Some Thoughts about Bouillon and Soup Starter

Bouillon days at my house function as a sort of kitchen organization adventure. I start with the refrigerator, pulling out vegetables that are past their prime, and arrange them on one of my apartment’s three postcard-sized counters.

Any vegetable that’s yellowing, wilting, or softening is part of this move out of the fridge. This helps me to see which fresh vegetables I still have available for meal planning. Plus, catching and repurposing turning produce can be a great way to add to your pantry and your compost pile, simultaneously.

Once everything is assembled, I throw my biggest colander into the sink and wash everything thoroughly. For potatoes, beets, and other root vegetables, I use a stiff-bristled brush to scrub away the dirt.

I chop the vegetables into rough pieces and place them in my largest Dutch oven (you can also use a crock pot, a soup pot, or any other large, lidded cooking pan you prefer). Then, I cover them with water and set the pot to simmer on low heat.

Here’s where technique may differ, depending on how fresh the vegetables still are. A soup base made with vegetables no longer desirable for eating should be strained after cooking, so that only the flavorful liquid remains. You can compost the leftover vegetables if you use the straining method. However, if the vegetables aren’t too far past their prime, you can also try using an immersion blender to reduce them into a thicker potage. Potage is also a great way to use up stems and other plant matter leftover from cooking other recipes.

Leafy greens, onions, alliums, carrots, and potatoes all simmered together create a hearty soup base. Once cooked, you can freeze bouillon indefinitely to be used later when making soup, rice, béchamel, chili, or sauces. Root vegetables and cruciferous vegetables can all add additional flavor and color to your bouillon, as well.

Mushrooms just past their prime make a great, umami-flavored soup stock; simply chop and simmer with some onions and garlic for 30-45 minutes, or until your broth is a rich, deep brown. Mushrooms with mold on them should be discarded without use.

I grew up using store-bought bouillon cubes. These can be a useful addition to your pantry, because they add flavor to a wide variety of cooking applications. There are also bouillon concentrates available: these are sold in jars, usually in the same aisle as bouillon cubes. Bouillon concentrates have a thick, sticky, grainy consistency and often need a lot of whisking to integrate them nicely with sauces and soups. While both of these options offer great time-saving potential, store-bought bouillon tends to be very high in sodium, and some bouillon cubes seem to rely on salt to provide most of their flavor, instead of vegetables, mushrooms, or meats.

Home-made bouillon can be very different from store-bought, because you can choose how much (if any) salt to add to your other stock ingredients. In the pre-pandemic days, if I was entertaining a guest who was watching their sodium intake, I tried to keep a few servings of salt-free vegetable bouillon at the back of my freezer, to use for making sauces, soups, or rice. Now, I try to do the same, because my eating habits in quarantine are not as healthy as I’d often like them to be.

Soup starter can be described as a proto-bouillon. I make this when I have only some of the ingredients I’d typically use for vegetable bouillon. I am, for instance, often guilty of buying too much kale, forgetting that I have it, and then rediscovering it in my fridge after it’s yellowed. Chopping withered kale and simmering for 20-40 minutes, then draining and reserving the liquid can be a simple way of adding just a little more interest to a dish if you’re running low on ingredients.

Just like a full bouillon, I store soup starter in the freezer, but I also keep track of which ingredients I used to make it. Soup starter made without any onions or garlic means that I should add those ingredients to my soup directly when I want to make it. Adding onions and garlic is also a great way to cut down on salt usage, since those ingredients are so flavorful all on their own.

For me, bouillon is a vital pantry ingredient. It’s not flashy or particularly exciting on its own, but its absence is quite noticeable in many core dishes.

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