A Good Flavor Base
A Good Flavor Base is the Start of All Homemade Soup Recipes. There is a reason they call it a flavor base. It’s because all the other flavors in your homemade soup recipes will be built on top of this base. As with skyscrapers, you cannot reach towering heights without a strong foundation, and this is where you will learn how to create that foundation.
A good flavor base is composed of 4 elements: aromatics (normally vegetables, but you will see some other possibilities), oil or fat (butter or bacon fat are common), salt, and finally heat.
Aromatics are simply those vegetables or other ingredients that contain a lot of flavor, and whose flavor can be coaxed from the ingredients themselves. This is the part of the flavor base that is most important, as it is the source of the flavor. Everything else we use or do is for the purpose of extracting that flavor.
The most common aromatic combination is called mirepoix, named for the French town in which it was supposedly first invented. It is simply a 2:1:1 ratio of diced onion, carrot and celery. (Equal amounts of celery and carrot, with twice as much onion). Mirepoix often also contains diced ham in a smaller amount.
Many Latin cooking styles call for the “Trinity”, which is a combination of onion, celery and green pepper. Quite often this is a flavor base for Cajun cooking.
Aromatic vegetables are plentiful, and they come in different “families” which makes it easy to substitute for different variations of flavor bases. For instance, in the onion “family”, it would be perfectly reasonable to substitute onions with leeks, shallots or green onions. Garlic is also part of this group, but is usually added to onions rather than replacing them.
Celery can be replaced with celery root or fennel root, while carrots can be switched with parsnips or turnips. And any bell pepper, regardless of color, will make a great aromatic.
As mentioned before, diced ham can be used, but I prefer to use bacon. While it takes a bit more effort to get some of the fat out, I find that it has so much more flavor and is worth the extra effort.
Also, don’t forget some of the hardier herbs and spices. Anything that will withstand sauteeing for 5 to ten minutes will often be a good option: bay leaves, pepper corns, rosemary, fennel seeds and ginger have all found their way into the bottom of my soup pot.
Fat or Oil
In order to get the flavor out of the aromatics, we need something to receive the flavor. Also, we need something that will deliver the heat to the aromatics, and fat or oil is the way to do both.
Things with flavor are made of “organic” molecules. Oil and fat are capable of dissolving organic molecules, where water is not. Alcohol can also dissolve organic molecules, but it cannot withstand the heat that oil and fat can. By sauteeing aromatics in oil or fat we can collect the flavor that comes out of them, which increases the total amount of flavor.
Olive oil is one of the best oils to use in a flavor base, but nearly any vegetable oil is a good choice. Higher quality oils, such as grape seed oil and extra virgin olive oil should not be used for this purpose, as they do not withstand heat too well. Better to save them for other uses where their gentle flavors can be appreciated, as in a salad dressing.
Butter is a good choice for a fat, but by itself cannot stand the heat required for a good saute. It is best combined with a little olive oil to allow for a higher cooking temperature.
Bacon fat is a nice option, especially since it has so much flavor already. Goose fat or other poultry drippings have been used too, but I find these to be too heavy, so I don’t use them.
I know there is a lot of talk about the amount of salt in our diets. Certainly people with high blood pressure need to avoid having too much, but the simple fact is that most of the salt in our diets comes from processed foods.
Food that is made in a factory needs to be heavily salted in order to maintain its flavor. But food that is cooked fresh, and salted at the beginning of the cooking process can benefit from a much smaller amount of salt than is typically found in the average fast food meal or bag of chips.
There are 4 reasons we use salt in flavor bases, as well as in food in general. The first reason is that it helps extract moisture from the aromatics. With this moisture comes some of the flavor molecules that are locked inside the food.
The second reason is that salt “wakes up” the taste buds, and makes us more sensitive to other flavors. Thirdly, it acts as a contrast to other pleasant taste sensations, such as sweet and sour, further enhancing them.
Lastly, salt partially covers bitterness. It is nearly impossible to taste both saltiness and bitterness at the same time. Salt, being the more dominant flavor, is the one we taste when both are present.
Of course, none of the above items will do anything without heat. Sauteeing your salted aromatics in a decent quality oil or fat at a medium-low temperature (4 on a dial that goes from 1 to 10) for about 5 to 10 minutes will help get lots of flavor from them, and all that flavor will end up in your soup.
I like to keep the vegetables and meat from my aromatics once I have finished cooking them, but you could easily just keep the oil or fat and still have a ton of flavor. I just hate throwing anything away if I can help it!
One final step in building the flavor base: when it is done cooking, it is important to quickly stop the cooking process. This is best done by adding something cold. Ice water is good, but chilled stock or broth is best because it has so much more flavor.