Jewish chicken soup

Jewish chicken soup is the ne plus ultra of chicken soups.  Unlike other soups made with chicken broth, Jewish chicken soup – REAL Jewish chicken soup – is simply chicken broth, taken to it’s logical, delicious extreme.  Forget the pictures you see of bowls of soup chock full of chunks of juicy white chicken meat, and glistening vegetables: no balabusta would be caught dead serving that for the soup course of an elegant dinner.  Jewish chicken soup is really more of a chicken consommé: sparkling and clear, with an intense chicken flavour that is rounded out by the essence of aromatic vegetables and an herb or two.  The broth is the main attraction, though simple garnishes are acceptable: some thinly-sliced carrots (or better yet, a brunoise of carrots), and maybe some knaidlachkreplach, or a small mound of fine egg noodles.

The soup is easy to make. There are only handful of ingredients, and there’s very little in the way of technique of any kind involved. But you do need time.  The broth needs to simmer slower for several hours, and then, ideally, it should be chilled overnight in the fridge so the fat can be removed more easily.

While I love using a pressure cooker for making meat broths, because it speeds things up so much, I don’t recommend it for this soup, because the broth usually turns out slightly cloudy as a result of meat and vegetable solids dissolving every so slightly in the 250 degree atmosphere of the pressure cooker.  Pressure-cooked broth is fine for use in sauces or other soups where clarity isn’t something you care about, but I don’t like to use if for this soup.

As far as ingredients go, here’s what you need:

  • Chicken. You can’t make this soup from chicken carcasses left over from another meal.  You can use these scraps in the soup, but you must use plenty of fresh chicken to get that nice, clean chicken flavour.  Traditionalists use a whole chicken, cut up, and I often do that myself. However, my local butcher had chicken wings on sale at a great price, so I bought 5 lbs of them.  Wings are great for soup because there is a good balance between meat and bone for flavour, and they contain a lot of collagen that melts out to add gelatine to the broth. This gelatine adds a barely perceptible viscosity to the finished soup, which provides a nice mouth feel.
  • Aromatic vegetables.  Otherwise known as onions, carrots and celery.  2 medium onions, 2 large carrots and 2 small stalks of celery are all you need. You don’t need to peel anything, just rinse the celery, scrub the carrots under running water, and chop roughly.You can add other veggies as the mood strikes you. A few leeks are a nice addition, if you have some that need using up. Trim off most of the dark green part, and the root end, split them lengthwise, and rinse them well to remove any grit, then chop them roughly. A little bit of fennel is also nice, but don’t add more than about ½ a bulb, as it can overpower the broth with a liquorice flavour.
  • Seasoning.  A couple of bay leaves, a ½ teaspoon of dried thyme (or a large sprig or two of fresh), a small bunch of dill, a small bunch of parsley (not shown in the pictures above), about a dozen peppercorns and a teaspoon of salt (to start).
  1. First, rinse your chicken well under cold water. Then, add it to a large pot or soup kettle (I use my 9 qt pressure cooker pot), and add cold water to cover by 2-3 inches.  Add nothing else to the pot at this point.

    Chicken in cold water, ready to go on the stove.

    Chicken in cold water, ready to go on the stove.

  2. Turn the heat on to medium-high.  As the water heats, the chicken will throw off proteins that coagulate in a rather gross-looking scum.  It’s perfectly harmless, but if you don’t remove it, it will cause your soup to be cloudy.  By the time it comes to the boil, there will be quite a raft of scum floating on the top of the liquid.  Use a spoon or skimmer to remove it:
  3. Continue simmering and skimming for the next 5 minutes or so.  (Note: this is why in step 1, I said not to add anything else to the pot.  If you’d added the other ingredients, you’d end up skimming half of them out.)  My late mother-in-law used to strain and reserve the liquid at this point, and then rinse off each piece of chicken and the pot itself to get any other bits of coagulated protein. Then she’d add everything back to the pot along with the strained liquid and continue.  If I’m using a cut up chicken, I’d have done that here. But with five pounds of wings, it would have been a rather messy job, so I didn’t bother.
  4. Add the rest of the ingredients to the pot, and give everything a stir.
    The rest of the ingredients are added to the pot

    The rest of the ingredients are added to the pot

    Then, cover the pan, with the lid slightly ajar to allow for air circulation, and adjust the heat to get the slowest simmer possible.  It should bubble regularly, but only just. Leave it this way for 3-4 hours, checking the heat from time to time.

    After 4 hours of slow simmering ...

    After 4 hours of slow simmering …

  5. Strain the soup through a large colander to get out the large pieces of chicken and vegetables, and then strain it again through a fine sieve or chinois to get out as many of the small particles that you can.


    The strained soup, cooling.

  6. Let the soup cool, uncovered in the bowl. If your fridge isn’t too full, you can put the hot bowl into it to cool down.  My fridge was crammed already, so I let the soup cool on the counter first before putting it in.  I didn’t want the hot soup heating up everything around it in the fridge.
  7. When the soup is cool (and not before – covering a cooling meat broth will turn it sour), cover it with plastic wrap and chill it overnight.
  8. The next day, the fat will have risen to the top of the soup, and solidified somewhat.  Use a skimmer to remove as much of the fat as you can.  SAVE THE FAT!

    Chicken fat, or schmaltz, is wonderful for cooking with; it adds great flavour, and is particularly excellent for roasting potatoes.  It also is amazing in egg salad as a substitute for mayonnaise.  Really, trust me.  It’s just fat.  Like the oil in mayonnaise or the butter you use for sautéing.  I like to put the skimmed fat from the soup into a saucepan and heat it over a med-low heat for about half an hour. This evaporates most of the  water/stock from the fat, which you need to do if you’re going to refrigerate it for any length of time. Once 95% of the non-fat liquid has boiled off, pour the fat off, leaving any solids or stock behind.

    Rendered fat keeps indefinitely, but fat mixed with broth will go bad in the space of a few days. Rendered fat is also better for frying or roasting with; if there’s liquid in it, the fat will sputter in a hot pan, or worse, make your roast potatoes soggy, instead of crisp.

    Note: If you don’t have time to chill the soup overnight, you can skim the fat off using a spoon (tedious), or use a gravy separator (less tedious, but you need to do it in several batches)

    At this point, you should consider what garnishes you want to use for serving, if any.  Garnishes can range from a simple pinch of fresh chopped dill, to 2-3 thinly sliced pieces of well-cooked carrot in each bowl, to egg noodles, to  knaidlach (matzoh balls), to kreplach. Or a restrained combination of any of the above.  I admit to using a packaged mix for my knaidlach; I tart it up a little by adding finely chopped herbs, but really, they’re perfectly good.  If you can find kreplach at a Jewish deli or butcher, snap them up. They freeze perfectly well.  Or, if you have the patience of Job, try making them.  They’re not difficult, but they do take time. They’re absolutely delicious in soup.  Whatever you choose, now’s the time to make sure you have what you need on hand.

  9. The soup is now ready to use, more or less.  About 2 hours before you are going to serve it, ladle as much as you need into a saucepan. (The lead time lets you get the soup ready before you’re up to your eyeballs with the rest of your dinner.) Heat it through, and taste it for strength and seasoning.  If the soup tastes a little weak, let it simmer for 15 minutes or so, to reduce it a little and concentrate the flavours.  (If it’s really weak, which would only happen if you used too much water to begin with, throw in a bullion cube.  I won’t tell).  If it needs salt, add a little at a time, tasting as you go, until it’s the way you want it.   Then, turn the heat off, and cover the pan with a lid slightly ajar.  The soup is ready; it just needs to brought to the boil and then served, along with whatever garnish you’ve chosen.Tip: Don’t cook noodles, knaidlach or kreplach IN the soup; they will turn it cloudy. Cook them separately, then add them to the soup when you serve it. You can cook the carrot garnish in the soup; they will add flavour and colour to the broth.

Copyright (C) 2015, Allan Risk. All rights reserved.

3 thoughts on “Jewish chicken soup

  1. Pingback: The Shegetz’s guide to food for the Jewish high holidays | The Shegetz Balabusta

  2. Pingback: Kreplach | The Shegetz Balabusta

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