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Sautéing is the secret to great soup

A tasty, healthy soup can be as simple as opening jars and cans and tossing ingredients into a pot.

But an awesome, flavorful healthy soup comes together in stages.

Homemade soup starts with a basic technique: sautéing. Heat and stir a combination of vegetables, herbs and spices in a small amount of fat — butter or oil (or bacon drippings for a salty, smoky flavor). Then let the ingredients slowly turn brown, or caramelize.

Pour in some liquid (broth), then add the ingredients that need the longest time to cook, such as beans, rice or potatoes.

When making soup, perhaps the first decision for cooks is what they will use as the base when a recipe calls for broth, said Clifford Wright, author of The Best Soups in the World.

Wright uses the terms broth and stock interchangeably, although technically, there is a small difference. While researching his book, Wright tasted many commercial broths, and his recipes include both.

Choosing one over the other depends on time constraints and "how spectacular I want my soup to taste," he said. "Any soup recipe that relies on the broth itself as the centerpiece of the soup will clearly require homemade broth."

The downside to using some commercial broths is the sodium content, Jennifer Burchett said.

"If you don't have time to make homemade stock, please check the sodium content on what you buy," said Burchett, who owned Café Jennifer until it closed in 2006.

Burchett knows how to make good soup. In fact, she still gets requests for her tomato-dill soup years, which she served at her restaurant in The Woodlands.

"It is really funny to me how many people still ask about it. One lady described it as having a 'cult following.'"

Burchett recommends waiting until the soup is finished to correct the seasoning.

In addition to controlling sodium, cooks can control fat content in their soups.

"If you're trying to cut down on fat but aren't too worried about carbs, throw a potato in any vegetable soup you're going to puré, such as carrot or broccoli soup, Burchett said. "It will act as a thickener and negate the need for cream."

"I've even used leftover mashed potatoes to thicken soup, but that is more of a convenience because it usually contains butter or cream," she said.

For those who like puréed soups, Burchett suggests buying an immersion blender.

"Recipes that require transferring to a blender really need to be updated. Immersion blenders aren't expensive, and they're safer to use (no risk of burning from pouring hot soup) and so easy to clean. Just make sure you take the dishcloth out of the sink before you whir the blender in the soapy water."

Most soups taste best on the second day, after flavors have had time to meld. That brings up the problem of cooling the hot pot before placing it in the refrigerator.

The Food and Drug Administration recommends cooling liquids to 70 degrees within the first two hours after cooking and 40 degrees within four hours after that. Cook's Illustrated recommends letting the soup cool to 85 degrees on the counter top (which takes about an hour) before transferring it to the refrigerator.

This winter, enjoy a pot of homemade soup.