There are a lot of ways to make chicken soup. But what follows here is my favorite method for making chicken soup from scratch. It’s a foolproof template that gives you a simple, rich broth (and a wonderfully moist pile of cooked chicken meat) that you can season however you want to, with whichever mix-ins you want. And you don’t need a recipe to make it—just follow these steps:
1. Put a Chicken in a Pot and Cover it With Water
The beauty of this chicken soup–making technique is how simply it starts: with a whole chicken, a pot, and some water. Nothing fussy here: just place your whole chicken in a pot that’s big enough for it with some height to spare, and then cover it in cold water and place it on your stove over medium-high heat.
2. Skim the Broth
You may wonder why I didn’t add any aromatics to my chicken and water. Well, as the water heats up and the chicken starts to cook, some gross scummy foam will float to the top of the water. You want to skim that off, along with excess fat, to keep your broth smooth and clear. So I keep my pot of chicken and water uncovered over medium-high heat until the top is covered in foamy scum, then I use a large spoon to skim the surface clean. This process is so much easier to do if there aren’t a bunch of aromatics floating around in the water—a clear surface is faster to clean. Hold a small bowl in one hand and a large spoon in the other and skim the foam off the surface of the water, dumping it in the bowl as you go, then discard it when you’re done.
Once you’ve skimmed the broth, let the water come to a boil and, as soon as it does, turn the heat down to a low simmer and continue cooking.
3. Add Aromatics, and Simmer
Once you’ve lowered the heat to a simmer, you’re in the clear to add aromatics to help infuse the broth with flavor. Classically, this means throwing in some celery, onion, carrot, and bay leaves. But don’t stop there! (And don’t feel pigeon-holed by the classics either.) Try adding a whole head of garlic halved crosswise through the middle, or a sliced-up ginger root (no need to peel it), or a few dried chiles, or sprigs of fresh herbs. For ease of removal later, I like to keep celery and carrot pieces large and the onion either whole (peeled) or halved. One onion and one or two carrots and celery stalks is plenty for one pot.
Once your aromatics are in there, cover the pot partially with a lid and let it slowly simmer away until the chicken is very tender and starting to fall off the bones. Check on it now and then to make sure it’s not boiling—you want the surface of the water to be moving, but only very gently—to avoid overcooking the chicken and to ensure a nice rich broth. Depending on the size of your bird, it’ll take about one hour to one and a half hours to finish cooking.
4. Strain Your Broth
Once the chicken is done, use tongs to pull it out of the pot and set it aside in a bowl to cool. Set a strainer over a large spouted bowl, measuring cup, or pot, and pour the broth through it. Discard any aromatics you don’t want to eat, and keep any you do want. The simmered carrots and celery, for example, can get sliced up and added to your finished soup, or you can toss them in a vinaigrette and chill them for a future meal. (Or you can nibble on them right now as a little chef’s treat.)
If you want to stop here and serve your soup tomorrow or another day this week, let your broth and the whole chicken cool, then cover them both separately in airtight containers and chill until you’re ready to finish the soup. If you want to proceed, just let the chicken cool enough to handle, and transfer your strained broth back into a pot.
5. Pull That Chicken Apart
Once the chicken is has cooled down a bit, pull off and discard the skin, then pull the meat off the bones with your hands and shred it into bite-size pieces. You can either discard the bones or keep them for making another batch of stock. Don’t add your shredded chicken to the broth in the pot yet: now that the chicken is shredded, you want to wait until the last minute to add it to the soup so you don’t overcook it.
6. Season Your Soup and Add Your Extras
Heat the strained broth back up on the stove, and season it to taste with salt. You can also add other seasonings or liquids here now too: perhaps you want a creamy coconut broth for the base of your soup: add some canned coconut milk. Season it by adding a dash of soy sauce or fish sauce, or maybe some hot sauce or a little splash of vinegar or a squeeze of lime or lemon juice. Taste your broth as you go until it tastes just how you want it.
Once the broth is tasting great, stir in whatever “extras” you want your soup to hold: you can cut up those cooked carrots and celery and add them to the pot, or add a bunch of sliced mushrooms and baby bok choy or snow or sugar snap peas, letting them quickly cook in the hot broth. Or wilt a whole box of baby spinach or some kale into the broth and add some roasted cherry tomatoes for a sort of Italian take to which you could also add white beans or chickpeas. Or stir in some cooked pasta. Or some cooked rice. Or cubes of cooked sweet potato and some black beans. Really the options are limitless here.
Once you’ve added whatever you want to add and cooked anything in the hot broth that needs to be cooked, it’s time to add your shredded chicken and cook the soup until everything is heated through, then taste it one more time, add more salt or acid if needed, then serve.
7. And don’t forget to Garnish
A bowl of chicken soup can be perfect on its own, but a garnish that adds flavor and visual appeal will never be a bad addition. Swirl a spoonful of pesto on top of each bowl or shave some Parmesan over the top. Or try a handful of freshly chopped fresh dill and a few cranks of black pepper. Or some cilantro leaves and a squeeze of fresh lime. It’s your chicken soup creation—finish it off exactly how you want it, which can be different every time.