My Recipe Box

Creamy Vegetable Soups Without All the Cream

Using potato and rice instead of cream as a thickener, you can make a light and tasty version of a traditional comfort food


from Fine Cooking
Issue 25

Cream of vegetable soups have always been a favorite of mine. I love their satiny texture and rich flavor. I also like the fact that I can easily make a silky-smooth soup from whatever looks best at the farmers' market (or even from what's in my fridge or pantry) because the method is virtually the same for all vegetables: they're cooked until tender in broth, water, or milk, thickened, and puréed.

Many traditional cream soups are thickened with a béchamel sauce (made by stirring milk into a butter and flour roux) and finished with a good amount of cream. But all that cream, milk, and butter can make the soup feel too rich—even for me.

An easy, adaptable way to make soup

When I make a "cream of" soup, I usually feature just one vegetable. But I always add some aromatics—garlic, shallots, onions, leeks—to make the flavor more complex.

The fat used to sauté the aromatics also adds flavor — Butter adds richness, bacon fat a wonderful smoky flavor, and olive oil a light, fruity note.

The thickener is added along with the liquid — For every 2 pounds of featured vegetable, I add about 6 cups of liquid. Most puréed vegetable soups call for broth, but you can use milk or water, or a combination. It's easier to thin a soup once it has been puréed than to thicken it, so err on the side of less liquid rather than more. The potato or rice goes right into the pot with the simmering liquid.

  • creamy vegetable soups
    Begin by sautéing some aromatic vegetables over medium heat until soft. If you want the flavor of a robust, resinous herb like thyme or rosemary, add it now. Then add liquid and simmer.
  • creamy vegetable soups
    Add the thickener—1/2 cup raw rice or a sliced raw potato. These starchy ingredients swell and give off starch during cooking. When the soup is puréed, they'll make it look and feel creamy.

When to add the featured vegetable depends on how long it takes to cook — Long-cooking vegetables like carrots or turnips should be added at the same time as the starch, but quick-cooking vegetables like spinach and sorrel should be added when the starch is almost cooked (see Vegetable timing chart). This isn't an exact science, so don't worry if the starch needs a few extra minutes. Just be sure that you're able to smash the potato slices easily against the side of the pot and that the rice is plump and tender; otherwise, the purée may be grainy.

Vegetable timing chart — All vegetables should be diced or shredded for the quickest and most uniform cooking.


 Long-cooking vegetables go in with the potatoes or rice; they're tender in about 25 minutes.
• Carrots
• Cauliflower
• Fennel
• Other roots and tubers
• Onions
• Sweet potatoes
• Garlic
 Medium-cooking vegetables need 10 to 15 minutes.
• Asparagus
• Broccoli
• Celery
• Mushrooms
• Tomatoes
• Winter Squash
 Quick-cooking vegetables cook in only a few minutes.
• Peas
• Spinach
• Sorrel
• Swiss Chard

Purée the soup in a blender — For the creamiest texture, I use a blender. A food processor will give a slightly grainy texture, and a food mill will be the coarsest. If you want the soup perfectly smooth, or if the vegetable has a skin (like tomatoes) or is particularly fibrous (like artichokes), work the puréed soup through a medium mesh strainer with the back of a ladle.

The puréed soup may need to be thinned with a little extra broth, milk, or water, especially if you're serving the soup cold (any cream soup that's served hot can also be served cold).

  • creamy vegetable soups
    Cut the featured vegetable into even-size pieces and add at the right moment—when the time remaining for the potato or rice to cook is about how long the vegetable will take to cook. Photo: Scott Phillips
  • creamy vegetable soups
    Purée the soup in batches. When the rice is plump or the potato is tender, carefully purée the soup in a blender, food processor, or food mill. For a more refined texture, pass it through a mesh strainer as well. Photo: Scott Phillips
Garnish for flavor and texture

Most cream soups are best when the flavor of the vegetable isn't blurred by too many ingredients, but herbs, spices, or cooked meats can make the soup more interesting.

Fresh chopped herbs brighten the soup's flavor. Most soups benefit from a little parsley, basil, chives, or chervil. Try the more assertive tarragon with mushroom, and dill with beet. Chopped cilantro is great in soups with southwestern ingredients, such as chiles, tomatoes, and corn.

Spices—used sparingly—add character. Try stirring a tiny pinch of grated nutmeg into cream of asparagus, spinach, or mushroom soup. A tablespoon of curry powder, cooked with the aromatics, adds a savory backdrop that's great with butternut squash, sweet potato, and cauliflower. Fresh grated ginger simmered in a carrot or fennel soup a minute or two before the soup is puréed will give it some zing.

Flavorful meats make the soup heartier. Stir in strips of prosciutto, crumbled cooked bacon, tiny cooked shrimp, or shredded cooked chicken after the soup has been puréed.

Some soups benefit from a splash of wine. I love sherry in a soup of carrots or winter squash. Adding wine is an especially good trick if the finished soup tastes a little flat. Cook the soup for a couple of minutes to get rid of the alcohol. A good wine vinegar or some lemon juice will also give the soup some tang.

Don't forget the salt and pepper. Cream soups need a good amount of salt to bring out the somewhat muted vegetable flavors.

Photos: Scott Phillips


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