Soup Without a Recipe
Getty ImagesFood writer Michael Ruhlman's book, Ratio, might just free you from cookbooks forever. Instead of relying on recipes, Ruhlman breaks down cooking into easy-to-understand ratios of ingredients, a method he says allows for more creativity in the kitchen. "When you know a ratio, you don't know a single recipe, you know a thousand," he says. Once you've mastered the basics, you're free to start experimenting by adding or subtracting flavors.
SOUP STOCK RATIO: 3 parts water to 2 parts bonesWhen you're talking about soup, says Ruhlman, you're really talking about stock -- the lush, savory backbone that gives soup its flavor and texture. In order to save time, many cooks skip this step, relying instead on boxed or canned broth, but Ruhlman says it's not a shortcut worth taking.
"For some reason," he says, "people got it in their head that to make stock, you have to make vast quantities of it and cook it for hours and then strain it and de-fat it. No one wants a sink full or pots or something that takes all weekend." The truth is, he says, stock is almost absurdly easy to make.
"I roast a chicken almost every week," says Ruhlman, "and I just throw the leftovers in a pot and put it on low in the oven for a few hours. It makes delicious stock." (And it's in a different category altogether from what's sold in boxes and cans, he says. "The good stuff, you can't mass produce it. It's doesn't translate.")
Ruhlman's basic stock ratio is three parts water to two parts meaty bones. In order to develop that coveted velvety mouth feel, all stocks need bones -- using just meat and vegetables won't cut it. It's the bones and the meat that's stuck to them that give the stock body and flavor. Cartilage and tendons contain connective tissue, which dissolves into gelatin when it's simmered for a long time.
"That's what gives a stock body and makes it feel good in our mouth," Ruhlman says. "And gelatin is actually a protein, so it's a nourishment as well." The bones also add flavor, especially if they've been previously roasted. Add some aromatics like sweet onion to that base and you've got a wonderful complex stock," he says. The majority of meaty stocks operate on the same principle as basic chicken stock, though Ruhlman recommends blanching or roasting beef and veal bones first to rid them of impurities.
A tip for newbies: No matter how romantic the idea of a bubbling stockpot, don't boil your stock. In fact, he says, don't even simmer it. Agitating the water leads to a cloudy stock. He recommends a temperature of 180 degrees F, which results in a beautiful clear liquid with a deep, savory meat flavor.
And it's that flavor that creates amazing soups. The addition of onions, carrots and leftover chicken makes a chicken soup that rivals grandma's. Adding white beans, cooked sausage and greens transforms the stock into a hearty winter meal. As with all of Ruhlman's ratios, the key is to use your imagination.
"Soup's a no-brainer," he says. "At a restaurant, they just think of a soup as cleaning out the fridge, making something tasty with the scraps that they have. Once you have a good stock, you can do anything."
From RATIO: THE SIMPLE CODES BEHIND THE CRAFT OF EVERYDAY COOKING by Michael Ruhlman. Copyright 2009 by Ruhlman. Reprinted by permission of Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.