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Creamy Soups Without Cream

by Elizabeth Skipper | January 15th, 2014 | Ask the Chef
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chowderDuring the winter I try to make soup as a meal once a week.  While my husband and I both enjoy creamy soups, we are trying to eat in a more healthful manner.  How can I reduce or eliminate the cream in these soups but still give it a velvety texture?

Here we go again, with this idea that fat is bad for you. It is not. All fats aren’t created equal, however, and the kind of fat is important – some are good, others aren’t. The ADA and the AHA and all the other institutions which have been promoting the idea that all fats, especially saturated fats, are unhealthy are out of date! I suggest you do some research on the subject; the Weston A. Price website is a great place to start: www.westonaprice.org.

OK, now that I’ve ranted about that, I’ll allow there are times when you’d like to eat a bit lighter on the caloric scale. And there are certainly ways you can lighten up your soups while maintaining their creamy, velvety texture. The two main kinds of soup this would apply to would be chowders and cream soups.

Think purées. Puréed vegetables like winter squash, celeriac and potatoes, puréed fruits like apples and pears, and rice will all add thickness and body to soup. Other vegetables which have little or no starch, like broccoli or cauliflower, will tend to separate and fall to the bottom of the pot. A caveat when working with potatoes – be sure not to over-process them, or they’ll become gummy. Creaminess is nice; glue isn’t.

If you’re making a chowder, use more milk and less cream. Chowders don’t need to be as thick as many commercial ones are. Use plenty of vegetables. Some mashed potatoes will thicken things nicely. In the case of corn chowder, some puréed corn adds lovely body.

Soups like cream of broccoli or asparagus usually have a base of béchamel (white) sauce. In this case, you can replace the roux, the butter and flour base, with a slurry. A slurry is a mixture of a starch like cornstarch, arrowroot, or potato starch blended with cold liquid; there’s no fat at all in it. This is stirred into simmering liquid for thickening. It can be used to thicken stock, or low-fat or (and this is neither my preference nor my recommendation from the standpoint of health*) skimmed milk. Any fat from the butter is eliminated, and the butterfat from the milk is being reduced as well.

Rice purée works wonderfully well to thicken and add silkiness to soups. Overcook some to the point where it has absorbed all the cooking liquid and splits (short or medium-grain rice is better for this purpose than long-grain), then blend it.

Soubise is a classic French blend of long-cooked onions mixed with béchamel sauce. Try making a pseudo soubise by blending long-cooked onions with rice, and use that as a thickener. Make it up in bulk and freeze it in portions suitable for thickening, say, a quart of soup.

Don’t be afraid to use a little sour cream or heavy cream (raw is best, pasteurized rather than ultra-pasteurized if you can find it) for taste and mouth feel. Added at the end of cooking, even a little will improve your soup overall, and the extra calories aren’t that substantial.

*Do you know how farmers fatten up their pigs? They feed them skim milk!

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