Not only can a warm bowl of soup hit the spot on a brisk fall or winter day, it can be a healthy and light spring/summer meal option too. “But not all soups are the same,” says Chef Marjorie Druker, owner of two New England Soup Factory restaurants in the greater Boston area.
Some soups can be loaded with fat and calories. Others can be cruel to your waistline because you’re so hungry an hour or two after downing a bowl, you’re scrounging in the fridge for something -- anything -- to eat.
But, this basic soup primer will help you serve up a healthful bowl of soup, no matter the occasion.
Start with a base
- Stock is prepared by simmering roasted poultry or beef bones with vegetables in water for three to four hours, then straining and tossing the solids. Stocks are healthy because the bones contain collagen, which is packed with protein that is released during cooking, and vegetables provide essential vitamins and nutrients.
- Broths begin by simmering a whole chicken or beef parts in water, then removing solids. When you lacking time, low-sodium, canned broth is a quick soup starter. To boost its flavor and healthful benefits, add vegetables and lean protein. “Just don’t dilute canned broth with water. That takes away from the flavor,” Druker says.
- Cream soups start with a base mixture of butter, flour, and milk or cream.” Use 1-percent milk or fat-free half and half instead of cream when making cream bases to shave about 200 calories per cup. Puree starchy vegetables like potatoes or winter squash before adding to the base to make cream soup rich and thick without added calories and fat. “If the recipe calls for potatoes, puree half (and add them to the mix) and use the rest cubed or chopped,” Druker says. “Or, dissolve a tablespoon of cornstarch in small amount of cold water, stirring well to form a thin paste-like mixture, then add to hot or boiling soup. Cook for 2 to 3 minutes and serve.”
TIP: “Skim off the foam and fat that rises to the top to make your stock or broth even healthier,” Druker says. Make sure the liquid doesn’t reach a high boil, or the particles will incorporate into the mixture making it appear cloudy.
Bulk it up
- Toss in protein to add substance and make the soup more filling. “Protein takes longer to digest than veggies, leaving you satisfied longer,” says Anne VanBeber MS, PhD, chair of Texas Christian University’s department of nutrition. Try adding two to three ounces of lean meat, poultry (white meat), fish, or tofu per serving of soup. If you want the flavor of your soup to be enhanced by the meat or seafood, add it to the pot early enough in the cooking process to allow the meat to cook thoroughly. Otherwise, cook first, then add it during the last 30 minutes the soup is simmering.
- Add beans, which are another good source of protein, and can be added to almost any soup. Dried beans like kidney, black, white northern, lima, or garbanzo are better than canned, (because of the sodium content) and should be soaked overnight so they cook evenly and quickly. If using canned beans, be sure to drain and thoroughly rinse. Aim for 1/3 to 1/2 cup of soaked beans per serving of soup. Beans can go into the pot at the start of the cooking process.
- For a chunky, hearty soup, add brown rice. Rodek says one half cup, uncooked per 3 servings of soup can go into the pot during the last hour of cooking. Wild rice is another option that adds a nuttier, crunchier texture. Couscous, thickens, too, but soaks up a lot of the liquid so add ¼ cup for every 1 cup of liquid and add it in the last 5 minutes of cooking to preserve the "soupy" consistency.
- Heighten flavor by sautéing ingredients before adding to soup. For instance, if your soup calls for mirepoix (garlic, onions, carrots and celery), sauté the mixture in about a tablespoon of olive oil or butter to release the sugars in the vegetables, and provide a flavorful base for the other ingredients, Druker says.
Time your additions
- Stir vegetables into “quick-cook soups,” on the stove for an hour or less at the beginning of cooking, Druker says. But needs to simmer longer, add beans early, but vegetables like carrots, celery, and peas only an hour before the soup is served so they don’t become mushy or lose color. “Spinach should be added in the last five minutes of cooking, to preserve it’s bright color and vitamins,” Druker says.
- Add dried herbs to the pot early so they can absorb the liquid and release their flavors, Druker says. Unlike veggies, there’s no need to worry about mushy herbs, since they’re added for flavor, not texture. However, fresh herbs should be added in the last 30 minutes of cooking to preserve their potent flavor. And, if they’re in whole form, strain them out to serve.
- Always add extra seasonings like salt at the end of cooking. This helps you judge how much is needed—your soup maybe flavorful enough without it. However, if your soup is too salty, drop in a couple pieces of raw potato to absorb some of the excess. Remove it before serving.
Top it right and light
- Garnish with two tablespoons of fat-free yogurt instead of sour cream to save about 40 calories and 2.5 grams of fat. Or use hard cheeses like Parmesan, which have about half the calories and saturated fat per serving than softer versions like cheddar, says Rachel S. Rodek MS, RD, at the University of Connecticut Health Center. If rich ingredients like cheese are one of the soup’s ingredients, use one half to three quarters in the soup and reserve the rest for topping.
- Sprinkle freshly ground ginger and cinnamon over pumpkin or winter squash soup. Fresh cilantro, basil, parsley, dill, and chives are also pretty and zesty on classic soups like vegetable, chicken noodle, and beef barley.”
- Showcase a soup’s main ingredient by placing a tablespoon of lobster meat or a few baby shrimp atop seafood bisque. Or, add another serving of protein by topping wild mushroom, pumpkin, or squash soups with toasted nuts or pumpkin seeds,” VanBeber says.