There’s no food in this world that’s quite as comforting as soup. Whether well or ill, soup makes us feel better. It’s warming. It reminds us of Mom. It makes us feel cared for. Chicken soup, in particular, seems to have magical qualities to it beyond those of other, lesser soups. In the 12th century, Egyptian-Jewish doctor and philosopher Maimonides recommended chicken soup for almost everything, but especially for respiratory ailments, and, since the mid 1990s, scientists have shown that, while chicken soup won’t cure a cold, it will indeed alleviate some of the symptoms of one.
Good homemade chicken soup isn’t particularly difficult to make. It can be made from the bones of cooked chickens (or any fowl), from uncooked chicken, or from a combination of the two. Here’s my method for making chicken soup.
To begin with, you’ve got to save carcasses from at least four chickens. If you’re like me, that can take as few as two weeks (although I have been known to ask family and friends for carcasses, but they’re really very close family and friends). Keep the carcasses in the freezer, wrapped in a double layer of plastic wrap, or in a zipper freezer bag with as much air squeezed out of it as possible. The best bones to use come from roast chickens, as roasting lends a deeper flavor to the bones, but really, bones from any type of cooked chicken will do. In addition to the bones, I add uncooked chicken in the form of backs, which can be bought at the butcher or supermarket for about 89¢ per pound. They’re full of collagen, which adds a richness and silkiness to the soup. They’re also full of fat, but we’ll deal with that later. If you can’t find backs, legs work, as do thighs. Just make sure you’re not using the skinless boneless ones, as they’re more expensive, and you won’t get as much flavor out of them. You’ll also need carrots, celery, onions, and garlic. I don’t put in other root vegetables, as I find they detract from the chicken flavor. If you need a list of ingredients or quantities, just ask; I’ll be happy to provide one for you.
Cut the carcasses into quarters, just so they’ll fit more easily into the pot. Cut the carrots and celery into slices anywhere from ¼" to 1" long. Don’t worry about being too precise here; we’re after flavor, not looks. Without peeling, rinse the onions, and cut them into eighths. The onion skin adds a deeper color to the broth. Cut the garlic cloves in half. Again, do not peel them. When all the vegetables are cut, heat a large stock pot over medium-high heat. Add olive oil and vegetables and cook, stirring, until they wilt and just barely begin to color. We don’t want any kind of serious caramelization here, but a touch isn’t a bad thing. Add the chicken bones and enough water to cover completely (between 1-½ and two gallons). Bring to a boil, and then reduce heat so that it’s just simmering. To the pot, add three or four bay leaves, four or five sprigs of fresh thyme (or ¾ teaspoon dried), twelve black peppercorns, and three or four juniper berries. When the liquid is simmering, cover with the lid ajar, and allow to simmer for at least 12 hours and for up to 24. Be sure the heat is adjusted so that the liquid is just simmering, and there’s no danger of it boiling over. The longer it simmers, the richer the flavor will be. Add water or white wine, if necessary, but do not add more than an additional two cups of liquid. You do want the liquid to reduce, which will cause the flavor to intensify.
After simmering, strain the soup, removing all of the solids. I find that twice through a colander and then twice again through cheesecloth works best. Put the stock in the refrigerator or, if it’s below 40 degrees, outside Be sure it’s tightly covered. Allow to chill completely, at least four hours. Remove from the fridge (or bring inside) and carefully remove the lid. You’ll notice that the top of the stock is covered in a layer of congealed fat. Using a ladle or a large spoon, gently remove that layer, being careful not to incorporate the fat back into the stock. Refrigerate for another hour, and skim the top again, if necessary. You're not only removing the fat, but also other impurities that will adhere to it.
At this point, you’ve got a rich chicken stock that should be completely clear and anywhere from a rich golden to a deepish brown color. This stock can be jarred and refrigerated for up to two weeks, or frozen for up to a year. It can be used for anything you'd use stock for, but the best part is that now you’re ready to start making some fine chicken soup.
You’ll need more carrots, celery, onion, and uncooked chicken (now’s the time for the boneless and skinless thighs). Bring the stock to a simmer. Meanwhile, cut the carrots and celery into ¼" slices. Peel the onion, slice in half along its axis, and slice into thin semicircles or chop into ¼" dice. Cut the chicken thighs into ½" cubes. When the stock is simmering, add the veggies and the chicken. When the carrots are tender, and the chicken is cooked through, the soup is ready to eat.
Notice that I haven’t added any salt to the stock or the soup. The reason is that as the liquid in the stock evaporates, the salt does not, it merely concentrates, making for one salty stock. If you’d like to add salt, add it with the new veggies and chicken, but I really recommend adding it to individual servings. Adding freshly squeezed lemon juice also adds a nice zip and brightness to the soup, lightening the flavor a little.
If you’re a chicken noodle fan, you can either add some noodles to the soup about 10 minutes before the chicken is done cooking, or cook the noodles separately, and add them cooked to the finished soup. Adding uncooked noodles to the soup will thicken it, whereas adding cooked noodles to the finished soup will not (reason: the starch from the noodles acts as a thickening agent). Like fresh mushrooms in your soup? Add them about 10 minutes after the veggies and chicken have been added. Like tomato? Add some with the veggies and chicken. Add corn that’s been freshly cut from the cob at the very end of the process, allowing it to just heat through (frozen corn can be substituted). Add cilantro and lime juice for a Mexican twist. If you like it spicy, add jalapeno with the vegetables at the beginning of the stock process, then roast a jalapeno, chop it and add it to the soup with the carrots. Lemon and egg make avgolemono, a Greek classic. The variations are only limited by your taste and your imagination.
While it may seem like this is a labor-intensive dish, it really isn’t, as most of the time spent is simmering and chilling. The actual time to prep, chop, mix, strain, and skim should take just about an hour, tops.
Good soup is something we should not deny ourselves or our families. I recommend you try this technique soon to feed yourself body and, dare I say it...
Jeez, even I'm not that cheesy...