Simple Chicken Noodle Soup Means Delicious Is in the Details


With a typical group of people, a game of "would you rather" will usually involve celebrities or fantasies, but the team here at Serious Eats is a bit unconventional. We prefer to challenge each other with tawdry questions such as, “banh mi or Italian combo?” and “burrata or stracciatella?” During one of our heated discussions, the following question was raised; “What soup would you rather eat for the rest of your life: pho, ramen, or chicken noodle?” Without any hesitation my answer was chicken noodle soup.*

[Editor’s note: Wrong answer!]

I’m not sure what this says about me. A pho follower must certainly be a showman and adventurer—transforming raw meat tableside and risking dangerous sips between fiery jalapeño slices. I assume ramen eaters to be indulgent extroverts, loudly slurping up rich broth with each mouthful of tangled noodles. Next to these two I must seem pretty plain-jane, living a monotonous life in which thrill comes in a sleeve of saltines. But I don’t think chicken noodle soup needs to be boring: I believe it can be classy and subdued, filled with understated depth from a broth made from roasted bones, exuding a quiet confidence with its minimalism.

A great chicken noodle soup recipe is the "little black dress" of your cooking repertoire; it should provide a solid foundation, one that you can dress up or down for the occasion. This recipe is just that, however it would be misguided to label this “simple” soup as also “quick and easy.” Although these phrases often pal around together, they do not mean the same thing. Yes, this is a simple soup with few components, but if you’re looking for comfort to arrive just a little bit more quickly, Daniel’s classic chicken soup recipe is the road to take.

At its most basic, chicken noodle soup is light and brothy—a wholesome and uncomplicated bowl of comfort. I’m looking for a soup that’s deeper and richer than the average, still capable of curing what ails you, while also flaunting a provocative side.

My path is a long one that requires some navigation and planning, but for a soup I’ve committed the rest of my life to, it's worth it.

The Broth

What Can Brown Do For You?

Chicken and beef stocks can be either white or brown, meaning the bones are either simmered raw or after roasting. White stocks are more versatile due to their tempered flavor, making them ideal for reducing into unctuous pan sauces and adding subtle flavor to risotto and vegetables. The extra step of roasting bones for a stock adds an assertive flavor, which can be overwhelming in some instances, but is exactly what I want for the most chicken-y of chicken soups.

As meat and bones roast, they undergo our favorite flavor process: the Maillard reaction. Their amino acids and sugars recombine to create complex aromas and deep flavors. A stock made from browned bones will taste richer and meatier, without more fat or bones, all thanks to the power of brown. (You can also harness that power to make the most out of your leftover turkey carcass, as Daniel does here in his recipe for brown turkey stock.)

A lot of chicken stock legwork was already done for me by Daniel in his post on how to make the best chicken stock. I used his research as my starting off point, sticking with chicken wings for their ideal flavor-to-cost ratio. I spread the chicken wings directly on an unlined rimmed baking sheet and roast them in a hot oven until they become golden brown.

The wings will render out a good bit of chicken fat, and you'll want to save every drop of this liquid gold. The browning imparts the chicken fat with the flavor and aromas of roast chicken. I first tried emulsifying this fat into my broth, but found it overwhelmingly rich (more on that below). Not wanting to lose it completely, I looked around for other parts of the recipe where it might be useful, and realized it was perfect for adding depth to the chicken breast, which I cook sous vide and add later. By roasting the wings directly on the sheet tray, I’m able to develop a crackly fond under each piece for maximum browned flavor. While the tray is still piping hot, I splash it with a little water to scrape up all the fond before tossing the wings and liquid into a pot and covering it all with more water.

Brown stocks typically also include browned mirepoix. The carrots, onion, and celery are usually roasted along with the bones in the oven. In additional to their bright and vegetal flavor, roasted mirepoix add sweetness and color. I opt out of the traditional addition of mirepoix and instead add charred onion to the pot for the last moments of cooking. I prefer the flavor of the stock without the distraction of celery and carrot. The onions add enough sweetness and color on their own, while letting the roast chicken remain the star of the show.

Chicken Soup Focus Groups

Many of my burning stock questions were already answered by my colleagues. Daniel discovered that hovering over a pot of stock obsessively skimming every bit of scum and fat didn’t necessarily lead to a clearer stock. Kenji proved that pressure cooker stock and stove top–simmered stock run a tight race, with the pressure cooker stock just edging out the traditional method in taste tests. Still, I conducted a few taste tests to see if opinion changes in the specific context of chicken noodle soup. Spoiler: the answer is yes.

For one taste test I made two batches of brown chicken stock, each with two pounds of roasted bones and a final volume of one and a half quarts. The pressure cooker stock was cooked at full pressure for one hour while the traditional stock was gently simmered for three hours. The two stocks were then served with equal amounts of seasoning, sous vide chicken breast, boiled pasta, fresh dill, and a splash of lemon juice for brightness.

It was unanimous: everyone preferred chicken noodle soup made from the traditional method chicken stock. The pressure cooker stock did extract more flavor while remaining less cloudy, but the additional flavor took the form of a slightly bitter finish from the browned bones. The traditional method stock was full of roasted flavor without the over-extracted taste the of pressure cooker stock.

The tasters also preferred the cloudier stove top stock in the context of the soup for the additional richness it provided, which led me to take a cue from ramen lovers and try emulsifying fat into the broth—I wanted to see if fat really equalled more flavor. I made three stocks, each with equal amounts of roasted chicken wings, all cooked on the stove top for the same amount of time, and I added water at the end to ensure that they all had equal final volumes. One stock was gently simmered the entire time, the other was rapidly boiled the entire time (much like you would for a ramen broth), and the third was boiled for the first fifteen minutes and then simmered the remaining time.

The first simmered broth had good chicken flavor, but was too light to stand up to the juicy chicken cubes and chewy pasta. The second boiled broth was creamy and rich, but the extra fat muted the chicken flavor. Now the third broth, the one that was just briefly boiled, this broth was just right: It had all the deep, roasted chicken aromas I was seeking, with just enough richness and body to stand up to even the most flavorful additions.

Time to Accessorize

I am generally not a fan of chicken breast. I also usually don’t love the one-dimensional soft texture sous vide cooking creates in meats. But somehow, when cooked sous vide, I love chicken breasts, which reminds me that in cooking there are no absolutes. Not only is sous vide chicken tender and moist through precise temperature control, but by bagging the chicken breast with the fat rendered from the roasted wings, you also infuse it with all those heady brown aromas typically lost in poached meat.

After seasoning the chicken breasts with salt, I bag them with some rendered chicken fat and cook them for two hours at 140°F. This yields the perfect texture for soup—no signs of stringiness or shredding, just melt-in-your mouth tender meat. When dry, shredded meat is added to a soup, it drinks up the broth, resulting in a soggy, wet texture rather than something plump and juicy. (If you want to know the full scoop on sous vide chicken, check out Kenji’s in-depth guide here.)

For the pasta, I prefer bite-sized orecchiette. They’re thick and sturdy, hold up well in the broth, and the cupped shape ensures a sip of broth with every bite, but any shape or form of doughy dumpling will do. Cooking the pasta separately is the only way to guarantee the best texture and flavor. If you boil the pasta in the soup, not only does it end up under-seasoned, but it’s also prone to overcooking in the broth.

I keep the chicken and pasta separate, portioning them into bowls just before serving and ladling over hot broth to warm everything through. My preferred finishing touches are a few flecks of chopped dill and a squirt of lemon juice, but with a solid groundwork laid you can build up the bowl however you prefer.

A fling with the boisterous herbs in pho or succulent pork belly in ramen can be tempting, but I’ll always want to come home to chicken noodle soup. Especially when it’s a tricked-out version like this one.