How to Make Slow Cooker Chicken Tortilla Soup With All the Fixings

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Deeply flavorful chicken tortilla soup benefits from a long simmer in the slow cooker. [Photograph: Jennifer Olvera]

Soup season is upon us, and there's no better time to let your slow cooker work magic. Thankfully, crowd-pleasing chicken tortilla soup lends itself especially well to a long, leisurely simmer. You just need to build the base so it has lots of flavor.

It's tempting to just dump everything into the slow cooker, turn it on, and go, but you'll never get the best flavor out of your food that way. Instead, you should start with browning your meat. Chicken thighs work best for two reasons: they're especially flavorful, and their high content of connective tissue means they don't dry out the way chicken breasts do. In fact, they do the exact opposite—that connective tissue slowly converts into rich, moist gelatin making the meat more tender and adding body to the broth.

Once you've got nicely browned chicken, building a broth with depth isn't difficult, though there are a few tricks.

First, It's essential to sauté your vegetables—in this case onion, jalapeño, and garlic—before tossing them in the pot. This will get rid of any raw, sulphurous aromas and add a touch of sweetness to them. Powerful spices like ancho chili powder and cumin help the flavor-factor, along with bay leaves and thyme sprigs. Secret ingredient time: a touch of unsweetened cocoa, which helps to create a rich, brooding base that accentuates the chilies. Meanwhile, the soup gets smokiness from a canned chipotle pepper and fire-roasted tomatoes.

One of the big problems slow cooker recipes face is that after all that time spent slow simmering, you lose a lot of brighter, fresher flavors. The soup I was making was coming out rich and complex, but a little dull. To counteract this, I tried adding apple cider vinegar to the mix. In the end, you can't really pick it out as an extra flavor, but you can't deny the difference it makes in the finished product. I also like to season my broth at the beginning of cooking so that the seasoning penetrates all the other ingredients (just make sure not to season too heavily—you can always add more salt at the end but you can't take it away)

After a day spent in its hot bath, the chicken comes out spoon-tender, and ready to be shredded into bite-sized pieces. I serve the soup ladled into deep bowls, accompanied with the classic toppings: avocado, red onion, sour cream, cilantro, cheese, lime wedge, and crunchy tortillas.