Do you have the flu? Sinus infection? Minor cold? Broken leg? You probably just need some chicken soup. Maybe some rest, but definitely chicken soup. (Do not even think about wasting your time on something like tomato soup, which is a mere placebo at best. Gazpacho will likely cause instant death.) Chicken soup holds a universal place in human health and well-being as the ultimate culinary cure. An apple a day keeps the doctor away. Chicken soup, on the other hand, can replace doctors entirely. The staple soup crosses cultures, creeds, borders and backgrounds. Though prepared a little differently at every longitude and latitude, chicken soup might be the only thing all the peoples of the world can agree on. It’s like the United Nations of food.
The Sudafed people must really hate chickens and their delicious miracle broth.
“How you prepare it depends on where you are from,” says Marc Ardoin, corporate chef for Rouses Markets. Every cook has his or her own way of making chicken soup, but the primary ingredients are always the same: chicken, broth, veggies and heat. “There are so many ways you can make it. You can add your own flavors from vegetables and herbs and build a specific flavor profile, but it doesn’t require much if you are looking to keep it simple.” The ingredients for a very basic chicken soup, he says, include diced onions, carrots and celery; fresh parsley; chicken meat from, for example, a rotisserie chicken; and chicken broth. Let the ingredients simmer in the broth until the vegetables are tender. And that’s it! For chicken noodle soup, you can use egg noodles or even spaghetti noodles broken into small pieces.
For a very consistent, evenly cooked soup, Ardoin suggests cutting vegetables a uniform size. This prevents a crunchy-chewy roller coaster with every spoonful. Because carrots take the longest to tenderize, give them a five-minute head start in the boiling broth before adding the chicken and other ingredients. If you are using noodles, give them an extra five minutes to simmer and soften.
“Don’t be afraid to use salt, but don’t put it in at the beginning,” he says. “Wait until you get closer to the end because, otherwise, when the soup reduces down it might have too much salinity.” Likewise, don’t be stingy on the seasoning. “I know we aren’t afraid to season our food down here!” he adds.
TAKING STOCK OF THE SITUATION
A good broth is the most important element of a good chicken soup. “Just as if you were making a good hamburger, you would want to use the best ground meat. You want to use the best broth whenever you are making a chicken soup,” says Ardoin.
If you are reading this article to learn how to make chicken soup, you probably have no idea how to make broth, either. You might not even know what broth is. Do not despair. The most elaborate soup I have ever made needed only two items: a can opener and a can of Campbell’s. So the two of us, you and I, reader and author, are on this journey together.
Broth, as Ardoin explains, is not difficult to make. Remember that rotisserie chicken meat we used in the soup? To make a good broth, you need the other parts of the chicken. So step one is to pull the meat from the bone and set it aside for the soup recipe above. Next, take out a giant pot and add a gallon of water to it. Add the chicken carcass, carrots, onion and celery. Add peppercorns. Next add to the pot a bouquet garni — a bundle of fresh parsley, thyme and bay leaves tied together with a little string. (In addition to really elevating the flavor of the broth, by dropping “bouquet garni” into casual conversation, you really sound like you know what you are talking about.)
If you are feeling ambitious, Ardoin advises adding a pound of chicken feet to the broth. “It adds a really great texture. Even though you wouldn’t think of broth as even having a texture, the gelatin in the chicken feet adds a great mouthfeel.” Before adding the chicken feet, however, be sure to boil them first in water for about five minutes to eliminate impurities and extra proteins. Strain the chicken feet, rinse with cold water, and add them to the stockpot.
Bring the pot to a boil and then reduce it to a really low heat, and let it simmer for about three hours. Once the timer goes off, you’re going to strain the broth from the ingredients. The recommended method for this is to line a strainer with cheesecloth, and pour the contents of the pot through it. The cheesecloth will catch the finer matter from the bones that you don’t want in your broth. Discard the solid stuff that’s left behind in the strainer. “You want a really nice, clean product,” says Ardoin.
Broth is not only used in soups. It is often the foundation of pastas, pot pies — even turkey brines. “It creates this great flavor base for anything you might want to prepare,” says Ardoin.
Chicken matzo ball soup is a comfort food in Jewish culture and the traditional soup of the Passover Seder. Because of its mysterious healing powers, it has been called “Jewish penicillin.” Matzo balls are dumplings made from matzo meal, eggs, water, oil, and seasoning. To prepare them, mix the ingredients and refrigerate for about an hour. With moistened hands, shape the mix into balls and boil them for 30 minutes. (Look, your grandmother has the best recipe here. You are advised to consult her. I’m the guy whose soup is made with a can opener, remember?)
If we are now comparing soup to penicillin, it’s probably worth taking a look at the history of this salty chicken wonder. How did it get such a sterling reputation? The story of chicken soup goes back to the ancient Greeks, who, between inventing philosophy, democracy and the theatre, figured out that chicken and broth are just the bee’s knees. Noodles found their way into the soup in Asia in the 1200s. The actual name — “chicken noodle soup” — is a modern invention. The Campbell’s company premiered “Noodle with Chicken Soup” in 1934, but when a radio announcer was reading the advertisement, he misspoke, and a surge of “chicken noodle soup” orders spurred a name change. Campbell’s sells about 200 million cans of the soup every year. (Incidentally, the company promises that every can of said soup contains 32 feet of noodles, which I just find deeply unsettling. Thankfully, they have yet to reveal the number of chickens contained in each can.)
The appreciation of the soup’s healing properties belong chiefly to Jewish culture going back many millennia. The Babylonian Talmud mentions a curative chicken broth consumed by Abba Arikha, a rabbi in the second century. But it was Maimonides, the Jewish philosopher and physician from 12-century Egypt, who noticed its unique healing properties in patients with respiratory ailments. He wrote about it, and chicken soup was officially off to the races.
But is all this just a collective folk remedy? Something we eat simply to humor grandma— every grandma — going back thousands of years? (Grandmothers are tenacious in that regard.) Not according to science. A study conducted by researchers at Mount Sinai Medical Center in Miami Beach in 1978 found that having chicken soup was more effective than drinking water in clearing sinuses. Years later, at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, a professor of medicine named Stephen Rennard also decided to put the soup on trial. He tested his wife’s chicken soup under controlled conditions, wanting to find out if a certain type of white blood cell would be affected. Using blood drawn from research volunteers, he learned that, yes, the cell movement was inhibited, suggesting anti-inflammatory properties in the soup that would reduce symptoms in upper respiratory ailments, thus speeding the healing process. The results of his study were published in the medical journal CHEST in 2000 (though Maimonides beat them to publication by 800 years). A big question is why — no single ingredient could account for the positive effects. Something resulting from their interaction is the source of the medical magic at work.
THE EASY STUFF
And though we live in an age of farm-to-table wellness — an era of Instagram yoga-poses-while-drinking-matcha-and-sprinkling-gluten-free-essential-oils-on-avocado-before-eating-it-mindfully-with-kale-and-quinoa-in-front-of-an-ancient-Sumerian-temple — sometimes you just don’t have time to humanely raise a chicken from a wee egg and put it down after thanking it for its noble sacrifice. You’re not interested in preparing a stock — no matter how superb its flavor — or even buying premade stock from your local Rouses, and you certainly do not feel like chopping vegetables and waiting hours. (Don’t get me — or you — started on chicken feet.) Sometimes you only have three minutes and two cups of hot water. Enter ramen, the chicken soup that has fueled the academic pursuits of countless college students. (Photograph it from the student union at sunset to score your Instagram likes. #blessed)
Ramen comes in many forms. You are probably familiar with Cup O’ Noodles, and might even think you bought some recently. But you did not! In 1998, the name of the delicious, Styrofoam-containered staple was changed to Cup Noodles, which makes no sense grammatically (the noodles are not shaped like cups). The naming gets weirder from there. In some places, it is called Cup Noodle, singular, which leads me to believe that Nissan Foods, the manufacturer, is just playing with our minds in some grand, global, demented (but delectable) experiment.
College isn’t the only four-year stint powered by noodles and chicken broth. Ramen is the top item sold in prison commissaries across the United States. In the informal prison economy, something like Top Ramen, in its compact, rectangular packaging — easily stored and absolutely delicious — is the ideal currency for all the reasons that gold once underpinned global currencies: It doesn’t deteriorate; it can be divided evenly; it’s limited in supply; and it can be carried easily. If breaking bread is the first act of solidarity in an otherwise grim environment, ramen has been used as the equivalent of a holiday feast: Inmates have pooled their supplies, and prepared and shared it amongst themselves.
And regardless of your locale or status, whether grad school or cell block B, take pride in your affinity for instant chicken soup. Even great chefs are not immune to its charms. “My favorite type of noodle are the little noodles in Campbell’s soup,” says Ardoin. “The little dried packet of chicken noodle soup, man — it just brings memories back from when I was a little kid. My mom used to make that for us, and that was the best.”