait for it to cool a bit before you do so to avoid spiking the temperature of your freezer.

11 of 11

Bowl them over

Eating is a sensory pleasure; we do it with more than our mouths, but also through scent, touch, and sight. If you're going to go through all the (worthwhile) trouble of rustling up an amazing comfort dish, you deserve to treat yourself to an Instagrammable vision that'll make you proud.

Soups and stews are types of food that become more pleasurable to eat depending on the vessel in which it's served. The larger and deeper the bowl, the more it may feel like a meal. The smaller the bowl, the more it might feel like a treat or appetizer. Shallow bowls are wonderful for high-end presentations and quick cooling, and for resting slices of steaming hot sourdough on as it dips into the soup just so. Personally, I love square bowls; they serve as a funnel for to barbarically slurp down the last drop—because after hours of cooking on a cold winter's day, there's no doubt it'll be delicious right down to the last drop.

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles