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Online chicken noodle soup recipes contain mostly the same things - chicken, noodles, stock, vegetables - and for the most part taste the same. However, they taste completely different from the soup in many restaurants (such as Old Country Buffet or my favorite, Perkins'). I can't figure out how to make my soup taste like that.

It seems like the main difference is how thick the soup is... but simply adding less water doesn't do the trick. How do restaurants make their broth so thick? (should I be making my own broth?)

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Adding corn/tapioca starch and mashed potatoes always thicken my broths. –  Blessed Geek Mar 23 at 23:34
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7 Answers 7

up vote 8 down vote accepted

None of the answers so far mention collagen -- specifically, using a stock made from roasted and cracked poultry bones.

You don't have to roast the bones, but you do need to crack them -- use a large, heavy knife or cleaver (not a chinese vegetable cleaver, you'll screw up the edge) to chop the bones up into about 2" to 3" pieces (5 to 7cm). Put them in cold water, and slowly bring it up to a simmer, and just leave it simmering for a few hours. You can add vegetables, too, but you'll want to pitch them, as they'll have been overcooked by the time the simmering's done.

Then strain everything, and use that as the base of your soup.

If your refrigerate stock that has enough collagen in it, it'll set up like jello, and hold its own shape. Starches can work, but they're not ideal for soup -- flour (unless cooked as a roux) leaves a raw flour taste and cloudy soup; tapioca leaves little granules in there; corn starch will break down if you cook it too long.

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Can I use the precooked chicken from the deli, or does it have to be uncooked chicken (where do I find it with bones)? I get pretty grossed out by uncooked chicken :) –  BlueRaja - Danny Pflughoeft May 10 '11 at 4:19
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@BlueRaja : yes, you can. In fact, whenever I cook a whole chicken or turkey, after we've picked the meat clean, I'll throw the whole carcas in a pot, cover in water, and whatever sad vegetables I have on hand (I bag & freeze 'em when they're getting sad looking, before you have to pitch 'em), and set it simmer for a few hours ... then strain, cool down, strain the fat and move to suitable containers for freezing –  Joe May 10 '11 at 13:29
    
Awesome! I've been using store-bought chicken broth (which I have now learned is not the same as stock), but I'm actually really excited to try this. One question: Do you or don't you need to cut open the bones? You said yes in your answer, but you and others have also said "just throw the carcas in a pot and simmer for a few hours." Also, should I use a lot of water, or only just enough to cover the chicken (I have a 1-gallon pot and an 8-gallon pot)? –  BlueRaja - Danny Pflughoeft May 10 '11 at 16:14
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@BlueRaja : If making stock, you don't have to crack the bones ... but if you're specifically going for the gellatin to release and the associated mouthfeel, the bone marrow is where most of it is, so it reduces the cooking time and improves the final product. If you don't have a cleaver, just use the back of a heavy knife on the larger bones (eg, leg, thigh, each of the wing segments) ... if you have kitchen sheers, you can just cut through the ribs near the spine, but don't bother cracking those otherwise. –  Joe May 10 '11 at 16:24
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I'm pretty sure bone marrow is composed mainly of fat and contributes little or no collagen that is then converted by heat into gelatin; the vast majority of collagen resides in the bones themselves and the only thing you're doing by cracking them is increasing the surface area which will speed up this conversion to gelatin. –  Stefano Nov 14 '12 at 13:15
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I don't see any starch on the list. Starch is generally how you thicken stocks and sauces.

Corn starch is probably the most common and the easiest to find, and you should see results with no more than a tablespoon. Just be sure to add it while the soup isn't too hot and stir very thoroughly, otherwise you'll end up with lumps.

A more reliable approach is to use a roux, although that will give you a more "creamy" end product. If you just want a little thickening, use a starch like corn starch or tapioca flour.

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To avoid the possibility of lumpiness, mix your cornstarch with a little bit of cold water first, then slowly add this liquid to the soup whilst stirring. –  Sam Holder Jul 29 '10 at 9:41
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You can consider the thickness to be the ratio of dissolved starches to water. The more starch, the thicker the sauce. The less water, the thicker the sauce.

0 dissolved starch / 2 liter water = 0 thickness

Just reducing the amount of water by half doesn't fix the problem.

0 dissolved starch / 1 liter water = 0 thickness

Starches can be found in the ingredients of the soup/stew. For instance, if you cook the soup long enough, the noodles will start to dissolve into the broth, making it thicker. Of course, if you are making chicken NOODLE soup, this probably isn't the desired result.

One option would be to add one batch of noodles at the start of the cooking process. Wait till they dissolve and the soup is nearly done before adding the rest of the noodles.

Another option is use a different starch food ingredient like some chopped up potato or navy beans at the beginning, and then adding the noodles near the end again.

Both of these options require a long cooking time, but in my opinion, add nutritional value to the soup.

There are also fast starches like plain flour, or corn starch that can work in anywhere from a few minutes to a few seconds. The easiest way I've found to add them is to mix them with a little bit of cold water to form a slurry, and then pour the slurry into the boiling soup while stirring rapidly. Using the right amount takes some practice, but remember that they both thicken a bit more as the soup cools, so don't add too much when it's boiling.

For sauces, I like to reduce the amount of water a bit first through boiling before adding a quick starch. For stews and soups I prefer a nutritional starch at the beginning of the cooking process.

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Two things to consider. They get their soup in a bag. It sits around all day cooking off starch from the noodles.

This is not a criticism, per se, of old country buffet, just something to realize about restaurant products. That soup they served you almost definitely has been sealed in plastic for days if not weeks. A lot of the starch from the noodles will dissolve into the stock and thicken it. Also, as it sits all day and cooks, to be ready for service, this process continues.

I think the corn-starch theory is right (although I wouldn't be surprised if restaurant soups used a more nefarious chemical treatment), but cooking your soup on a low simmer for 10-12 hours would probably have some starch-releasing effects as well.

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I suspect this is the key. Over-cooking the noodles will definitely release starch into the broth, which will thicken it. Personally, that sounds like a flaw not a benefit to me! But you can get a similar effect by cooking the noodles in the broth, and maybe adding additional starch as others have said... (bleah...) –  Harlan Aug 11 '10 at 18:43
    
@Harlan: I'm honestly not so interested in the thickening as how to get that tiny spicy(?)/tangy taste that Perkins' soup has, but such questions ("Why is Perkins' soup kind of tangy?") are not allowed. I noticed that Perkins' soup is much, much thicker than my homemade soup, so I thought this might lead me down the right path. –  BlueRaja - Danny Pflughoeft May 10 '11 at 4:26
    
Who knows what's in their recipe, and yes, recipe questions aren't allowed here. I doubt the spices/MSG that they use would have anything to do with the thickness of the broth. –  Harlan May 10 '11 at 15:20
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@BlueRaja-DannyPflughoeft, restaurant mimicry is definitely allowed (there's even a tag). You just need to be specific about current recipe and what you feel is missing. Just asking for a recipe is off topic. Fixing something specific in an existing recipe is decidedly on topic. –  yossarian Sep 28 '11 at 21:15
    
@BlueRaja-DannyPflughoeft, the slightly spicy/tangy taste might be horseradish. –  Fambida Sep 30 '11 at 7:49
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Most restaurant soups for chain restaurants also contains MSG or flavor enhancer as it is sometimes called. Corn starch is also in the list of ingredients. Unless you have small restaurant type place that makes its own soup it is precooked and plastic bagged. Some Denny's use it correctly others water is down pinching penny's and driving away customers

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My sister made her soup with the packet of the seasoning mix from a box of macaroni and cheese. I know this is kind of going against the natural homemade idea, but it was absolutely delicious.

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As to the taste part of your question: high-quality chicken stock/broth, simmered a loooon time, reduced (evaporate water), will start of your soup with a much richer flavor.

In other words - I wouldn't just look at thickness. Do try your own broth, or start from a more high-quality prepared base.

Edit: See Joe's answer (+1) as well about this point.

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Interesting. How long do you think I should let the broth simmer on the stove before cooking the rest of the soup? Also, do you have any recommendations of a "high-quality stock/broth" brand? They all look the same to me. Should I be making my own (that thought intimidates me)? –  BlueRaja - Danny Pflughoeft May 10 '11 at 4:23
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