Ultimate Soup Base and a Few Soupy Examples




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The beginning of any great soup is its base.  Counter to what one might think,  using stock, bouillon, wines or even beer just can't make up for whats provided by a good base.  There are many classic soup bases, but the most adaptable is what I will be covering.  Its not so much what is in the base, but rather how it is prepared, like a water colour painting it is built in transparent layers.  Each layer setting the foundation for the next until it reaches its peak height of flavor.

History, well mine anyway:  Going back to my Vancouver days I started as a cowboy chef, "someone brought in to inject new blood", at an Italian bakery bistro called Ecco Il Pane.  We were situated central to two TV stations and several Recording studios.  Every day i cooked for the likes of Richard Gere, Sarah McLachlan, Tori Spelling, The Urban Gourmet and quite often the entire Vancouver Canucks Hockey Team.  Anyone filming in Vancouver at the time somehow found there way to us.  Most importantly its where I met my wife of 15 years, she worked in the office.  If anyone out there knows, cooking for celebrities can be very trying.  They always want the best, something new, yet hate change all at the same time, not to mention there special dietary needs.  Just look up David Duchovony, uh yeah.  This is where the soups come in.  Every morning I arrived at 5:00 am to start two 40 liter pots of soup.  One of which always had to be vegetarian, if not both.  The only allowable substitute would be to use our homemade chicken stock in one of them.  Here's the clincher, we had a no repeat policy for a minimum of 8 months.  Doing the math, including being closed on weekends, times two different soups per day meant I couldn't repeat a single soup until I had made 320 other completely original soups.  This may sound difficult, but in Vancouver we have a tremendous access to ingredients from all over the world which simplifies things greatly.  Mind you, we were primarily northern Italian with a to of french allowed, so no won-tons.... rats

The key to making so many different soups was to have a great base, something that you could turn into almost any flavor palette.  The following ingredients are provided in level of importance as these are key, where you go from there is up to you.  The trick is in the style of cooking that first involves sweating vegetables under fairly high heat, drawing out the sugars to caramelize on the bottom of the pot and introducing a new vegetable which once again will give up its moisture, deglazes and  simultaneously re-deposits its own sugars back into the pot, ready for the process to repeat.  It is this culmination of layering that builds such an amazingly rich flavor.

Step 1: Ingredients & Kitchen Tools

Ingredients in order of importance

Purist - First base:
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • Salt
  • Onions
  • Celery
Second base:
  • Garlic
  • Pepper
  • Carrot
  • Ancient secret  ingredient: Thyme
Third base:
  • Tomatoe - Fresh preferred, but canned/preserved tomatoes will work
  • Green pepper - for a touch of bitterness
Kitchen tools:
  • A good sharp knife
  • Wooden butcher block, to keep your good sharp knife, good
  • A good sized pot, minimum 6 liters with the thickest bottom money can buy, and the key here is NO NON-STICK COATINGS, this defeats the purpose.
  • A good sturdy wooden stir spoon

Step 2: Purist - First Base

  1. In your large pot add a swig of extra virgin olive oil (about 2 tablespoons) and put on the stove to preheat, set just below your maximum heat setting.
  2. Once your oil begins to make audible popping sounds add 2 diced medium onions.
  3. Sprinkle with about a teaspoon of salt.  The salt is essential as it begins leeching the moisture and sugars out of the onions cell walls.  Stir the mixture about occasionally until just beginning to become translucent about 3-4 minutes
  4. In between stirring, dice up 4 stalks of celery, make sure to add any celery leaves from the center of plant, those are packed full of flavor.
  5. Add you celery to the onion, and stir stir stir.
  6. When you stir in the celery, the bottom of the pot will have golden brown sediment stuck to it, these are the sugars deposited and caramelized from the onions.  Moisture from the celery will soon leach out and deglaze those sugars.
  7. Continue cooking for another 5-6 minutes stirring every other minute or so.
  8. IF, and only IF this is as far as you want to go,  add 1 cup of water or wine and rub the bottom of the pot to full deglaze and stuck caramelized goodness.  Otherwise, move on to second base!
That's it for the purist base, we would seldom stop here though.  This base is good for pure white chowders, mild flavored vegetable purees, or for one of the ultimate soups in the world "Pappa al Pomodoro"

If this is the base you want, it will support the addition of 4-5 more liters of water or stock added in addition to your high light flavors to make it your own soup.

Step 3: Second Base

This is the most common base we would use, the additions here allow alot of flexibility and a headier flavor.
  1. While the celery onion mixture is cooking away grab about 5-6 cloves of garlic, cut the ends off and peel them.  Here is an awesome trick to get out all the flavor of your garlic.  Sprinkle your garlic with a couple good pinches of salt.  Now slice through the salt into the garlic.  As you mince the garlic, moisture & oils are being released.  A lot of times these garlic juices are lost to the cutting board, but the grains of salt trap it all.  Also the salt tends to keep the garlic in place as opposed rolling off on to the floor.
  2. Add your salted garlic to the celery onion mixture and cook for a couple minutes, oh the smells that will start to waft out of your kitchen.
  3. In between stirring, peel and dice up 3 carrots.
  4. Add to the pot, and give it a stir.  At this point I add a couple good coarse grindings of black pepper and a small pinch of my secret ingredient
  6. Thyme may seem like one of those sort of antiquated herbs, not often reached for and often when used it expired along time ago.  Often smelling musty, but... When fresh time is available or a reputable supply of dried thyme can be found it is worth it.  You only need a touch, 1/2 teaspoon of whole thyme is plenty!
  7. Cook and stir for another 10 minutes off and on, kinda lazy like...
  8. Once the carrots have softened up a bit your second base is done.  If you are moving on to Third Base, turn the page otherwise continue with step 9
  9. add about a cup of water or wine, and stir the bottom of the pot to deglaze any goodness still stuck to the bottom.  The base can be refrigerated for up to 2 days, but best is just to keep the good smells coming and turn it into a full fledged soup

This makes an awesome base for any vegetarian pea, bean or lentil soups.  Also works well as a base for potato soups and vegetable purees.  With the addition of meat stock this makes a divine chowder or chicken soup.

If this is the base you want, it will support the addition of 4-5 more liters of water or stock added in addition to your high light flavors to make it your own soup.

Step 4: Third Base

This last stage really sets the stage for specific soups
  1. At this point some decisions will need to be made, what flavors are you wanting your soup to focus on.  Adding tomato at this point can be done in 2 ways.  If you have fresh chopped tomatoes, toss them in now.  This will give you a smokier tomato flavor, if you want it a bit milder add some liquid then the tomato.
  2. Green pepper can be added as well, this is to impart a touch of bitterness, done before adding liquid
  3. Leeks can also be sweated in at this point.
  4. Basically add any flavor that will survive the sweating in process.  Sure you could add sweet peppers, but really there flavor will actually be diminished by the time your soup is done, better to add it towards the end.  Same with sweet potato or yams, they cook so quickly and give up there flavors so fast that a long cooking time is not beneficial, leave it towards the last 25-30 minutes of your soup cooking.
The addition of certain flavors like the tomato or green peppers lend them selves to soups like minestrone, heavier flavored bean, pea and lentil soups in addition to kale soups like Ribollita or Zuppa di Verdure all' Agliata an intense garlicky vegetable soup.

Step 5: An Example of a Simple Soup Made From a Third Base Variation

Cumin Scented Tomatoe Yellow Split Pea - Vegetarian
  1. To my Second base I added a large pinch of whole cumin seed that I had roasted in a dry pan over high heat until fragrant.
  2. Next I added a small bunch of minced parsley, all though this will pretty much disintegrate by the end of the cooking time the flavor will live on.
  3. I then deglazed the pot with about a cup of white wine, and about 4 liters of water
  4. Since this soup would be cooked for another 2 hours I opted to use my frozen diced tomato from my summer greenhouse crop, about 2 cups. Into the pot it goes, ready for the addition of additional liquids and ingredients.  With a frozen product or canned for that matter there is no point of trying to sweat in this flavor, its just not gonna happen.
  5. Now add 3/4 to 1 cup of dried yellow split peas that have been picked over for rocks.  You could easily substitute some green, yellow or red lentils.  And no, I did not pre-soak these.  They cook in about 2 hours just fine by themselves.  If I were to add dried beans or whole peas then I would recommend soaking them for 12-24 hours.
  6. Bring just to a boil and reduce to a simmer.  Spoon off any soup scum at the surface.
  7. Give it a stir every 30 minutes or so until the split peas are very tender about 2 hours, at this point some of the peas will disintegrate and thicken the soup.
  8. Just before serving coarsely chop a handful of fresh herbs and green onion and stir into the soup.  Never add fresh herbs at the start as all there flavor will be muddied and lost.
  9. Serve sprinkled with freshly grated Pecorino Romana or Parmesan.  This sort of soup lends itself well to being pared with a very crusty bread, fresh butter and a nice dry red wine.
  10. For bonus points and to torture the vegetarians go onto step 6, These mixed meat meatballs are amazing added to the soup after cooking, there lightness and intense flavor is a result of adding cooked cous-cous instead of the traditional bread crumbs.

Step 6: Cous-cous Mixed Meatballs

Adding Meatballs to a soup is nothing new, mixing in cooked cous-cous though adds a whole different perspective.  The cous-cous helps bind the meat together similar to bread crumbs but being all ready cooked refuses to pull out moisture from the meat, keeping them incredibly light and moist.  The cous-cous also has the added benefit of carrying flavors right into the meat, you have to try it.

Ingredients and tools
  • 3/4lb ground turkey - thigh meat
  • 3/4lb ground pork
  • small bunch of minced parsley
  • salt and pepper - about a teaspoon of each
  • 1 clove of minced garlic
  • 1 large pinch of whole anise seed
  • 1-2 cups of left over cous-cous or it can be made just for this dish.  Any kind of flavored cous-cous will work and add its own special flavor.
  • Small swig of extra virgin olive oil for frying
  • ---------------------------------------------------------
  • 1 large frying pan with a lid, a large mixing bowl and your CLEAN hands
  1. In your large bowl add the cous-cous, salt and pepper, minced garlic, anise seed and minced parsley, combine till mixed.
  2. loosely break up the two meats and add to the bowl.
  3. Get your fingers in and work to combine.  Your not going for pate, it should be loosely but well combined.  The cous-cous will help prevent the meatballs from being to dense from over mixing.
  4. Add your swig of olive oil to the pan set over 3/4 heat.  Start forming the meat into meatballs a little smaller then a ping-pong ball and toss in the hot oil.
  5. As you add more and more, roll the meat balls around to make space and brown evenly.  Once they are all browned on the out side, throw a lid on it for ten minutes. and steam over 1/4 heat.  Take the lid off, flip them around a bit and steam for 10 more minutes.  Break one open to check its cooked through - your done!
  6. CAUTION: At this point be very weary of your surroundings, the smells emanating from your kitchen will bring drifters, hobo's, hippies and soup zombies from far and wide
  7. Spoon 4-5 meatballs into a bowl and top with your soup, sprinkle with grated cheese and butter smeared crusty bread!

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    47 Discussions


    2 years ago

    couple of comments .. "tomato" not "tomatoe"

    litre not liter


    Great and amusing instructable!

    I love these kind of soups.

    Packed with heavenly flavours and smooth consistency make them irresistible for us mere humans as well as those soup craving zombies!

    Thanks a lot! :-)


    5 years ago

    Great instructable! I would love a chicken soup recipe ( i hope i am not asking to much)


    5 years ago on Step 6

    I love making soups, and I am very thankful for lessons from a pro!

    Thank you for sharing your recipes and your process!

    You used to cook at Ecco Il Pane! Oh how how I miss your soups and their Chocolate Sour Cherry Sourdough Bread.

    Are you able to share the recipe for Chocolate Sour Cherry Sourdough Bread and your experience making it if you've tried?


    7 years ago on Introduction

    The onions burned right as they hit the pan. Is there anything I could do to avoid this? I think my pan may have been too large for the amount of oil used.

    4 replies

    That sucks, sometimes this can happen if the pan is heated too long prior to adding the onions. yes that can happen if the pan is too large, but the biggest culprit is usually the type of pot/pan used. It makes a huge difference as to the thickness of the pot/pan bottom. I've made this in a thin stockpot with similar results as yours with scorched onions. The only thing you can do to avoid this is to either use a pot/pan with a thicker bottom, or turn the heat down quite a bit. Normally this is really isn't much of an issue but it can be. You can increase the amount of oil you use as well, this will reduce the scorching as well, but it can make it a little greasy. Of course you can always ladle this out when its simmering as the oil will float to the top. Curious, was it stainless? They make for great low heat cooking or boiling water, but aside from that not the best for caramelizing.


    Thanks for the prompt reply. My pot is indeed stainless steel and I'm still cleaning it a day later. I will have to forgo this method of starting soup until I get a decent pot. Is there one you could recommend for a beginner? I keep thinking after creating a base, that chicken could be poached in it rather easily too. Chop up the chicken, add some noodles, and then chicken noodle soup.


    Reply 7 years ago on Introduction

    May I suggest using clay pots?
    They heat slowly, are difficult to handle and to keep up but everything tastes great!

    I would compare this way of cooking with clay pots like cooking with ashes. There is an additional taste but time is slower.

    Thank you, 'soup-master' for your great lessons!
    I am instantly putting them into practice.


    My biggest advice for purchasing new pots or pans is to avoid buying sets, at least for this intended purpose. Calphalon is the aluminum pot of choice, but can be quite pricey. A cheat is to buy a non-Teflon aluminum pan, much cheaper then a large pot. Just do all your caramelizing, then deglaze the pan and pour all the goodies into your pot. A great place to buy pots or pans such as this is at a restaurant supply store. They will be almost the same price as buying at a regular store, but the quality is phenomenal. You will never buy a another one again. Even there you will find Teflon and other no-stick coatings - RESIST! Caramelization doesn't work well on these non stick coatings. Lastly, second hand stores are fantastic for finding old thick bottoms aluminum pots or pans. Yeah they will be kinda ugly, but with a good cleaning, nothing beats them. Surprisingly lots of them are now becoming collector items, especially those one with the enamelled exteriors in olive green, red or Catalina orange.


    7 years ago on Introduction

    Thank you so much for this Instructable. I used it to start a pasta sauce, and everyone at dinner couldn't believe how good it was. Usually my husband is the acknowledged expert in sauces, but even he was asking me how I did it. :)

    My parents hated to cook when I was growing up, and they taught me that resentment. Reading enthusiasm like yours shows me that there's another way to look at it.

    1 reply

    8 years ago on Introduction

    Excellent instructable with great instructions!
    I do have one question for you. While making the first base with the onions, celery and salt I made a clam chowder out of it, but I'd kept wondering if you had any suggestions for developing the first base into a cream-based chowder?

    1 reply

    Thank you very much! The first base is the one we use for clam chowders in restaurants all ready, using clam juice as the stock being added to it, followed by cream at the end. Were you wanting a puree? or a cream base that is thick or thin. For thinner clam chowders (adding heavy cream at the end to flavourful stock) the addition of saffron and bacon is amazing, but if your looking for the thick type, you can't go wrong with the traditional dill of the east coast, adding a bit of fennel works as well surprisingly.

    For sure, i have also used steamed millet left over from what we used to add to bread. I usually find just like the couscous you should cook the grain first, this introduces moisture which sort of steams the ground meat from the inside. Similar to butter in puff pastry it opens up little pockets in the meat, which adds to the lightness. Flavours from the cooked grains also permeate the meat, and in exchange flavours from the meat permeate the grains. WIN WIN. This really isn't a new idea though, i remember growing up as a kid having porcupine meatballs. The rice used would have a similar effect. I have had it both ways, raw minute rice add to the ground meat, and cooked basmati mixed in.


    8 years ago on Introduction

    Fantastic! Thank you for the teaching / discussing the "why" behind the methods. Illuminating for beginners like me.

    2 replies

    Reply 8 years ago on Introduction

    Happy to help, I'll be posting others soon. Decided to document what I do at the restaurant on fridays