The nice thing about soup, aside from the fact that it's warm and cozy and just about all I want to eat during the winter, is that you can make the dish with pretty much anything. Soup is what I often whip up between grocery trips, when my pantry only has a few cans of beans and a rogue packet of dehydrated broth left to give.
The next time you're running low on ingredients but can't make it to the store to buy groceries, try throwing together a soup instead. With a little knowledge about the types of pantry staples you can and should use, you'll find that you too can make a delicious soup practically out of thin air.
To get you started, I've compiled all the information I think you need to know about making delicious and satisfying soup with pantry staples, based on what I've learned from years of doing it myself, plus a handful of tips from experts. Here are seven steps to follow for a successful, DIY soup:
1. Decide on the base liquid.
Contrary to popular belief, you don't need to have broth or stock on hand to make soup. Though soup is admittedly mostly liquid, you don't need to use a stock or broth. If you rely on flavor-packed dried ingredients, like bay leaves and whole peppercorns, plus the right kind of fat and acid sources (more on that in a bit), water can become a perfectly suitable base.
You can also make a quickie veggie broth with whatever veggies you happen to have in your crisper drawer. Stew loose carrots, celery, and/or onions in water with whole peppercorns, sprigs of herbs, and salt for 30 minutes over a medium heat, pour everything through a sieve or colander to separate the liquid from the whole ingredients, then use it right away or freeze it and save it for a rainy day.
In general, whether you end up using store-bought or homemade broth (or water) you'll need about 6 cups of liquid for every 14 ounces of protein you include, Amy Gorin, M.S., R.D.N., owner of Amy Gorin Nutrition in the New York City-area, tells SELF. But if you want to use more or less, she says you totally can. "The beauty of soup is that it’s really so versatile," she explains, "so these recommendations certainly aren’t set in stone." In many cases, you can actually add a bit more water or broth to fix a soup, say if you accidentally added too much salt. Think of water as your cooking eraser—a quick way to dilute a little mistake.
2. If you're using meat, cook that and set it aside.
If you're working with uncooked meat, you'll also want to be sure to pre-cook it for a bit on the stove. It doesn't need to cook all the way through (because it will continue to cook in the hot liquid later) but you should definitely get a nice sear on all of its sides first, because that will add a richer, caramelized flavor to your soup. In most cases, you'll want to cook the meat before you cook anything else, transfer it to a plate, and skim any excess fat that it leaves behind in the pot. (You'll transfer the meat back to the pot when you add the liquid source.)
If you're using pre-cooked meat, like rotisserie chicken, you can shred it or cut it into cubes and throw it directly in the pot a few minutes before the whole soup is done. That'll give it enough time to take on the flavors in the soup without overcooking it.
3. Gather up whatever veggies you have.
Keep in mind they definitely don't need to be fresh vegetables. Whenever I'm at the grocery store and I notice anything canned on sale, I stock up so I always have something to make soup with. In fact, a lot of different canned ingredients can be a huge boon for soup making, Gorin explains. In particular, she loves canned tomatoes because they're great for quick minestrones and tomato soups—you should add the whole can, juices and all, directly to your soups instead of draining them. And she's a fan of things like canned water chestnuts and baby carrots because they can add a nice crunch.
Frozen vegetables are another great option, especially when it comes to leafy greens like spinach. Fresh spinach is better reserved for things like salad where its crisp texture can be enjoyed, and not as much for things like soup where it's just going to be cooked down anyway. Frozen spinach is also a more economical option, as one small box of the stuff probably contains about three to four times as much what's in a bag of fresh spinach. But your frozen veggie options aren't limited to leafy greens. Feel free to use literally whatever you have on hand.
4. Sauté most of your veggies and spices right in the pot.
Before you add any liquid to the pot, you should always sauté any tough veggies, like carrots. Delicate produce like spinach and Swiss chard can wait until the end. Not only will doing this ensure that all your veggies are fully cooked through, but it will also brown them a bit, which will give your soup more flavor in the end.
This rule goes for spices, too. You should always try to cook them in oil, butter, or whichever fat source you prefer before adding any liquids, because doing this helps release their flavors.
5. Use an acidic ingredient to deglaze the pot.
After you've given your veggies time to sweat it out, add an acidic ingredient to deglaze the brown bits—these little fellas may look burnt, but they're actually packed with flavor. It's absolutely essential that you use an acidic ingredient in your soup because it will help balance all the other flavors in your soup. When I was a kid, I distinctly remembering noticing a difference between the soup that my mom would make with wine and the ones she would make without it. I noticed the difference mainly because I didn't like the one without the wine as much (sorry, Mom). I've never not used it since and it's made all the difference.
As for ingredients you can use that fit into this category, opt for things like citrus juice, wine, beer, apple cider vinegar, rice vinegar, or white or red wine vinegar. After you add it to your soup pot, let it cook for a few minutes until the alcohol burns off. If you're using vinegar, let it cook until its smell becomes smoother and less in-your-face acidic.
6. Add some carbs and protein to bulk things up.
Any bean that you have in your pantry is fair game, says Maxine Yeung, R.D., trained pastry chef and owner of The Wellness Whisk. Just be sure to rinse off canned beans before you use them so you don't accidentally over salt your dish, she explains. The nice thing about beans is that they can be both a source of starch and protein, two aspects that Yeung says your soup should always have to be a filling meal. Not to mention, they're extremely affordable, convenient, and versatile—you can build any kind of flavor profile that you like on top of beans, whether that's a French-style cassoulet, a stew with white beans and sausage, or a spicy chana masala (an Indian stew with chickpeas).
"When I make soups, I keep in mind the usual balance of ingredients I use for any meal," Yeung adds. She uses approximately 50 percent vegetables and 25 percent each of proteins and starches to feel full and satisfied. Thankfully, there's so much you can rely on. As I mentioned, canned beans are a great option because they are a source of both carbohydrates and protein. Dairy sources like milk, cheese, and yogurt can add protein and thicken the soup; so can ingredients like brown rice, quinoa, and other whole grains. Now's also the time to add any meat.
If you want to use pasta or noodles, just be sure to keep in mind that they might get soggy or overcooked if you add them too soon. I always wait to add them until the very end, about six minutes before I take my pot off the stove, because I know they'll continue to cook in the hot liquid afterward.
7. Finally, add liquid ingredients and let it all hang out for at least 30 minutes.
How long you need to cook your soup depends on the type of soup you're making. If it's all veggies, it won't take as long for the ingredients to cook and the flavors to come out. If you're making a chicken soup with brown rice, however, it'll take more time for the rice to fully cook. Check it often and cook it until it tastes ready to you. Then serve it up or save it for later. And don't forget to write down what you threw in so you can recreate your invention again.