Remember the best-selling book Chicken Soup for the Soul, an anthology of inspirational stories to help people feel better about themselves? No one questioned the culinary metaphor in the title. It takes no stretch of the imagination. In nearly every culture, chicken soup is soul food, providing comfort to all who drink in its hot and healing properties. Whether it’s a simple broth or enhanced with noodles, rice, or matzo balls, it makes you feel nourished and comforted.
When a friend heard that I was asked to write about chicken soup, she smiled and said, “Of course, you’re a Jewish grandmother.” True, chicken soups are an essential part of my culinary repertoire. I’ve been making them for so long that it’s almost a reflex. My soups are clear, intensely flavored, and wonderfully sustaining. I get such great results not because I’m a Jewish grandmother, but because I pay attention to a few details that really count—starting with the right chicken, substantially reducing the broth after it has been strained, and knowing how to cook, but not overcook, vegetables, noodles, and rice.
From my huge international repertoire of chicken soups, I’ve chosen three of the simplest and most comforting for this article: classic chicken noodle soup, Portuguese soup with lemon and mint, and matzo ball soup. They’re family favorites, and many of my customers at Square One restaurant loved them as well.
Best chicken for soup: an old hen or a kosher broiler
When I was growing up in Brooklyn, chicken soup always began with a walk to the kosher poultry store. We would select a fine live pullet (a young hen that hasn’t yet begun laying eggs), have it killed, cleaned, and cut up on the spot, and then carry it home to make soup. Alas, finding a bird of that quality has become almost impossible. Even chickens labeled “free range” don’t have the flavor of those kosher pullets. And big roasters, although they’re the right size, are too fatty and don’t give off enough flavor.
So what do I use to make chicken soup today? If I can find an older hen or rooster at my market, I buy it. Otherwise, I get two large broilers, which are younger, smaller chickens that weigh about 3 1/2-or 4-pounds. I might ask the butcher to cut up the birds and maybe throw in a few extra necks and backs for a richer broth.
I like to use kosher chickens because they’re salted during the processing and therefore have more flavor. Empire is one brand that I like. If I’m not using a kosher chicken, I clean it and then rub the whole bird or parts with a cut lemon and sprinkle it lightly with coarse salt to boost its flavor. I wrap the salted chicken in plastic and refrigerate it overnight, or even for just a few hours (there’s no need to rinse off the salt before cooking). This step isn’t essential by any means, but it does bring out more flavor and make the broth taste more chickeny.
For great broth: simmer to extract flavor, strain, and reduce by half
Before I explain how to make the soup, let me clarify a few cooking terms. Chicken soup is the finished product with all the garnishes and components. It contains chicken broth, chicken, vegetables, and often a starchy addition like noodles, rice, or dumplings. Broth is similar to stock, except it has deeper flavor. Broth can be a soup in its own right (think of consommé), while chicken stock is a base for other dishes, a foundation for a sauce, or a starting point for other soups. There are times when broth and stock are interchangeable, but for chicken soup, you definitely want the fuller flavor of broth.
To make a basic chicken broth, you simmer fresh chicken, carrots, onions, celery, and a few aromatics, such as parsley, thyme, and peppercorns. A few cloves of garlic and bay leaf might also be added. Some cooks include a parsnip for sweetness, others a piece of celery root or parsley root. Chinese cooks add ginger slices. Some families stick a few cloves into the onion. If I plan to take the broth in a particular ethnic direction, I might add two strips of lemon or lime zest, a few dried red chiles, or a smashed stalk of lemongrass.
Note that I haven’t mentioned salt. Because the liquid reduces substantially, any salt added at the start would become concentrated, and you might end up with an oversalted broth. To avoid this, add this critical seasoning at the end.
Measurements needn’t be exact. My basic recipe suggests six pounds of chicken parts. If you’re a little over, just bump up the vegetables a bit. The important thing is that everything in the pot is initially covered by about two inches of cold water. As the broth simmers uncovered, that gives you a good margin for evaporation.
For a clear broth, it’s important to skim off scum as the liquid comes to a boil, and then reduce the heat to a simmer. I continue to skim as necessary during the first half hour of simmering.
After three hours of simmering, pretty much all the flavor has been extracted from the chicken and vegetables. The chicken meat is dry and usually tasteless— its flavor has gone into the broth, which was the whole idea—so I strain it out and discard it, along with the carcass and vegetables.
At this point, I cool the broth. Do this quickly (an ice bath works well) and uncovered to avoid the chance of fermentation. Then I cover it, refrigerate, and wait for the fat to congeal on top for easy removal. Before the cholesterol-conscious era, chicken soup was judged by the quantity of golden fat droplets that floated alluringly on its surface. I have mixed feelings about this loss of color and richness, but I dutifully comply with current health dictums and scoop the fat away.
With the fat gone, you’re left with a light broth. The most efficient way to intensify it is to boil it to reduce its volume by half, or until the flavor hits the level you want. Or, if you would rather not evaporate away half the liquid, you can make what I call a double chicken broth: Make a second batch of broth using the first batch (not water) as the cooking medium. You’ll need another fresh chicken to do this.
A do-ahead tip: cook noodles or rice separately for more control
Now that you’ve got an intense, delicious broth, you can serve it as a simple nourishing soup or dress it up. There are no real rules here. You could add noodles, tortellini, ravioli, filled wontons, dumplings, rice, bread, vegetables, chicken pieces, grated cheese, poached eggs, beaten eggs, egg and lemon, parsley, mint, cilantro… whatever sounds good to you.
As a chef in a busy restaurant, I learned that one way to control the quality of a dish was by cooking all the components separately and then combining at the last minute. This isn’t how I normally cook at home, but when I’m adding garnishes to soup, I use this technique to ensure perfect doneness of each element. It also lets me do absolutely everything ahead of time. It doesn’t take much extra effort to cook rice, noodles, carrots, or chicken pieces individually, and I think it makes all the difference.
If you’d rather cook everything in the broth all at once, you can, but pay attention to the timing and order in which they’re added to avoid overcooking.
To add chicken pieces, poach fresh boneless breast meat in the reduced broth. You don’t need to buy extra boneless breasts to do this. You can just cut the breast meat off the whole bird or chicken parts you plan to use for the broth, reserving it for later. Whether you poach the breast whole or cut it into pieces before cooking doesn’t matter, but either way, you want to avoid poaching for too long and ending up with overly soft, weak-flavored chicken.
Egg noodles are my preference for chicken noodle soup. They’re tender and have a nice toothsome quality. In a pinch, I might use pastina or other small pasta. To avoid soggy noodles, cook them in boiling salted water and drain them the minute they’re al dente. They continue cooking a bit even after being drained, and again once they’re added to the broth, so err on the side of undercooking.
If it’s a rice soup, I lean toward basmati. It holds its shape better than most other long-grain varieties, and it has a lovely, delicate fragrance. As with pasta, I cook the rice separately until it’s still got some bite left.
One last point: only add noodles and rice to the broth you plan on serving at that meal. These starches continue absorbing liquid, which means that after several hours, they’ll be waterlogged, and you’ll end up with hardly any broth.
Matzo ball soup: a Passover tradition and cold-weather winner
Matzo ball soup is an essential and much-loved part of the Passover seder meal, and it’s also a heartwarming soup for the chilly days of fall and winter. A matzo ball, if you’ve not tried one, is a dumpling made of ground matzo, eggs, fat, and seasonings. Packaged ground matzo is called matzo meal, and it’s usually available year-round in supermarkets.
The rich flavor comes from chicken fat. Rendered chicken fat is traditional, but you can substitute with the fat that you’ve scooped off the refrigerated broth. If you want to use rendered fat, ask your butcher; he may have some in reserve.
For matzo balls that float, don’t overmix. As with muffin batter, you want to fold in the dry ingredients until just combined. Form the balls gently with your hands without compacting them. Also crucial is the cooking time. The longer you poach the matzo balls in boiling water, the lighter they’ll be.