How to Make Classic Chicken Soup

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[Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

The extent of my Jewish identity lies mostly in the table. Bagels with lox, chopped liver, gefilte fish, and, particularly when I'm sick, chicken soup. My mom made it for me when I wasn't feeling well, up until I went off to college, and then I took over the job of making it for myself and my friends. It doesn't need to be complicated. Just fill a pot with a whole chicken, vegetables, lots of garlic, some herbs, and water, then simmer it for a few hours to get all the flavor into the broth. When the chicken falls apart after you try to lift it, it's done.

That's one version—the easiest version—but it has a couple weak points. The white meat is inevitably dried out by the time the soup is done. The vegetables turn into flavorless mush. For this recipe, I could have tried to completely rethink the soup, but I didn't want to. A classic chicken soup may be for the soul, but it's not going to do a damned thing if the recipe is so complicated that it requires more than your tired, cold bones can muster. There's a place for more ambitious chicken soups, but this isn't it.

So, how can a few small tweaks make a deeply comforting soup even more deeply comforting? Let's start with a whole chicken, which gives us everything we need in the most affordable package. It gives us white meat, which, I was surprised to learn from my chicken stock tests, adds some of the best flavor to the broth; when not allowed to overcook, that white meat is also juicy and delicious. That whole chicken also gives us dark meat, which remains silky and tender even when cooked for a long time. And finally, it gives us the full set of bones, which add even more flavor and depth to the soup.

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In the easiest version, the chicken is simmered whole, and that's it. For this version, I'm breaking it down first, cutting the breasts off the bone and the legs from the body. Here's my plan: add all the chicken parts to the stockpot, and gently cold-poach it until the breasts are perfectly cooked. Cold-poaching is a method I've used before to make the absolute best poached chicken breasts, ones that are completely tender and juicy, not tight and dry. All you have to do is bring the poaching liquid up to about 150°F (66°C) and hold it there, adjusting the heat as necessary, until the chicken breasts reach that same temp in the center of their thickest parts. It's okay if you don't get immersion circulator–level temperature precision here—it can fluctuate a little as you regulate the heat, without any problem.

As soon as the breasts have hit their final temp, I take them out, then leave the rest of the chicken parts in, bringing it all to a simmer and leaving it to cook for about an hour or so, to get as much flavor out of those parts as possible.

Now let's talk about the liquid. In the easiest chicken soup, it's water. And water would be fine here, but it's just as easy, and only a little more expensive, to use chicken stock instead. In essence, you're making stock with stock, since a basic chicken soup isn't all that different from stock. The result is a broth that's awash in chicken flavor. It's like painting a wall: You could lay down one coat, but two will give you a more profound and even saturation.

You can use homemade stock here, of course—your soup will be better for it—but even store-bought will do wonders compared with water.

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The stock does us another bit of service, though. It fixes our vegetable issue, the one where our long-simmered soup vegetables turn to squishy blobs with no flavor. The challenge here is that the vegetables need to do double duty. They need to give their flavor to the broth, which requires simmering them for a long time in that broth, but they also need to be there in the final bowl as a diced garnish alongside the pieces of chicken. Because long cooking turns them to mush while giving the broth flavor, and short cooking maintains the vegetables' texture and flavor but does fewer favors for the broth, the stock can provide some cover here. That's because the stock has already had vegetables simmered in it for a long time. All we need to do, then, is add our diced vegetables toward the end of cooking to make them just tender enough. Thanks to the stock, we get the aromatic flavors of the vegetables; thanks to the diced garnish, we get beautiful cubes that have maintained some personality of their own.

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Beyond that, there's not much more to do, which is exactly how I'd envisioned this easy and classic chicken soup. Skim off some of the fat, pull out the remaining chicken, strip the meat from the bones, and return it to the pot along with the diced breast meat. Add some herbs, like minced parsley and dill. Climb into bed, get your feet under the covers, and heal yourself with a generous bowl, steam rising to chase the chill off the tip of your nose.

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