5 Secrets for Your Best-Ever Plant-Based Soup
No, you don’t have to start with broth.
I make an absurd amount of soup every week for friends in the form of a vegan soup club — I make and deliver 65 quarts of soup to my friends’ porches in Seattle, even through the pandemic! I started it as a kind of culinary exploration of restrictions I’d found for health reasons, rooted in determined curiosity, and what I ended up developing — other than a cookbook of recipes and a return to a wholeness of myself — is a strong philosophy on what makes a great vegan soup.
And no, it doesn’t begin with broth.
In my opinion, the difference between a mediocre and truly surprising soup lies in the details, things I already had in my kitchen and repertoire. Here are my tips for making truly delicious vegan soups every time.
Salt is very important to develop layered flavor when cooking with vegetables. I generally disagree with prescribed salt amounts in recipes (seasoning levels are subjective and, I believe, a choice of the cook’s alone), yet chose to include them in my soup club recipes because I believe so strongly there is a baseline requirement to transform what is essentially vegetable tea into a delicious soup. Many of my soups contain beans for protein, and salt is especially important to tease out their unique flavors and textures.
Though a painfully obvious component of soup, water as an ingredient is a deceptively nuanced. The trick, I determined, is in how the water is used: only adding it once, seasoning it with salt and pepper and often a few tablespoons of dried spices, and trust that the flavor will develop while the soup simmers. (It does, unfailingly.) What results when the vegetables and beans are cooked through and the soup is done is a product of all of those ingredients working together. At the end of the soup’s simmer, water has transformed into something different entirely. And so my rule of adding water only once — never stretching the soup, ever — is now a creed in my kitchen.
Texture, especially in vegan soups I’d argue, is very important to consider. I prefer my vegetables and even beans to remain a bit crisp so a variety of textures exist in a single spoonful. I love keeping comforting vegetables like carrots, winter squash and sweet potatoes in large pieces, so the person eating it is engaged with the contents of their bowl. I love topping soups with unexpected things, like seeds or a pinch of dressed tender salad greens. Texture, I believe, is the key element in avoiding a boring bowl of soup.
My soups are rarely spicy — I cook for families, my own and friends’, most with little kids like mine — but always richly flavored. My inspiration for building the flavor in my recipes generally comes from two places: either a traditional cuisine that celebrates a vegetarian dish (like Ethiopian, for example), or a challenge I give myself to sing the praises of a particular vegetable. Developing my recipes this way led me to a cache of favorite ingredients: powders or spice blends that would significantly change the soup’s flavor in a dash or spoonful when added with the water. I love nutritional yeast as an umami/savory shortcut; smoked paprika offers the round, smoky flavors traditionally relied upon by ham or other smoked meat. I make my own spice blends such as curry and chili powders because making tiny adjustments to blends — like adding cinnamon to chili powder — makes the resulting soup taste intriguing.
Vegetables simmered in water, even if cooked and salted to perfection, can taste flat. I think of it as though the ingredients have been at a party where they have been mingling for a long time; they need a burst of excitement to wake them up a little. A dash of acid — my favorites being apple cider vinegar, lemon juice or sherry vinegar — does just the trick after the soup is off the stove.
This is what amounts to be my wisdom about vegan soup, stumbled across over three years of soup-making and writing a cookbook about it. I’ve learned, however, what makes soup taste the very best is when it’s eaten on a cold, rainy evening around a table with loved ones. I honestly believe soup can heal and restore, because that’s what it did for me. A good soup holds something special from the cook in it, and when its shared with others, it can be nothing short of magic.