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Help me!! SOS! Hot and Sour Soup

I'm a South-East Asian cuisine fanatic, but I've been flirting with Chinese hot and sour soup for 2 years now. My efforts... stink. It tastes like nothing, and yet all recipes I've found seem to list the same ingredients. Please help me- how do you make rich, hearty, flavorful hot and sour soup?

**Here are some of my questions** :
- chile paste isn't hot, chile flakes don't do much either. We love spicy foods and end up adding hot sauce to the finished soup. How do you make it hot?
- I know that heat is all-important in Chinese cuisine. I put my stock pot on the double-boiler to make it as hot as possible... is this necessary?
- I've tried rice wine vinegar, a 50/50 split of rice wine vinegar with red wine vinegar, but still no taste.
- we like seafood or seafood wontons, rather than pork. Any ideas on proteins?
- my husband abhors mushrooms... does that impact the flavor of the soup?

Serves 2-3
5 cups chicken broth
1 ½ tsp chile paste (or just add your favorite bottled hot sauce at the end)
1/3 cup red wine vinegar
¼ cup cornstarch stirred into ¼ cup water
Tofu sliced thin and long, shrimps (peeled and deveined) or scallops
2 eggs, beaten
2 tbsp sesame oil
2 tbsp double dark soy sauce
Green onions to garnish

Bring water to a boil and add chile paste, if using. Add tofu, pour in red wine vinegar and mix well. Add the meat or seafood, then stir in the cornstarch and water mixture. Stir constantly at a low boil for 5 minutes to thicken the broth. While stirring, add beaten eggs and let swirl for about one minute. Turn off heat and add sesame oil and soy sauce, stirring well. Garnish with green onions.

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  1. I thought the 'hot' in this soup was supposed to come from a generous amount of black pepper, or better yet white pepper.

    Regarding the vinegar, are you saying it isn't sour at all?

    3 Replies
    1. re: paulj

      It's sour, but just with no flavor. I'm reading since my post that part of the flavor in restaurant soups is Chinese Black Vinegar?

      1. re: homewithdogs

        I'd guess this. Black rice vinegar has a much more funky taste than white - if the soup isn't sour enough, I add more at the table.

      2. re: paulj

        Hi everybody, I just wanted to update this post with the results of Hot N Sour Soup: Round One. I used the following recipe and made modifications: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/577584. On my first shot, this was by far and away the VERY BEST hot N sour I've ever made. Thanks soo much to everyone in this post for the help. I could almost go back to my old recipe- just substituting white pepper and chili oil for chili flakes, and Chinese black vinegar for red wine/rice vinegar.

        For those interested, here are the changes we made for taste. The first flavor you get is the white pepper, which is dead-on from what you get at restaurants. After the first hit, though, it tastes watery and you don't get the sour. My husband and I poured over the stove for about 15 more minutes adding things and tinkering, with the final additions being:

        total of 3 tsp white pepper
        total of 1/2 tsp chili oil
        3 T plus 1.5 tsp Chinese mature (aged Black) vinegar
        1 T double-dark soy sauce and 1 T light soy sauce

      3. A lot of the recipes I've seen call for white vinegar and white pepper in generous amounts. You might try these, adding a bit at a time until you reach the levels you like. Black pepper has a different flavor and you could add some of that as well for a different type of burn. I would use about 1/2 tsp of each pepper to four cups of stock as a starting point.

        I also now use Sriracha instead of chili paste, right at the beginning, for heat. Just start adding and monitor the taste until it's to your liking. Also, Tabasco works great, as its vinegar base adds both hot and sour.

        Mushrooms will help amp up the flavor levels because they contain high levels of glutamic acid or glutamates, which are natural flavor boosters and give you that "umami" you hear so much about these days, but if you don't like them you could try a pinch of msg -- it occurs naturally in the mushrooms and there's nothing artificial in the stuff you buy at the store. But lots of folks are msg phobic so it's your decision.

        Proteins are up to you. I like to add thin strips of BBQ pork as well as fresh pork, but since you don't like pork, little raw bay shrimp (I see you already have shrimp in the recipe) stirred in at the end would be good with the egg. They'll cook immediately in the hot broth. You could matchstick slice chicken as well. I like the seafood wonton idea, even if it isn't traditional. I've also seen a few recipes with thinly-sliced beef.

        I think the double boiler is completely unnecessary, but I'm a little confused. Do you really mean a double boiler like when one pot sits in another over a bath of boiling water? This would be much, much cooler than a normal burner so it would do the opposite of making it as hot as possible. Or do you mean more like a double sized burner with more heat output to bring your stockpot to a boil faster? That's not really necessary either, as the stock can't get any hotter than the boiling point if it's not under pressure, so extreme heat output doesn't really help in this case.

        1. In the area I am in it varies -
          At my favorite lunch place, it is awful - I have to skip it.
          There is a place that usually does not do well in health inspections where it is very good.
          I have not gotten it down myself. I (*gasp*) cheat and heat up the so-so stuff from a can when I have a cold and need some.

          1. In the rick Mooney fish book I think it is fish without a doubt there is a seafood (shrimp and catfish) hot and sour recipe however I haven't tried making it yet- its a really good book though made 4 recipes all great so far

            1. " rich, hearty, flavorful hot and sour soup"

              We've discussed the hot - white pepper and chile pepper to taste

              sour - most vinegar is diluted to 6%; rice vineger usually is 4%; if you want more sour, you have to use more vinegar

              rich - I take this to mean 'lots of body'; that comes from gelatin, i.e. a well made stock, though you can 'cheat' by adding some pure gelatin (Knox). ATK upped the richness of their quick beef stew this way. But the corn starch thickener commonly used in Chinese soups also gives this mouth feel

              hearty - to me that means more solids, such as mushrooms, especially tree ears. Mushrooms also add umami - savoriness. Another route to savoriness - msg.

              salt - lack of flavor may be due to under salting. Soy sauce is a common source of salt in Chinese cooking. I like to add salt gradually to soups until the 'flavors pop'.

              3 Replies
              1. re: paulj

                Thanks, paulj, your post is full of great thoughts!! I've wondered if my lack of mushrooms might contribute to lack of flavor, and even thought about using beef broth to add heartiness/umami. Any thoughts about beef broth?

                1. re: homewithdogs

                  Mentally, to me using beef broth would result in a soup with a greatly changed taste profile. Diluted sour beef stew, perhaps. But by all means try it if you like - after all, you say you've been experimenting for 2 years already...

                  1. re: homewithdogs

                    Mushrooms would contribute a lot of umami. Can you add them, and then remove them before serving?

                2. I have had good luck with this recipe. http://www.grouprecipes.com/57948/hot... I see no reason why you couldn't sub shrimp for the pork, as acgold suggests, or add wontons. Agree with paulj on lots of solids. I do think you are losing richness and umami by omitting the mushrooms but if he hates them I guess that's unavoidable. A drop or two of fish sauce might add the umami back without overwhelming the soup. I think white pepper is really key or if you can get it, Sichuan pepper.

                  5 Replies
                  1. re: GretchenS

                    But Sichuan pepper doesn't add 'hot' to the soup, does it?

                    1. re: paulj

                      Well, different kind of hot than white pepper but to me anyway, hot.

                    2. re: GretchenS

                      Love it! I'll try a few drops of fish sauce. I've long wondered if the HOT was Sichuan pepper, so I'll have to try to find that around here. You'd think in the Bay Area it would easy to find!

                      1. re: homewithdogs

                        No, the hot is black or white pepper, not chile.

                      2. re: GretchenS

                        I was just going to say that I like to add some chili oil to mine for the hot part.

                        1. re: hill food

                          What's the acetic acid concentration in black vinegar? What other flavor(s) does it contribute?

                          1. re: paulj

                            The recipes I am currently working with add black fungus and lily roots. I have no idea of their flavour impact, but they do appear in all the recipes I have seen. For me its trial and error to get something that i like.

                            1. re: Danybear

                              Black fungus contributes more texture than flavor - somewhat rubbery.

                              1. re: Danybear

                                It's been two years of trial and error for me, on this one recipe, so I can hear you there. I've wondered about lily roots/buds and black fungus, but there's no way I could get my husband to eat them!

                                1. re: homewithdogs

                                  If you continue to not put in mushrooms, lily buds and wood/black fungus, or use white pepper (I have doubts about using szechuan pepper), you will probably continue to have problems with the body and taste of the soup. Suppose you use all the ingredients [all the preceding, plus the black vinegar, the stock with high gelatin content, enough pepper & chilli & salt, maybe some MSG or nuoc mam, etc etc] but just ladle out for your husband the soup plus only the solid pieces he will eat? The body & flavor of the soup will still be there.

                              2. re: paulj

                                I may be quite mistaken but it's a different fermentation - tastes different. sharper and sweeter and saltier.

                                1. re: paulj

                                  What I'm reading is that black vinegar is the distinctive taste (or one of the primary ones, anyway) in hot and sour soup. A few recipes mentioned Donghu brand "mature vinegar," which I understand is aged black vinegar. The aging is supposed to make it less bitter than non-aged Chinese black vinegar. I bought both at Ranch 99 today, so we'll see Wednesday when I make my first try since my post.

                                  1. re: homewithdogs

                                    It's a northern dish so the Donghu vinegar from Shanxi is more appropriate than regular black vinegar, which is from Zhenjiang, Jiangsu..

                              3. I like thin sliced pork that has been marinated in lite soy sauce (Pearl River Lite Soy) along with diced garlic and two or three split Thai peppers to complete the marinade. For the base, I use Costco Organic Beef Stock. Add the white vinegar and white pepper, the sliced bamboo shoots, mushrooms, tofu, and pork mixture. Add corn starch to thicken and a few drops of sesame oil. Add diced green onion or chives to complete. Simple. This rendition is dark and smoky tasting with lots of heat.

                                1. First off, I am utterly clueless as to how/why you feel a double boiler is necessary to make "Hot & Sour Soup". Totally unnecessary. Second - I have a large collection of Asian cookbooks - many Chinese, & not ONE calls for any sort of chili paste or (heaven forbid!) Sriracha sauce. The "heat" authentically comes from either plain old freshly ground black pepper, or, in some Szechuan versions, Szechuan peppercorns, which I do use once in awhile, but they can be an acquired taste due to their numbing factor.

                                  Here's my own version that I've been making since the 1970's. Easy to put together if you can find & keep the ingredients in your pantry. Never any leftovers & best thing ever if you have a cold. :)

                                  BREEZY PEKING HOT & SOUR SOUP
                                  (adapted from Madame Chu’s Chinese Cooking School)

                                  ¼ -1/2 lb. boneless skinless chicken breast (one breast piece)
                                  ½ cup (3-4 caps) dried Chinese black mushrooms (or dried shitake mushrooms), or 8-10 fresh Shitake mushroom caps
                                  12 dried tiger-lily buds (aka “Golden Needles”)
                                  1 tablespoon dried cloud ear mushrooms (aka “wood ear” mushrooms)
                                  1 cake fresh firm or extra-firm bean curd (tofu)
                                  1 egg
                                  5 cups chicken broth
                                  1 small can shredded bamboo shoots, drained
                                  ½ teaspoon sugar
                                  2 tablesoons soy sauce
                                  2-1/2 tablespoons white vinegar (or to taste)
                                  1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper (or to taste) - or - freshly ground Szechuan peppercorns
                                  2-1/2 tablespoons cornstarch, dissolved in 2 tablespoons of cold water
                                  1 tablespoon sesame oil or hot (aka chili) sesame oil
                                  Chopped fresh scallions for garnish - optional

                                  Cut the chicken into shreds.
                                  Soak dried mushrooms, cloud ears, & tiger-lily buds in 1-2 cups of hot water for 20-30 minutes, changing hot water every 10 minutes or so. Drain & rinse well. Shred the mushrooms & cloud ears; tie each tiger lily bud into a knot (for easier eating).
                                  Cut bean curd into cubes.
                                  Beat the egg thoroughly.

                                  Heat broth in a pot large enough to hold all ingredients until boiling. Add chicken strips & mix a few times. Bring back to a low boil & add bean curd, bamboo shoots, mushrooms, cloud ears, & lily buds. Add sugar, soy sauce, vinegar, & black pepper. Boil for 2 minutes & then add –first stirring to recombine – cornstarch/water mixture. Stir & then pour in beaten egg. Turn off heat & stir again, then sprinkle sesame oil on top & taste for seasoning, adding in additional vinegar &/or pepper to taste if necessary. Serve garnished with chopped scallions if desired.

                                  1. Here's a Hot and Sour Soup recipe that we like a lot.
                                    We use to eat out a lot just for this soup. Making it at home saves a lot of money. It tastes very close to what you get at a Chinese restaurant. All of these ingredients should be available at most U.S. supermarkets, some in the Asian foods section. The white pepper and sesame oil are the "secret" ingredients that seem to give the authentic taste.

                                    Easy Chinese Hot and Sour Soup

                                    4 cups of chicken broth
                                    4 tablespoons soy sauce
                                    1/4 cup cooked shredded chicken or pork (canned chicken ok)
                                    1/2 cup drained canned mushrooms (type of your choice), sliced or diced
                                    1/4 cup canned bamboo shoots, drained and julienned
                                    1/2 tablespoon Thai Chili Garlic Sauce (Tabasco Sauce and a little garlic powder as a substitute is ok)
                                    1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper
                                    2 tablespoons cornstarch and 2 tablespoons cold water
                                    1 egg, beaten
                                    3 oz firm tofu, cut into 1/4 inch dice
                                    2 green onion stalks, diced (including green tops)
                                    1/4 cup distilled white vinegar
                                    1/2 teaspoon toasted sesame oil

                                    Bring chicken broth to a simmer in a 2-quart saucepan.
                                    Add soy sauce, meat, mushrooms, bamboo shoots, Thai Chili Garlic Sauce and white pepper.
                                    -Simmer for five minutes.
                                    -Combine two tablespoons of cornstarch with two tablespoons of cold water in a cup. Stir until mixture is smooth. Add cornstarch mixture to soup and stir well.
                                    -Simmer for 2 or 3 minutes until soup is thickened.
                                    -Beat egg in a cup until yolk and white are combined. Pour beaten egg slowly, in a fine stream into soup. Stir soup several times.
                                    -Wait 30 seconds.
                                    -Add tofu and green onions to soup. Stir well. Remove from heat.
                                    -Add distilled white vinegar and sesame oil.
                                    -Stir a few times and serve.

                                    Makes about 4 cups.

                                    4 Replies
                                    1. re: Antilope

                                      Thank you so much for sharing your recipes! I'll be doing hot and sour soup trials in the next few weeks so I'll be posting soon about how it goes! Part of what makes Asian cuisine so hard, and yet so wonderful, for me anyway is fighting to find the balance between a taste you love and a taste you're used to getting in a restaurant. I'm excited to get in the kitchen and get started!

                                      1. re: homewithdogs

                                        Try sesame oil that's laced with hot pepper (there are several brands and the Japanese versions work best in my experience.) This will give you a rich, smokey, hot taste that you may be looking for (it goes in at the very end.)

                                        1. re: homewithdogs

                                          you're absolutely 100% right about the balance, that many components make for one mighty narrow tightrope. it's never wrong, it's just not always 'right'

                                        2. re: Antilope

                                          Here are some reviews of my recipe (see 23 reivews below recipe):

                                          EASY HOT AND SOUR SOUP


                                        3. Have you tried making a Chinese chicken broth (with ginger -it does add a different subtle heat)? It will definitely give a richer fuller flavor than canned, and the bones will release gelatin that gives the soup great mouth feel. I do think the pork adds a lot of flavor, but with a great broth the pork won't be missed so much.

                                          My favorite restaurant hot + sour soup has a couple of big mushrooms floating in it (which I love), but it's not a predominant flavor. I'm pretty sure you can easily do without.

                                          Everyone's got their own preference, but to me it's not right if there aren't bamboo shoots. A tiny amount of finely shredded carrot for color is very nice too.

                                          1. I like to add my vinegar, most of it if not all of it, at the end of the cooking process to achieve the sourness that I like. I really like my H&S soup sour. I've used distilled vinegar as well as black vinegar. Any vinegar, as long as you like its taste, should be OK.

                                            1 Reply
                                            1. re: selfportrait93

                                              I agree with those above saying white vinegar and white pepper are the trick. Also, I use a vinegar to soy ratio of 4:1 at least, greater if using dark soy sauce. A little chili oil can't hurt.

                                            2. This is homewithdogs (the original poster, I just can't seem to reset my password!). I've tried the suggestions so graciously offered in this page. Unfortunately, my soup still doesn't come close to that hearty, delicious hot and sour soup we're used to in the Bay Area. It's almost like it's a secret recipe that I can't crack the code of.

                                              Any more recipes or cooking techniques to highlight? What am I missing, fellow Chowhounders??

                                              Here's my dissection of the flavor-adding ingredients:
                                              - HEAT: My only conclusion is that white pepper is the heat. Chili flakes or chili oil don't give me the flavor.
                                              - VINEGAR: No clue here! I've tried all red wine vinegar, all white vinegar, half and half of the above, Chinese mature black vinegar....
                                              - SALT: Soy sauce or double-dark? I could be wrong but I don't think the soy sauce does much other than offset the vinegar/heat and color the broth... ?? Without soy sauce, my soup is nearly clear.
                                              - BROTH: chicken broth? I've given up on beef stock.
                                              - THICKENING: cornstarch?

                                              I'd so appreciate any more thoughts on how to make a hot and sour that tastes just like in the Chinese restaurants in the Bay Area. Thank you in advance!

                                              2 Replies
                                              1. re: ladypnc

                                                White pepper (lots!) has been suggested to you [rather than chile flakes/oil]. Lily buds, tofu sheets, wood fungus, sliced bamboo shoots etc has also been suggested as stuff that adds to the aggregate taste profile, even though you said your husband would refuse to eat them so you never put them in. Beef stock was suggested as something that would not give the proper taste profile - have you been using it all along? Cornstarch is indeed usually used, have you not used it? Chinking black vinegar is one type that gives a special kick to it (and you need quite a bit of it in the soup), have you tried that one? Have you also marinated your pork pieces/strips? (one marinade option is soy sauce, sesame oil, cornstarch/tapioca starch) Are you still using seafood rather than pork?


                                                It ma also be that you simply need to add MSG in. Many commercial places would indeed do so.

                                                1. re: huiray

                                                  Bottom line you are NEVER going to get there with what you are leaving out...