How To Make Chicken Soup
Chicken Soup, courtesy Ronnie Fein
Winter is coming and that means we’re going to get colds and that means we’ll need chicken soup.
No, it isn’t real medicine. But there is something to be said for its healing powers, both physical and emotional. Chicken soup offers steamy vapors that open up clogged sinuses. It soothes our souls. It is an elixir meant to nurture and nourish, the sort of dish that seems inborn in a Jewish mother’s being.
And yet, it isn’t inborn, so it’s important to figure out how to cook it. The recipe is simple, but there are some tips that can help you prepare a really good soup. I’ll tell you how, using my family recipe, which has stood the test of time. My grandma made her first version in 1903, when she married my grandpa (she undoubtedly learned how from her mother of course). Our family has been making it the same way ever since. That’s a long time, isn’t it?
My grandma used to say: “start with a good chicken.” Kosher, of course, and an older bird, because it has some fat, which makes the soup rich and flavorful. She used a stewing hen and cooked it for hours, but stewing hens are not widely available anymore, so I use either one large bird and some extra wings or a plentiful amount of “chicken bones for soup” that have become available in recent years (they’re much cheaper than regular chicken!). The tip here is to use lots of chicken for the amount of water (about 4 pounds for an 8-quart pot), and be sure to include the skin, fat and bones. You can’t make good chicken soup with skinless, boneless breasts. Really.
It’s important to remove the package of gizzard, neck, etc. and to rinse the inside of the chicken to get rid of excess “inner parts” that may have been left; this helps keep the soup clear. I add the neck and gizzard to the broth, but cook the liver separately (it makes the broth bitter).
Kosher chickens typically have lots of pinfeathers and it’s a chore to remove them. I remember my grandmother and mother using those large kitchen matches and burning them off – the smell still lingers in my brain. I find that a small sharp knife gets most of them, it does take time and if I don’t get every single one my family doesn’t seem to notice or care.
Place the chicken in a large soup pot, add water to cover the chicken by one-inch, and bring the liquid to a simmer. Don’t let the water come to a rumbling boil because that tends to make the chicken too chewy.
When the soup comes to a simmer, you’ll see foamy-looking debris rise to the surface. Skim this off with a spoon – this helps to keep the soup clear – and keep skimming for about 10 minutes, after which you can add the remaining ingredients and go about your business until the chicken is soft and the soup is fully cooked.
What other ingredients? Here are the ones I always use: 4-5 carrots, one thick parsnip, one large peeled onion, 3-4 stalks of celery (including the leaves), and a big bunch of fresh dill. I’ve made chicken soup with leeks, potatoes, sweet potatoes, turnips, and/or bell pepper. Not for us. In a pinch I’ve used dried dill, but it doesn’t have that same fresh flavor. My family loves the original, my grandmother’s gold standard recipe.
For seasoning beyond the dill, only this: 8-12 whole peppercorns (I prefer peppercorns to ground pepper because they can be strained out more easily) and some kosher salt – perhaps one tablespoon for a big pot.
There are “soup bags/socks” you can use for the vegetables and seasonings, so you don’t have to bother with straining, but I always forget that I have them, so it’s the old fashioned way for me. Your choice.
Either way, cook the soup cook until the chicken is practically falling off the bone, then strain it into a large colander over a bowl (or remove the chicken and the soup bag). Refrigerate the soup and other ingredients separately. The fat will rise to the surface and harden, so you can remove and discard it easily.
Whether or not you use a soup bag, I find the broth needs further straining if you want to serve it really clear. If your family doesn’t care, don’t bother with the next step. Otherwise do this: heat the soup -- warm liquid is more efficient to strain than cold (it doesn’t need to be hot). Strain it into a bowl through a double layer of cheesecloth.
Matzo balls? Sure, but not critical. I remember my grandma using little egg noodle squares instead. Sometimes I serve soup plain, with rice (and use the chicken for salad, the vegetables make good veggie burgers). Sometimes we have chicken soup as a one-pot meal with bits of chicken and the cooking vegetables. Anyway at all, homemade chicken soup is a good thing. Not a dish that you’re born knowing, but easy to get right and well worth the effort.