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What are the technical differences between a soup and a stew.

Specifically, I've always had some confusion on the differentation of stew and soup. For the most part, you can tell the difference by visual cues but sometimes some soup or stew looks ambigously in between and i can't tell the difference. For example, wikipedia shows a picture of this as soup:

enter image description here

Yet it looks more like a stew to me. And then it shows this as a stew:

enter image description here

Yet that looks like a soup to me. So my main question is: What are the technical differences that determine whether it is a soup or a stew.

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3  
In English cooking? Basically, nothing: it's a soup (or a stew) because the chef or recipe-writer decided to call it that. If the liquid is clear, it's almost certainly a soup, but other than that, all bets are off. –  Marti Jan 31 '12 at 22:57
    
And casserole is essentially the same too –  TFD Jan 31 '12 at 23:48

9 Answers 9

up vote 21 down vote accepted

There really is no practical difference; the dictionary definition of a soup is:

a liquid food made by boiling or simmering meat, fish, or vegetables with various added ingredients.

Which also applies to any stew you can conceive of.

The technical, highly-nuanced difference is that of emphasis and intent. Stewing is a method of cooking the solids (specifically, a slow, moist-heat method). When you make a beef stew, you are stewing the beef, which says nothing about what you're stewing it in. On the other hand, when you make a chicken soup (or a chicken stock or broth which is the base of a chicken soup) then your objective is essentially to make chicken-flavoured liquid - to extract the flavour of the solids into the liquid. If some flavourful solids remain, then that is incidental as opposed to intentional.

In practice, some flavour extraction is going to happen with a stew as well, it just so happens that the principal aim is to cook the meat/veggies. A soup is more likely to contain raw or barely-cooked ingredients, and a stew is more likely to preserve the original flavour of the solids and/or liquids, but that's a very broad generalization and what it boils down to (ha ha) in practice seems to be largely dependent on the culture and the dish itself.

A stew is not simply a thick or chunky soup, despite the fact that a lot of people think of it that way. As above, that seems to be more common with stews, but it's not part of the definition, and the French have half a dozen categories for thickened soups that could easily be described as having the overall consistency of a "stew".

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3  
+1 for the pun. I'd give you another +1 for the answer but I only get one. –  Sobachatina Jan 31 '12 at 23:38
1  
...must...resist...urge...to...downvote...pun... –  Marti Feb 1 '12 at 1:18
    
I'm going to steal your answer to create tag wikis. –  derobert Feb 1 '12 at 19:59
1  
Also, "slow, moist-heat method" also describes braising and pot-roasting. It'd be nice to capture the difference. –  derobert Feb 1 '12 at 20:05
    
@derobert : see my answer for the pot roast & braise. –  Joe Oct 30 '13 at 3:25

Well I will tell you what my old country Grandma use to say, "you can eat a stew on a plate but you will need a bowl for your soup, but they both come out of the same pot!"

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That's a good point -- in some cultures, you'd braise something, then serve it as a two courses -- a soup course for the broth, and then a second course of whatever was cooked in the liquid. –  Joe Oct 30 '13 at 0:03

I feel that stew is chunky and soup is runny or more small ingredients. Although to a Vegan, he may use chunks of squash as the main ingredient to bring out the flavor. So, this would be called a "Vegan Squash Stew". If he cuts the squash up into smaller pieces, it is a "Squash Soup". This is my view point. Although Beef is usually Stew and Chicken is usually Soup. But, this is because the Cow is discriminating against the Chicken because he is bigger, LOL. However, a Vegan may use squash as the main part and break up these stereotypes of beef or chicken into using your own interpretation of what you want them to be called. However, I never heard of a beef soup and a chicken stew. But it all depends if you believe in these stereotypes or if you want to be original and name your own dish that you cooked yourself. Therefore, I would just call it "A Vegetable Dish", be simplistic and eliminate the controversy.

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To expand on derobert's comment about adding pot roast & braise into the mix.

Pot roast is a large hunk of meat, possibly with other vegetables, that is braised as a roast, but must be cut up before serving. It may be served with or without the the cooking liquid.

Soup is a liquid that might have some elements in it, but it's mostly liquid. (typically well over 50% by volume of liquid vs. solids) Solids are generally cut smaller than bite size, with the meal being eaten without utensils (ie, drunk from a cup). A soup doesn't necessarily need to be cooked.

Stew is another braise, but the items are cut up before being cooked, typically into sizes that would be too large to eat without utensils. The items may be bite-size or larger, but is smaller than a whole roast. Typically, the liquid is well under 50% by volume of liquid vs. solids.

A braise may be any of the above, provided that it's actually solids cooked in a liquid. (ie, a broth wouldn't qualify if it's liquid only by the time you serve it, nor would soups with fresh ingredients added at the end, nor would uncooked soups). It also includes solids that have been removed from the liquid.

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I think the conflict some people have is that you could just as well call chunky chicken in a dish stew and tiny bits of beef in a dish soup. So, these stereotypes contradict themselves. You can call your dish a meat or a vegetable dish and feel more confident in the name of the dish because it's free of contradiction.

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stew has gravy in it and soup has water. you eat soup out of a bowl and stew on a plate with rice or mashed potato.

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These definitions are very narrow; it seems that your family makes only one type of stew and one type of soup, and you have concluded that they cover all types. Soup and stew are independent of the plate they are served on, and none is traditionally served with a side. –  rumtscho Feb 22 at 15:14

I think it depends on your culture. I am a Vietnamese living in Germany. My German friends distinguish the terms "stew" and "soup". But when I'm at home and tell my mother (in Vietnamese) that I ate - for example - "Bohneneintopf" (bean stew) I say that I ate "bean soup" (literally translated). Vietnamese call this

enter image description here

"canh chua" ("sour soup") which Germans - and probably you too - would call "fish-prawn-pineapple-tomato stew". In fact, this dish is really translated as "fish soup" or "sour soup". The focus of this dish is rather on it's solid component than the liquid. I am not sure whether a term for "stew" dows exist in Vietnamese at all. Vietnamese call this

enter image description here

"soup" too.

An old German friend told me: "My mother told me that a stew is a stew, if you are able to eat it with a fork."

Conclusion: The might be a technical difference between "soup" and "stew" but everyone ignores it. :)

(Since I am a non-native English speaker: Sorry in advance for my grammar mistakes.)

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I don't think terms in other languages are relevant to the meaning of the English terms. –  SAJ14SAJ Feb 22 at 16:40
    
Well, wikipedia says "Canh chua (literally "sour soup") or cá nấu ("boiled fish") is a sour soup" en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canh_chua I wonder why this is not properly translated in the meaning of the English terms. –  ChiChiChan Feb 22 at 16:52

Whether its a soup or a stew all depends on the culture and the cook. For example, in England, where I'm from a stew is normally thicker than a soup and can be eaten from a plate whereas a soup is drank from a bowl or cup. In Jamaica goat soap or chicken foot soap would be a relatively thin liquid, while red peas soup is expected to be thick (this would most likely be classed as a stew by English standards). If these soups are served at home they normally have large pieces of root vegetables (yam, sweet potato, coco, dasheen, etc) commonly called "food" which you'd use your dinner spoon to cut and eat. (Some people like, my Grandfather, will take the "food" out and eat it separately, then drink the liquid soup.) If the soup is being served publicly the "food" is usually cut into small chunks so that you can drink it from a cup and eat the chunks as you go along. On the other hand red peas stew here is like a chilli (kidney beans stewed to a thick consistency) and served over rice.

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I've always been taught that the differences between soups and stews is the size of chunks of food that you cook in the broth or whatever liquid you want to use as a base. Sure anyone can call a soup a stew, or call a stew a soup, and it wouldn't make much of a difference. But typically in my experience Stews are chunkier and heartier than soups.

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