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chicken soup - help a vegetarian with the basics

I've been a vegetarian my entire life so I have never cooked meat. My husband is a big meat-eater, but he has eaten vegetarian at home for 13 years. Now my young daughter is turning out to be a serious carnivore and is requesting chicken soup. So I am now going to learn how to cook meat for the first time. I would appreciate ANY tips on getting started with chicken soup. I don't even know how to buy chicken (certain cuts?). She is hoping for noodles in it. I definitely want to do it the old-fashioned way and not with purchased stock or any shortcuts. Any advice or recipes would be great appreciated. Thank you!

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  1. Funny you should ask, jane. Today was chicken-stock-making day. ;-)

    I like to make my stock from a whole chicken (actually, its carcass) that's been roasted for another meal. Meats, like vegetables, caramelize when roasted, and as you know from veggies, the flavors then are more complex and nuanced.

    But that really isn't necessary; you can make an absolutely tasty broth-stock from raw chicken. Since you're just starting out to learn about cooking meat, maybe you want to try the following, from chicken parts. I do this when I get a sudden yen for chicken soup, or need some chicken broth to use in cooking something else, but don't have a left-over whole bird or chicken stock in the freezer.

    To make a broth/stock:

    I think it's best when made from white and dark meat. But ask your daughter, whether she likes both or likes only white or only dark meat. Some chicken-eaters have a preference. I'm going to proceed on the assumption that she likes both, though. You want BONE-IN pieces, with the SKIN ON. (Later, you'll skim off the fat, so don't worry about cooking with the skin. The skin and bones give more robust flavor, good consistency and gelatin, the last being important to stocks.)

    Don't be shy about asking the butcher or meat counter personnel at your store for help in either helping you choose the pre-packaged parts, or ask them to select especially good ones they have back in the refrigerators to wrap up for you on the spot. Meat guys love to share their knowledge, and good ones know a lot about choosing and cooking meat. Let them know you're a vegetarian, and you're doing this for your daughter. Ask them if they have a store label chicken that's good, all-natural, grain-fed, no hormones, etc. In the last two places I've lived in, my grocery stores have had local or store brand chicken available that, to me, was much plumper and much more chickeny tasting than some of the national brands. And store label chicken, like anything else, is often less expensive.

    If you don't have butcher-counter service available at your store, that's fine. You'll find what you need in the pre-packaged poultry section. Don't buy frozen; buy fresh. Check the sell-by dates and buy the packages with the farthest-out dates. [ A little side note re raw poultry food safety...I stick each individual package of chicken I buy in its own plastic bag, to avoid packages leaking and cross-contaminating other raw foods. Also, when you check out, make sure they bag the chicken together in its own bag, without any other type of food in there. Good stores will do that anyway, but don't feel funny about being assertive about that. Food safety practices are *very* important with poultry out of supermarkets.]

    I'd suggest you get two chicken breasts, bone-in, skin-on (if pre-packaged, sometimes they come in threes, which is fine); a package of 3 or 4 legs (may be labeled "drumsticks"); and one package of either wings or "wingettes" (the wing has been cut in half at the joint). That should give you somewhere around 5 pounds (approximately) of chicken.

    When you get home, rinse the chicken under cool running water. Put it in a large pot, like a 5 or 6 quart soup, stock or pasta pot. Have that pot right by the sink so you can put the chicken directly in it without touching anything else. Remember you *must* wash your hands with soap and hot water any time you touch raw chicken and before you touch anything else. (I'm probably making it sound scarier than it should be; sorry about that. It's really not; it's more like...better safe than sorry.)

    To the pot you want to add the aromatics:

    1 medium onion, peeled and quartered or rough chopped
    3 ribs celery, washed and rough chopped (great if you have some celery leaves to add, too)
    1 medium to large carrot, washed and rough chopped (not necessary to peel; you can if you want to, but of course it has more nutrients peel-on)

    Then the seasoning/herbs:

    Most every recipe I've ever seen calls for peppercorns and bay leaves. As to what else you include, different people do different things. I don't *usually* add *too* much beyond the peppercorns and bay leaves during the broth/stock making phase, knowing that I'm going to season and flavor it when I make the final product (soup, sauce, whatever). One of the points in making stock is that you have a basic liquid that's versatile enough to use in various dishes. If you give it a heavy flavor of one herb--say rosemary--at the stock phase, then everything you make from that batch of stock is going to taste like rosemary, even if you don't want it to. So...I'll usually toss in about 8 peppercorns, 1 or 2 bay leaves, sometimes a teaspoonful of thyme.

    Now, fill the pot to cover the contents, or just a little bit above that, with cold water. I use medium heat to bring it to a boil.

    As soon as it begins to boil, reduce the heat immediately and simmer it. After a while, the "scum" (really a little foam or light froth) begins to appear atop the surface. Some people don't remove it, some do. I do. I just get as much as I can off by skimming the edge of a large spoon on the surface. I don't think it's really critical if you skip this or don't get it all during your first stock-making ventures. It's not unhealthy and it won't make the soup taste bad.

    Then I cover the pot and let it simmer gently for a few hours. Today, I was baking for Christmas, so I had plenty of time. I let the carcass simmer for about six hours. But it's not necessary with the chicken parts we discussed. Two or three hours should be sufficient. At that point, the meat should fall off the bone easily when you put a fork to it in the pot. Just remember that the longer you're able to let it simmer, the richer the flavor will be.

    When your simmering period has ended, set the pot at the back of the stove, burner off, to cool to the point where it's not dangerous to handle. I leave the lid slightly ajar so the heat can escape.

    When it's safe, use a large strainer or colander (sp?) set over another large pot, to drain the liquid only out of the pot you cooked with.

    Take the chicken breasts and drumsticks out of the strainer/colander. Cover those in a smaller vessel or wrap them in foil and refrigerate them, so you can use their meat to make the soup later.

    Meanwhile, you've got your stock in a separate vessel. Let it cool down a little while longer so it won't plunge your refrigerator temp down when you put it in there, but not *too* long. I try to get the stock in the fridge before it reaches 140 degrees, but other people let it cool more. Put in in there covered until it chills completely and the fats in the liquid rise to make a solid layer atop the stock. Use a spoon again to skim off that fat layer. You may not be able to get every bit of it; that's okay, just get as much off as you can.

    Your stock will have gelatinized, to one degree or another. It may look like thick wobby soup or even up to a more solid gelatin block. When you heat it again in in the soup-making, it will reliquify.

    I'm going to post this now, because I'm afraid I'm going to lose the whole post. I'll post some basic instructions for soup in a second message.

    11 Replies
    1. re: Steady Habits

      Part Two...A basic chicken noodle soup

      It's a little hard for me to judge exactly how much stock you'll end up with, but I'll base this on using four cups of your stock. You can cut or increase ingredients if you need to, proportionately, or to your daughter's taste--e.g., if she likes it heavier on the chicken, or the noodles, etc.

      Your daughter's going to have to participate here, to season this to her preference, since you're a vegetarian, and I presume you won't eat this.

      This is to make about a quart of soup. (You can double this if you like, or if you just want to make the quart, then you can freeze the leftover stock for use later. I freeze mine in freezer baggies, pressing the extra air out first, or in containers with lids.)

      So...measure out four cups of the stock into a soup pot. Bring it up to a boil. Boil stock for five full minutes, for safety's sake, before you taste it or add anything to it.

      Then it's safe to add seasoning, herbs, etc., and have your daughter test it. Now...it's pretty bland until you add the salt and pepper. That's a matter of personal taste, but...since I try not to put too much salt in our food, I add it in 1/2 teaspoon increments until I get it right. Your daughter will know. It just tastes...blech...until you reach the right tipping point with the salt, and suddenly, it's just right. ;-) We like pepper so I'd probably put 1/2 teaspoon fresh ground pepper in it to begin with and end up adding more than other people might like. Now your daughter can add whatever herbs or flavorings she likes...thyme, rosemary, sage, minced garlic, parsley...whatever she likes. Sometimes I use a touch of ginger or a very small pinch of ground cloves. (Depends on the mood and menu.)

      Add about a cup of thin dried noodles (like egg noodles or thin spaghetti), and about a cup of the chicken meat, white and/or dark, whatever she likes. You can dice it by knife or shred it by hand.

      Also, obviously, you can add some diced veggies, if she'd like that--a carrot, celery...or some baby spinach is good, if she likes spinach; bell pepper; fennel....a handful of frozen corn niblets or frozen peas or lima beans...really, it's pretty flexible and she can add what she likes. However, if she's adding a lot of solids beyond the 1 cup of noodles and 1 cup of chicken, you may want to start out with more than 4 cups of the stock.

      Let it simmer for about 10 minutes until the additions are tender. She can taste it again to adjust the seasons, and then...she should have her soup! ;-)

      P.S. I think you're a very sweet mother to do this for her. But, you know...if you can simmer and boil veggies, you'll have no problem with this. :-)

      1. re: Steady Habits

        Hi Steady Habits,

        I cannot thank you enough for this. Thank you for taking the time to write such a detailed response for me. You are a very kind person.

        1. re: janehathaway

          You are so welcome. I apologize if I was patronizing at any point, but I decided to take you at your literal word and think about what I would need to know if I had never purchased poultry or cooked it.

          One other "just in case" thing. If your daughter's exposure to soup at school or friend's houses, for example, has been limited to processed soup, homemade soup may seem very bland to her at first. Even low-sodium processed versions of soup and stock have a horrible amount of salt in them, since it's a good preservative and cheap flavoring agent. It can take some folks a while to adjust to homemade if they've only known Campbell's or Progresso. But in the meantime, nothing wrong with her using extra of the other herbs to give it more flavor until she gets used to it (if necessary). Also, chicken soup is one of those things that tastes even better the following day. If I have any left over after two or three days (rare around here), I freeze it as long as the veggies haven't got too mushy.

          I was so touched when I read your post. I know how devoted my vegetarian friends are to...vegetarianism. You are clearly a loving mommy :-D who wants to make her daughter happy AND ensure her food is prepared healthfully. You get five gold stars. ;-)

          1. re: Steady Habits

            You weren't patronizing at all! I needed every single word you wrote as I have literally never prepared meat. I knew nothing about the safety aspects at all so thank you for that. My daughter has several life-threatening food allergies so if there is something she wants that is safe for her to eat, I will go to the ends of the earth to make sure she has the tastiest version possible. I truly appreciate your post and have printed it out to use forever. The stock is simmering on my stove right now. I will let you know how it turns out! Thank you again for your kindness.

            1. re: janehathaway

              SteadyHabits gives good stock making advice, but I'd change one thing. I never let the stock come to a boil -- in fact, I never let the heat get above medium low. A very slow simmer with just a few bubbles breaking the surface is what you want.

              If you let it come to a boil, the fat will begin to render, and it's impossible to separate at that point. By keeping the heat very low through the entire process, you'll get a clear liquid broth. Once you refrigerate and skim the fat off, it will be nearly fat free.

              1. re: JonParker

                You've just touched on one of the things that absolutely intrigues and frustrates me about learning to cook things the right way. It happens with some other recipes, but stock is a perfect example. Boil, or not? Skim, or not? I can read, from credentialed sources, to do a step one way, and then read, from other experts, to do it another way. But I can look in half a dozen cookbooks and not find agreement in the matter. Agh, it drives me crazy. What you're saying makes absolute sense to me, scientifically, re the fat rendering and integrating. I'm going to try your method next time, to see the difference.

                Now...once you do that, in the stock-making phase, and therefore per what you have explained, have been able to really get the saturated fat out it... would you have any disagreement with me that stock that's been frozen should be boiled when put in the pot for soup or sauce, etc.? I have that instruction in several of my cookbooks, and that's how I was taught, due to the obvious chances for contamination in home cooking. I'm thinking it's especially necessary if you're cooking for someone who does have a tendency to serious allergies (like jane's daughter), because of the indication there of a compromised immune system. What are your thoughts about that, Jon?

                Thanks for the suggestion. One of my goals for improvement is a clearer broth. ;-)

                1. re: Steady Habits

                  Fat will render out of simmered chicken just as well as it will from boiled chicken. Similarly, the protein "scum" will rise to the surface no matter what you do. But the vigorous motion of boiling stock will tend to pull these things back down into the pot, break them up, and stir them around. With a gentle simmer, on the other hand, you can skim off impurities as they rise.

                  Once you have a perfectly clear stock, you can boil it to your heart's content. It will reduce down and the flavors will be concentrated, but it remains crystal clear because there's nothing to cloud it.

                  But a vigorous boil isn't necessary for food safety (at least not at sea level). Pasteurization takes place nearly instantly at 165F - a bare simmer. Boiling is overkill.

                  FWIW, if you have a pressure cooker, stock-making is the perfect application for it. The pressure keeps the stock from boiling, the high temperature extracts flavors more quickly and completely, and the fact that you're cooking in an enclosed vessel keeps the flavor in the cooker, not in the air. The downside is that the house doesn't smell as good.

                  1. re: alanbarnes

                    That's possible. I do know that I get clearer stock when I don't allow it to boil. The boiling rendering the fat thing was something I learned when I was researching making my first stock.

                    Once you have a defatted stock, regardless of the process, you can boil it if you wish. I use the stock in recipes without boiling it and haven't gotten sick, but YMMV. The only time I boil is when I'm reducing it.

                    1. re: JonParker

                      I should also add that since starting to make my own stock, I've become a firm believer in doing so. The homemade stock is worlds above the store kind in flavor. I get seriously annoyed when I run out and have to resort to canned, because I know that the recipe won't taste nearly as good.

                      1. re: JonParker

                        Agreed. "Tastes like chicken" is a good thing.

                        1. re: alanbarnes

                          Thank you, alan and Jon, for the discussion.

                          To alan, no, I don't have a pressure cooker (and probably shouldn't be allowed near one; I'm kind of clumsy and absent-minded), but I'm going to try it your way and Jon's and see how it works out.

    2. I think you just got me over my fear of making chicken stock! I'm going to try it when I have a few hours at home. Thanks so much!

      5 Replies
      1. re: cheesecake17

        Oh, cheesecake, yes, do try it. It's really not difficult. It just takes a solid block of time to let it simmer away while you're doing other things in the kitchen and around the house. And you need a bit more time to let it cool a little bit. Stock is one of those things that may seem intimidating because, like many of the dishes we discuss, you can get more and more refined and scientific about it, the more experienced with it we become. And lots of people will do a few things differently than I do, and vice versa, and sometimes *I* even do some of the steps differently, but this will get you started.

        I have in my freezer right now about half a dozen freezer bags each of chicken stock, beef stock (made from shin bones) and turkey stock (the vestige of Thanksgiving). So I always have a quick base for my pan sauces, or braises, or soups of course, or to add to rice or grain cooking water for a flavor boost. I pre-measure the stock before it goes into the baggies, and always freeze a few 1-cup portions and a couple of 2-cup portions. Then I just pull out as many as I need for recipes.

        I need to get around to making some vegetable stock, myself. But do it a couple of times and it just becomes part of your routine.

        1. re: Steady Habits

          I will definitely try it once finals are over and I can settle down. The boxed stuff has a strange taste to me. How long do you let it simmer?

          Also, do you have a recipe for vegetable stock without tomato? All the ones I see in the store have tomato which drives me crazy.

          1. re: cheesecake17

            Stovetop I let mine go 4-6-8 hours... just depends. More recently, I do it in the crockpot overnite-- eliminates the need to have that block of time at home in the afternoon or whatever.

            Veggie broth --- no recipe, just add whatever you like. I'd start with a carrot or 2, celery, onions, garlic (that's strong, though, so only if it fits with your purpose for the stock), bay leaves, any leftover fresh herbs you have (esp. parsley), any leftover anything else you have. Could also use parsnips, turnips, etc. Only needs to simmer 30 minutes or so. You can brown the onions first if you want. Then strain and use.

            1. re: JGrey

              Thanks! I think I'm going to start with the vegetable stock this week or next week. I remember my great grandma tieing up the herbs with a string and letting that dangle over the edge of the pot.. do you do that? Or so the herbs get chopped? Also do you peel the vegetables?

              1. re: cheesecake17

                I strain everything through a colander, so I don't bother tying the herbs. And the veggies, I might cut the onion in quarters, and break the carrots and celery into 2-3 pieces, you get the idea. I don't peel, just wash/cut off any dirt or bad spots. I take that back, I peel the onions. Not carrots, though.

      2. Jane,

        Steady Habits has given you the full treatment. But if you want something super-simple, here's a chicken soup that my family enjoys:

        Ingredients:

        2-3 pounds bone-in skinless chicken thighs
        1 cup dry white wine (or dry vermouth)
        1/2 to 1 pound carrots
        1/2 to 1 bunch celery
        1 small to medium onion
        1 bay leaf
        Tarragon
        Salt
        Pepper

        Directions:

        Put the chicken parts in a heavy 3- to 4-quart pot. Add the wine, the bay leaf, water to cover by an inch, and a big pinch of salt. (Omit the salt if you're using kosher chicken.) Put on the stovetop and bring to a simmer. Do not boil. Simmer uncovered for 20-30 minutes, skimming off the proteins that rise to the top.

        Meanwhile, dice the onion, carrots, and celery. (If the mood strikes you, you can add other vegetables as well: fennel, waxy potatoes, green beans, peas, turnips, parsnips, rutabaga, etc. A little spinach or arugula gives some interesting color and a textural contrast. Consider this an opportunity to use up whatever's in the fridge.)

        Remove the chicken and the bay leaf from the pot with a slotted spoon and set aside to cool. Dump the vegetables into the stock and return to a simmer. Simmer until the carrots are tender, probably 20 minutes or so.

        Near the end of this time, pull the now-cooled chicken off the bone and chop it coarsely. Discard the bones and the bay leaf and return the meat to the pot with tarragon, salt, and pepper to taste. Return the soup to a simmer, then turn off the heat off an allow it to stand for at least 30 minutes (better yet, overnight) before serving.

        Serve over cooked rice or boiled egg noodles with good crusty bread on the side.

        3 Replies
        1. re: alanbarnes

          Thank you! We will try this one too. It sounds delicious!

          1. re: alanbarnes

            I love the flavor in chicken thighs and nothing suits them better than white wine and tarragon. That sounds delicious, alan. I wish I had some now! Thanks for posting the recipe.

            1. re: alanbarnes

              Nice alanbarnes ... Pretty much my quicker version as well. I use a bunch of herbs tied together for a nice flavor. I also use a little garlic powder, just 1/2 teaspoon. I also like mushrooms in mine but not everyone does. Peas too at times, but traditional doesn't always have them. I also simmer for about 1 hour covered and then remove chicken then add the veggies and dice up the chicken and add back to the soup and cook another 30-45 minutes until the veggies are soft. Add the noodles, bring to a boil and then turn off and let set 10 minutes until soft

            2. As a long-time vegan, I would say have them learn to make it.

              1. How's it going, jane? Is it soup yet? :-D

                1 Reply
                1. re: Steady Habits

                  One more little thing...if you have any chicken parts (bones, skin, anything) in your garbage after you make the soup, I'd recommend taking it out pretty quickly. Especially on a hot day, it can take develop a very, uh, special smell that you probably don't want in your kitchen.
                  And I'm sure you already know about being careful with washing your hands and kitchen utensils after handling raw chicken. (I had salmonella once- no fun) Oh, the joys of a non-veg kitchen.