Thursday, October 4, 2012

Soup, salt, acid, heat

As the mornings gets crisp and the days get short, every single food publication in the world will be writing about soups.  Sometimes I wonder if we need yet another recipe for butternut squash soup, or parsnip soup, or cannellini bean soup.  Have we improved them in the last year, or even in the last 10?  I have no doubt that you'll be making some sort of soup in the near future and I'd like to equip you with something better than a recipe. I'd like to demistify the phrase that appears so often in soup recipes: "Season to taste." You see, those 3 little words make or break a soup. Get it right and any soup recipe you'll make this fall will be stunning.

By seasoning, I don't mean adding something from your spice drawer, like cumin or coriander, or those horrific dry herbs.  In fact, I suggest you head over to your spice drawer right now, pick up that lifeless dry parsley and basil and put them in the trash.  Good!  Now that we got that out of the way, let's talk about real seasoning: salt, acid, and heat.


I'll start with salt because it's the most important and the most misunderstood.  I write about salt an awful lot.  Here is a one line summary of my salt views.  No table salt.  No fancy salt.  Use Diamond Crystal Kosher salt.  Don't use salt shakers.  Use your hands.  Taste constantly.  Another important thing to understand about salt is that it's not just how much that matters, it's when.  Salt brings out the flavor in the ingredients, so you need to use it throughout the entire cooking process.  When you are sweating out your aromatic vegetables (like onions, carrots, and celery), you need to add salt.  It helps them release their juice and brings out their flavor by helping expel the volatile molecules.  As you gradually start to build up your soup, add salt to every ingredient that goes in the pot.  I prefer to add my root vegetables before liquids.  I season them generously with salt and cook them covered for 10-15 minutes to concentrate their flavor.  

When the liquid goes in, bring it to a simmer before tasting.  This will help the salt from the vegetables get distributed and give you a better idea of where you stand.  Unless you are using boxed stock (not the best move, by the way), your soup should need a lot of salt.  Not pinches, but spoonfuls (assuming you are making 3+ quarts of soup).  You want to season your soup about 80% at this point.  What 80% means will become clear with cooking experience, particularly if you do the following seasoning exercise.  Separate a bit of soup in a bowl and taste.  Add salt a little pinch at a time, stir well, and taste after each addition.  Concentrate and try to remember what the soup tastes like.  Keep on going until you make the soup too salty.  Now remember what it was like before that final pinch of salt?  That was perfect seasoning.  It was as intense as the flavors could get without salt dominating.  You want to bring your soup to that level of salinity at the very end before serving.  This will brighten up the flavor as the salt releases new volatile molecules.


You have probably seen recipes use white wine in soups.  It's not because we want our soups to be boozy.  Almost all the alcohol evaporates by the time you finish cooking the soup.  The reason we use wine is for acidity. The acidity the soup gets from wine is soft, mellow, and round.  Since it's usually added in the beginning, it dulls by the time the soup is done.  Adding wine at the end does't work.  It gives the soup unpleasant alcoholic taste.  That's where vinegar, lemon, or lime juice come in.  They go in at the very end, and make all the flavors come into focus.  It's really amazing what a couple of teaspoons of balsamic vinegar can do to a soup.  I use it in hearty fall and winter soups.  Spring and summer soups made with tender green vegetables go better with a squeeze of fresh lemon or lime.

The presence of acidity influences how you experience salt.  You might need a bit more salt after the splash of vinegar or citrus.  Alternate between salt and acidity in the end until the soup comes into focus.  If you are worried about ruining the whole pot, practice on a small bowl first.


Piment d'Espellete is a fairly mild chili from Espelette region of France (on the Spanish boarder).  I learned about it during a couple of days I spent at Craigie on Main.  It's good on many things, but what it does to soups is miraculous.  I don't normally like black pepper in soups.  It seems out of place in liquids.  But a bit of chili might be just what your soup need.  I like to add it in the beginning along with my vegetables before the liquid goes in.  If you are averse to spicy foods, don't worry.  This gentle chili gives a soup a warm glow.  It makes it linger in your mouth after you swallow each spoon, like a wine with a long finish.

The question is where do you buy this chili.  I couldn't find it at any of the stores in the Boston area (including Penzy's spices), but it only took 1 click and $18.50 to buy it on amazon.  $18.50 for a 1 oz jar?!  Ok, don't panic yet.  Are you breathing?  Breath.  Good.  Think about it this way.  It's really no more expensive than buying fancy salts.  Salt might look cheaper per ounce, but you need way more salt than chili in a dish.  If you don't have it, use the chili powder of your choice in small amounts.

Taste.  Taste.  Taste.


bkida said...

Timing is everything! Your article is posted just as our temps will be dipping into the 40's here in the South and my mind has been conjuring up favorite soup recipes. Your explanation of when to add salt- (not just at the end) was enlightening. While I would either intuitively or maybe just mimic the pros by adding salt throughout, I would not have been able to say why- and you did. So valuable, thank you!

Lena said...

I got inspired by this delicious comforting picture. My mom makes a soup that looks exactly like on the picture, including the spoon . So, I opened my favorite chicken-veggie soup recipe and made one with the addition of chili powder and lemon juice that I was omitting before (was afraid that it will be sour). The output result was much-much better! Couldn’t believe I made such a delicious soup! Thank you, Helen, for the great recipes , delicious pictures, wonderful stories and memories from your childhood that many of us can share.

Helen said...

Hi Lena,

That's my name in Russian too, as you have probably guessed :) So glad you enjoyed making and eating your soup. The spoon is indeed from my childhood. I only have one, not a whole set, so I am a bit sentimental about it.


Kari said...

Hi Helen - Have you tried Aleppo chiles? Wondering how they compare to Piment d'Espellete.

Helen said...

Aleppo is very similar in intensity. But Piment d'Espellete is finder ground (the container that I got), so it integrates into food better.