For the Best Minestrone, Ditch the Recipes | The Food Lab

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Photographs and video: J. Kenji López-Alt

If all were right in the world, there would be as many recipes for minestrone—the Italian soup of simmered mixed vegetables and beans—as there have been individual pots of it cooked. That's because it's really more of a process than a fixed recipe. It's a hearty, easy, delicious meal that you can make with a couple of pantry staples and whatever fresh vegetables you happen to have on hand.

Growing up, my only exposure to minestrone was at the school cafeteria, where it was a starchy, tomatoey soup with kidney beans, macaroni, frozen carrots, green beans, and peas, held in a steam table throughout the day. It was actually a lot better than that description makes it sound, which is a testament to how easy it is to get tasty, filling results with a bare minimum of effort and expense. But if you put in more than the bare minimum—and I'm not even asking you to go all out here; just use a few simple techniques—then you get something that's much, much better.

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Cucina povera, which translates literally to "poor kitchen," is the Italian tradition of frugality. Its dishes are rustic and rural in origin and consist largely of seasonal vegetables, along with perhaps some dried grains, pasta, beans, or small amounts of preserved meats. When it comes to cucina povera, minestrone is about as archetypical as it gets. Indeed, to write down a recipe for it almost defeats the purpose. Historically, buying ingredients just to make minestrone was most likely unheard of—it was really conceived (or, I should say, it evolved) as a catchall soup intended to use whatever was on hand.

In ancient Rome, that was onions, greens, and beans, simmered with grains like a porridge. In 16th-century kitchens, New World tomatoes might have been added, with the boiled grains replaced by dried beans with a side of bread. These days, with refrigeration and global supply networks, our available range of vegetables is vast all year round. But for me, the best way to make minestrone is still to hit the garden, the farmers market, or, okay, even the supermarket, with no preplanned shopping list, instead picking the freshest vegetables that strike my fancy.

Here's my basic technique. Feel free to improvise.

The Beans

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Beans are the starchy backbone of most modern minestrones, but picking the right beans can have a big impact on the results. For the best flavor and texture, you'll want to start with dried beans. As Daniel has pointed out, adding aromatics to the cooking liquid is vitally important, as this adds layers of flavor to the beans. In this case, it's doubly important, because that bean-cooking liquid is going to become the brothy base for the entire soup. Without aromatics, you may as well use canned beans.

Of course, if you want to use canned beans, that's not totally out of the question. The key is to make sure you simmer them in the soup long enough for them to absorb some flavor and release some starch. Without the benefit of flavorful bean-cooking liquid, it helps to use chicken or vegetable stock in place of water when simmering the soup (we'll get to that soon).

The Broth Base

Next, it's time to build on that broth. You can start with homemade or canned chicken or meat stock, but remember, this is cucina povera, which means that we ought to make use of what's right in front of us: the bean-cooking liquid. It's already got an aromatic backbone built right into it, and the starch that the beans released during cooking will translate to a richer, heartier texture down the road. (Most likely, you'll have to supplement it with some water.)

But before we get to the liquid: Most minestrone recipes start with making what the Italians call a soffritto: a sautéed mixture of onions, carrots, and celery. Technically, a soffritto is called a battuto before it's cooked (it's similar to a mirepoix in French cooking), and in a lot of recipes, the battuto is finely chopped. That makes sense when you're making something like a ragù, in which you want the aromatic vegetables to disappear into the sauce. But for a chunky vegetable soup like this, finely mincing the carrots, onions, and celery is a little too fussy, so I go with a size of dice similar to what I'll be using for the other vegetables.

You can use extra-virgin olive oil* to sauté the battuto, or if you happen to have some pancetta, salt pork, fatty ham, or bacon available, you can render that and sauté the vegetables in a mixture of pork fat and olive oil.

Despite what some people say, cooking with extra-virgin will lend more flavor to the finished dish than refined oils; just make sure you don't heat it on its own beyond its smoke point, or it can become bitter.

In addition to the basic soffritto, I like to add some chopped fresh rosemary leaves to reinforce the flavor I introduced with the beans—sage, thyme, or any other hearty herb would be fine as well—along with some minced garlic, which I add after the other vegetables have had a chance to soften.

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Tomatoes are optional, but they add color, flavor, and body to the soup. If you happen to have nice, ripe Roma tomatoes (luckily, I had a supply from my garden), and if you don't mind a bit of extra manual labor, then fresh tomatoes that have been peeled, seeded, and diced are the way to go. In the off-season, canned peeled whole tomatoes, chopped or crushed by hand, will work fine.

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I add them to the soffritto right after adding the garlic, then cook the mixture until the tomatoes completely break down. You'll know it's ready because, as the vegetables give up their moisture to evaporation, the sound of the pot will transition from a sputtering, simmering sound to a sharper crackle as the vegetables actually start to fry. That's when you'll want to add your bean water, along with some fresh water or stock to top it up.

The final, optional ingredient: If you've got a Parmesan rind hanging out in the fridge (or saved in the freezer), now would be a good time to deploy it. Just drop it right into the soup pot, and let it work its umami magic.

The Vegetables

When all that comes to a simmer, you should have a killer broth on your hands. Now to bulk it up with other vegetables. Adding vegetables to minestrone is really just a matter of preparing them so that they cook evenly and fit on a spoon nicely, and knowing how long each one takes to cook.

If you've got a real level head and good knife skills, and can stay cool under pressure, you can mentally arrange your vegetables in order of "most time to cook" to "least time to cook," then prep them on the fly, chopping one set of vegetables as the previous set simmers. I find it less nerve-wracking to prep the vegetables in advance, mixing them into separate bowls in the order in which they'll be added. So I might have my "sauté-at-the-start" bowl, with onions or leeks, carrots, and celery; my "long-simmer" bowl, with potato chunks, cauliflower florets, and parsnips; my "short-simmer" bowl, with zucchini, summer squash, and green beans; and my "not-until-the-end" bowl, with fresh chopped greens.

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This chart is excerpted from my book, The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science, and it should give you a basic idea of how and when to add various vegetables.

Soup Vegetables

Vegetable  Preparation Instructions  Minimum Cooking Time 
Carrot  Peeled and cut into 1/2-inch chunks, sautéed at start until tender  20 minutes 
Cauliflower  Florets separated, stems sliced 1/4 inch thick  20 minutes 
Celery  Peeled and cut into 1/2-inch chunks, sautéed at start until tender  20 minutes 
Celery root  Peeled and cut into 1/2-inch chunks  20 minutes 
Jicama  Peeled and cut into 1/2-inch chunks  20 minutes 
Kohlrabi  Peeled and cut into 1/2-inch chunks  20 minutes 
Leeks  Thinly sliced or diced, sautéed at start until tender  20 minutes 
Onion  Thinly sliced or diced, sautéed at start until tender  20 minutes 
Parsnip  Peeled and cut into 1/2-inch chunks  20 minutes 
Potato  Peeled and cut into 1/2-inch chunks  20 minutes 
Radish  Cut into 1/2-inch chunks  20 minutes 
Rutabaga  Peeled and cut into 1/2-inch chunks  20 minutes 
Sweet potato  Peeled and cut into 1/2-inch chunks  20 minutes 
Asparagus  Cut into 1-inch lengths  10 minutes 
Broccoli  Florets separated, stems sliced 1/4 inch thick  10 minutes 
Hearty greens (cabbage, kale, collards)  Tough stems or cores removed, leaves sliced or roughly chopped  10 minutes 
Green beans  Trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces  10 minutes 
Summer squash  Cut into 1/2-inch chunks or disks  10 minutes 
Zucchini  Cut into 1/2-inch chunks or disks  10 minutes 
Tender greens (spinach, arugula, watercress, chard)  Leaves roughly chopped or torn  5 minutes 
Brussels sprouts  Leaves separated  5 minutes 
Frozen peas  Added straight from freezer  5 minutes 
Frozen lima beans  Added straight from freezer  5 minutes 
Corn kernels  Cut off cob and separated into individual kernels  5 minutes 

The Pasta

Pasta is not a required ingredient for minestrone (as if anything is required), but it can be a nice addition and a good way to turn a substantial appetizer into a full meal. I like to stick with short, textured shapes, like ditali, orecchiette, or cavatappi. If you're adding pasta, just make sure not to add it until 10 to 15 minutes before the soup is done simmering. (You can also consider a non-pasta starch, like rice, barley, or farro. If you do, you'll have to add it much earlier so it cooks through, or else cook it separately and stir it in toward the end.)

Storing leftovers that contain pasta can be problematic, too. The pasta gets mushy as it sucks up water, simultaneously robbing the soup of liquid. If you plan on making enough soup to have leftovers, I'd recommend cooking the pasta separately, draining it, cooling it, and storing it in a sealed container, stirring it into the soup just before serving.

Here's one more starchy pasta alternative: bread. Simmering chunks of a rustic loaf will transform it into a dish called ribollita, a Tuscan soup that's the epitome of cucina povera—what's more resourceful than turning leftover minestrone and stale bread into a whole new, deeply satisfying and delicious meal? (And, by the way, you don't even need stale bread; you can read about that in our in-depth look at ribollita here.)

How Long Should It Simmer?

We've got our soup base and our vegetables in a pot. Now, how long do we let it cook?

In Marcella Hazan's Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, she recommends cooking minestrone for a couple of hours, until the vegetables soften completely and meld together. This produces a deliciously rich, hearty soup, as the starch released by the beans and vegetables thickens up the broth. On the other hand, you lose the vibrancy of fresh produce when you cook it for that long.

Luckily, the only person who decides how long to simmer the soup is with you right now: you. If you're in the mood for something light and fresh, in which individual flavors and textures shine through, simmer it just until the last vegetable you add tenderizes. If you're out for rib-sticking comfort, let it simmer down for a couple of hours. (Note: If you're adding pasta, wait until the last 10 to 15 minutes of cooking to prevent it from going soggy.)

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Barely simmered minestrone.

If you're feeling really crazy, you can do what I like to do: reserve half of the soup on the side after a brief simmer while you continue to cook the rest. Stir the two together for a soup that's rich and hearty, but still has a layer of fresh vegetable flavor and texture.

I know. Wild, right? We're going to party like it's 1599.