Romanian potato soup
Romanian potato soup. Wikimedia Commons

You knew that food you cook from scratch is healthier and tastier than prepared food. But did you know that it can be almost as convenient? Here’s how to make soup that’s healthy, easy, and ready in no time. 

If you make soup in large enough quantities, it’s just as good for a later meal. And nuking a bowl of soup from your refrigerator is even faster than opening a can. Some kinds of soup are ready in half an hour or less. Others have to cook longer, but even they require more time than attention. 

You don’t exactly need a recipe, either: 

As long as you know a few simple procedures, you can vary the ingredients any way you want. Make as much or as little as you want, too. 

Starting with olive oil

Onion soup
Onion soup. Lablascovegmenu via Flickr

Let’s start with how to make a very easy vegetarian soup. I say vegetarian, because the olive oil provides all the fat and flavor you need. If you have some kind of cooked leftover meat or poultry, go ahead and use it if you want. 

  • Brown some onions and garlic in olive oil.
  • Add water.
  • Bring it to a boil.
  • Add whatever else suits your fancy.
  • Add some kind of seasoning.
  • Simmer until everything is cooked.

If you intend the soup as an introduction to a larger meal, fresh spinach and diced tomatoes make a very fast and easy soup. Basil or some other Italian herb makes a wonderful complement.

There’s not much point in listing other vegetables. Use whichever ones you like, as few or as many different kinds as you feel like. 

I have only one word of warning:

Wait to add quick-cooking vegetables like peas or summer squash until longer-cooking vegetables are almost done.

I don’t recommend using fresh mushrooms, because I don’t like the color of the resulting broth. If you use canned mushrooms, add the liquid, too.

What else can you add?

  • Noodles, tortellini, or other pasta (being careful not to overcook them)
  • Quick-cooking barley straight from the box
  • Any other grain that’s already cooked.
  • Cooked meat.

If you choose to make enough to freeze, my experience is that potatoes become really disgusting. A rutabaga or turnip in soup (or stew) looks and tastes like potato and freezes better.

Chicken broth soups

Egg drop soup
Egg drop soup. Steve Depolo via Flickr

For chicken or turkey broth soups, you can use broth from the store. But try making it yourself. It’s a great way to get the most out of a whole chicken or turkey you have roasted. Either way, you have the basis of a variety of easy soups.

If you make your own broth, prepare it separately. Once you have picked all the meat off the bones of a whole chicken or turkey, simmer the bones (with whatever herbs and spices you want) until it tastes as rich as you want it. It’s best to add salt at the very end—just a little at a time until it tastes right.

The bones will collect at the bottom of the pot, so you’ll have to strain the broth and then discard them. It helps to have a defatting pitcher. You’ll make a lot of broth this way. Have some one- and two-cup containers on hand for freezing some of it.

For easy, healthy soups, bring some broth to a boil. Add egg noodles if you like. Or you can add rice (cooked). Finish it off with any kind of vegetables you want and  some pieces of cooked chicken. If  you made your own broth, you have plenty. Boiling the broth for a long time concentrates the salt. It’s best to start with broth that may not be quite as salty as you like.

Besides chicken noodle soup or chicken vegetable soup, chicken or turkey broth can be the base for egg drop soup. Whatever else you put in it, bring the broth to a boil and pour in beaten eggs. How many depends on how much you’re making. The eggs cook instantly when they hit the broth.

Meat broth soups

Slow cooker. How to make soup
Jason Riedy via Flickr

For other meats, put the meat in a soup pot or slow cooker along with whatever other vegetables you want. I have always used canned diced tomatoes. I suppose fresh diced tomatoes would work. 

Cover it all with water and simmer until the meat is cooked.  Allow at least a couple of hours. These soups need time, not attention. Again, add quick-cooking vegetables when everything else is nearly done and add salt last of all.

You can use boneless meat. Otherwise, you’ll still have to remove the bones before serving this easy vegetable soup, but unless you use neck bones, they’re much easier to remove than chicken bones. Cooking the bones adds calcium to your soup.

If you use a slow cooker, add the vegetables first and put the meat on top before filling it with water. The soup cooks more evenly that way.

I have only used beef for this kind of soup, but pork or lamb probably also make excellent and healthy soup.

Low fat cream soups

Cream of potato soup
Cream of potato soup. Robert Judge via Flickr

These easy and healthy soups are low fat because they don’t really have any cream in them. Different soups require slightly different procedures, but there is a strong family resemblance.

For cream of chicken soup, start with chicken broth. Add cooked chicken, perhaps some rice or noodles—whatever else suits your fancy. After everything is cooked, bring it to a boil. Thicken it with a mixture of 1/4 cup of water and 1 tablespoon of cornstarch for every pint of broth. Add a can of evaporated milk after thickening the soup.

For cream of broccoli cabbage, celery, potato, spinach, etc., chop the vegetables (or shred the cabbage finely) and cook them in water. Reserve the cooking water and add instant milk powder to it. Or use evaporated milk as above. Thicken the soup with cornstarch and water.

For cream of mushroom soup, sauté chopped fresh mushrooms in one tablespoon of butter or olive oil for every cup of soup you’re making. Add an equal amount of flour to make a roux. Add the milk a little at a time, stirring constantly. In other words, making this soup is just like making gravy, except you use half the amount of flour and fat so that it won’t be as thick.

Some variants

Actually, there’s a better way to make potato soup

  • Cut the potato into small cubes and cook them in water, along with some chopped onions and garlic.
  • Remove half of the potatoes with a slotted spoon and set them aside.
  • Puree the rest of the potatoes, the cooking water, and some instant milk powder in a blender or food processor. If it’s too thick, add some milk. If it’s too thin, add a little bit of instant mashed potatoes.
  • Return the puree and reserved potatoes to the pot.
  • If you like, add some cooked corn and/or bacon bits.

Add a can of clams, juice and all, to either kind of potato soup and you can call it New England clam chowder—unless, of course, you live in New England and know a good authentic recipe.

Here’s an easy alternative cream of cabbage with barley soup:

  • Cook 1/2 cup of quick-cooking barley in 2 cups of water or some kind of broth.
  • In a separate pot, sauté shredded cabbage (you can use packaged coleslaw), onions, and garlic in 1/4 cup of olive oil or butter. Use a good-sized soup pot.
  • When the cabbage is soft, add 6 tablespoons of flour and gradually stir in 2 cups of milk. The result will be very thick.
  • Add the cooked barley and broth to the pot.
  • Stir and season to taste.

Bean or pea soups

Split pea soup
Split pea soup. Alan Levine via Flickr

How many kinds of bean soup are there? As many as there are kinds of dried beans (or peas) plus as many combinations as you can think of. All these easy, healthy soups are made the same way.

  • Soak the beans overnight and discard the soaking water. (This step is not necessary for lentils or split peas.)
  • Put the beans in a soup pot or slow cooker.
  • Add sliced carrots and chopped onions. (The carrots are more important for flavor than even the onions. I learned that one time when I had everything in the slow cooker before I found I didn’t have any carrots.)
  • Add soup bones if you want, or some olive oil for a vegetarian soup.
  • Cover with water and cook slowly until the beans are tender.
  • Remove the bones, if any.
  • Let the soup come to a boil.
  • Mix some water, cornstarch, and whatever seasonings you want.
  • Pour it into the boiling soup to thicken it and bind the fat.

A final instruction and a bonus

Soup with matzo balls
Soup with matzo balls. Nina Jean via Flickr

I have mentioned soup bones a couple of times. If you use anything very fatty, you’ll need to remove most of the fat before serving the soup. 

The easiest way is to cook the soup the day before you intend to serve it and refrigerate the soup pot. The fat will rise to the top and congeal. Remove it all with a slotted spoon.

The next easiest way is to use a defatting pitcher. On mine, the spout comes out from the bottom of the pitcher. The fat will rise to the top, so you can pour out the broth and stop pouring just as the bottom of the fat approaches the spout. Other designs accomplish the same purpose. Get a glass one. All the plastic ones I ever had leaked after only a few uses.

Here’s a fast and easy tomato soup. I can’t think of anything else it’s like: Combine pasta sauce and milk. Heat and eat. 

Now isn’t that as easy and better tasting than opening a can of concentrate and adding water? If you have some leftover vegetables or cooked meat, add them if you want.