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Let’s Cook Mushroom Soup

A bowl of mushroom soup that tasted better than it photographed
Photo: Albert Burneko/Illustration: Chris Thompson|


I have one mushroom soup observation, and one mushroom soup admonishment. Then, I hope, we will make some dang mushroom soup.

The mushroom soup observation is that mushroom soup does not photograph well. This can be a problem if you are, just to grab a random case, attempting to convince a faithful but perhaps skeptical sports-blog audience of mushroom soup's greatness, and thereby persuade them to cook some at home, and your customary approach to this type of job starts with taking a nice appetizing photo of the food. Look at that damn mess up there. That homely bowl of tan goop studded with weird green. Nobody is rushing to declare their passionate love to that. I should have just made a crayon drawing of Toad from Mario Kart for this blog.

It's the autumn light, I swear! By even the earliest of plausible October dinnertimes, it's at best a gloomy blue outside; the fixture above my dinner table gives off a warm golden light that's fine for making the room cozy but dreadful for providing flattering illumination to a bowl of mushroom soup—never the handsomest of foods even in the very best of light. You will just have to take my word for this: The soup was delicious. It smelled and tasted great. It was hearty and satisfying and I dove into a second giant bowl of it. Mushroom soup is good, OK? It's good.

The mushroom soup admonishment, for those persuaded by the above, is not to overthink or overdo this whole thing. Many mushroom soup recipes out there call for wild varieties of ingredients, exotic boozes and such, I think maybe because their authors want to distinguish themselves or their work or because they set for themselves the goal of devising the absolute best imaginable mushroom soup; the one below will include options for a great many add-ons, as well, because I like tinkering and never make the same food preparation the same way twice and the last pot of mushroom soup turned out especially great. But you can make a delicious pot of mushroom soup with nothing more than mushrooms, flavorful stock, and some aromatics and herbs and seasonings of the sort likely found in most regular grocery stores and/or kitchens.

The mushrooms are the key thing. Let's cook some mushroom soup.

Here are some things that you will need.

You will need some mushrooms. A lot of mushrooms. Many mushrooms! Let's talk about that for a minute.

Probably 90 percent of the mushroom matter in the mushroom soup unattractively photographed at the top of this blog comes from two pounds of just plain old brown mushrooms, cremini (or what are insultingly sold as "baby portobello" mushrooms at the supermarket, on a bet that doofus Americans will not know that "portobello" mushrooms are just fully grown cremini), sliced. Truthfully, that is all the soup actually needed; you can make (and I have made) delicious and fully satisfying mushroom soup with no mushroom action beyond a bunch of sliced brown or white mushrooms.

In that sense, when I say that you need "a lot" of mushrooms, what I am saying is that you need many mushrooms, so that a bowl of your soup will have lots of bites of mushroom in it—not that you need many varieties of mushroom. That's a significant distinction, I think, because some parts of the world and/or produce purveyors do not offer a wide variety of mushrooms, and people in those places and/or subject to those produce purveyors can still make delicious mushroom soup with the regular-ass salad-bar-ass mushrooms available. So long as you use a frickin' lot of them! Like two pounds of 'shrooms, at least, for a pot of soup that will serve like six people who like mushrooms.

Now! The mushroom soup up there in that unattractive photo also contained a pound of hen-of-the-woods mushrooms that I tossed with olive oil and roasted in a very hot oven until they were nicely browned, plus half an ounce of dried porcini mushrooms that I rehydrated, rinsed free of grit, and chopped roughly. I'm glad it contained those! The hen-of-the-woods, my personal favorite mushroom, tasted great and added some nice textural and visual variety to the soup; the porcini (and especially the carefully strained deep brown liquid left over from rehydrating them) added a layer of deep, earthy, excitingly funky aroma and flavor. Not every pot of mushroom soup I make will have those mushrooms in it; yours doesn't need to. For the sake of shortening this blog so that I can ever finish writing it, the cooking steps below will assume you're leaving them out.

(If you're not leaving them out, then, uh, don't leave them out. Soak the dried porcinis in a couple cups of lukewarm water for an hour, then rinse them in cold water, squeeze them dry, and chop 'em up. Strain the liquid through a paper coffee filter so no grit comes with it, and add it to the stock below.)

You will need a couple of quarts of some stock. This can be beef or chicken or vegetable stock; I recommend beef, for the reason that beef and mushrooms just go extremely well together and for the lesser but still important reason that beef stock, being usually a deeper and richer brown color than chicken or vegetable stock, will do more to prevent your eventual soup from taking on the sort of off-putting corpse-grey color of canned cream-of-mushroom soup.

This stock absolutely 100-percent can be all the cooking liquid you use! Your mushroom soup will be grand. If you want to brighten up store-bought stock by simmering it briefly, in advance, with some fragrant stuff—the tough green parts of a few leeks, a couple bay leaves, some Parmigiano-Reggiano rinds, whatever—you can do that, or not do it. If you want to use stock and also some cheap wine (in that case I recommend marsala), that is also something you can do. But it's fine to just not do that! Stock alone will be fine.

You will need some veg type stuff. A big yellow onion or two, French-sliced or diced; a couple cloves of garlic, minced; some sliced scallions; if you happened to get a couple leeks for stock purposes, then the white and light-green parts of those leeks, halved lengthwise, washed thoroughly to remove dirt and grit, and sliced crosswise into thin half-rings. You'll need some herbs; I recommend a bundle of thyme sprigs, tied together with twine, some chives sliced into adorable little rings, and some flat-leaf parsley. Finely chop the leaves of the parsley; decide for yourself whether you'd like to include the tougher stems in that bundle of thyme. Tarragon is great in mushroom soup, but that can be a chore to find if you're restricted to the range of stuff stocked by normal grocery chains.

You will need some cooking fat. This can be olive oil or butter; it can be vegetable oil or frickin' rapeseed oil or cooking spray. It should not be coconut oil; it must not be motor oil. You'll need salt and black pepper, naturally. If you skipped the dried porcinis, that's fine! Once again that's fine. But also, in that case, maybe you will decide to add a couple anchovy fillets to this whole deal, just to really drive the umami quotient sky high. Or maybe not! It's your soup, and I don't give a damn!

And, you'll need to decide for your dang self whether you want your mushroom soup to be thickened and/or creamy. It's fine if not; the only real drawbacks here are A) it will be somewhat less hearty and filling, and also B) it likely will have some amount of possibly unsightly liquid fat scattered across the top of it, because you will skip the step where you use flour to turn that fat into a roux and it gets suspended in the broth that way.

Whereas the drawbacks of thickening and/or, uh, creamy-ing your soup are that A) cooking it will include a couple more steps, and also B) it may hasten your eventual death from any number of cardiopulmonary and/or pancreatic conditions. For the purposes of this blog, we'll assuming you're (modestly) thickening and creamy-ing, in which case you will need oh, maybe half a cup at most of flour (all-purpose or pre-sifted, it's fine either way), plus not more than a cup of whatever fatty liquid milk product you would like to use, so long as that fatty liquid milk product is not melted ice cream. Skim or one- or two-percent milk will add nothing; whole milk is the compromise position between your heart and your figurative heart; heavy cream is Going For It.

You don't need a loaf of crusty bread, but I certainly recommend one. If you're not getting it fresh from a baker that cooked it just now, pop it into a 400-degree oven maybe five or six minutes before it's time to eat, to get it all crackly and warm.

You'll need a pot, and a utensil or implement (a wooden spoon maybe?), and then later on probably a ladle. I... think that's it? Hm. Yeah I think that's it. Let's get cooking and see.

Heat up a couple glugs of your cooking fat over medium-high heat in your nice big stockpot or saucepan or Dutch oven or whatever. When it's shimmering, chuck in your onions and a pinch of salt; move them around with the spoon or spatula or shovel over the next few minutes while they sweat out their water and start cooking. Within 10 or 15 minutes they'll be translucent; dump the garlic and the sliced leeks (if you have them!) in there (plus the anchovies if you went that route) and toss everything around with the [sigh] repurposed 2003 Johnson District Youth Basketball Association Age 9-12 Winter Tournament Runner-Up trophy. Within a minute you'll be able to smell those latter two aromatics cooking, and you'll want to skip all the rest of this shit and just eat a big fistful of hot aromatics, minor burns be damned. Don't do it! It gets even better.

If you were using a pot of truly gargantuan proportions, the next step would be to dump the mushrooms in there and fold them around with the hot aromatics and oil; this would sizzle the mushrooms a little, to their benefit, and they'd absorb some of the delicious aromatics-flavored fat, and then you'd move on to the next steps. But you are not using a pot of gargantuan proportions (unless you are, in which case I already knew that and was talking to everyone else): If you dump the mushrooms in now, they won't get sizzled and they won't absorb the fact; they'll just unload a quart of their own watery liquid into the pot, and it won't be able to evaporate because it's too crowded in there.

Which, really, that would be fine! The mushroom soup would still taste great in the end. But there's no real reason to do it that way; plus, it would also make the next step, adding the flour, a lot more annoying, because you'd be folding it around with at least two pounds of sliced mushrooms, instead of with just a couple fistfuls of aromatics. This was a pointless digression, and I apologize for it. The point here is: dump in the flour and toss everything around while the flour soaks up the fat and begins toasting and perhaps sticking to the bottom of the pot; keep tossing until there appears to be no totally dry flour left in the pot and the whole thing starts to smell like toasty bread (uh, with a lot of onions and garlic in it).

You likely have some amount of stuff cooking onto the floor of your pot, now. It's time to deglaze that sucker with a splash of your cooking liquid. If this is the stock (with or without porcini tea mixed in), fine; if you're also using wine, then use that first, for this part. Dump, I dunno, like a cup of the liquid in there; with your spoon, start stirring the pot and scraping the bottom while the stuck-on gunk lifts off. Within a minute or two you should have a thick floury paste developing in there; splash in some more cooking liquid, and stir and stir until it's evenly mixed into that paste; and again and again until all the cooking liquid is in there. Hopefully by now you have something thicker than water or wine but also thin enough that it can still be considered broth and not sauce or pudding or cake frosting or concrete; otherwise I did a very bad job of estimating the ingredient quantities up there.

Bring this liquid up just to a simmer and adjust the heat to keep it there. Now it is time to add the mushrooms. Just stir those dang suckers on in there, in batches if you need to; by the time they're all stirred in, you'll be able to smell the very fact that this soup is going to kick major ass. Whatever the damn hell it comes out looking like.

Oh hey also, grind a bunch of black pepper in there. Taste the broth and add more salt if you think it needs it. You're only tasting for salt, at this point, not for mushroominess. Don't panic if the soup seems light on the latter at first; those 'shrooms are releasing their liquid into the broth as they cook, and this doesn't take long at all. The soup is gonna taste very mushroomy! You will just have to trust me on this.

OK, so. Mushrooms, for the most part, are edible raw or with minimal cooking; cremini are yummy with nothing more than having the soil scrubbed off them. This is to say: If you want, you can add the bundle of thyme (and maybe parsley stems?) right now, and eat soup in 20 minutes, giving the mushrooms and broth just enough time to meet and fall in love and give birth to flavors with one another. On the other hand the mushrooms, assuming you have not gone for some truly exotic varieties beyond my knowledge, are not going to dissolve in the pot any time soon; they'll just get softer, which some people like and others do not. If you're the former, you can start this project a couple hours before dinnertime if you want and let the simmering go for a little while, stirring every few minutes to prevent any scalding on the bottom, so long as you hold off on adding the bundle of thyme until, like, 20 or 30 minutes before you plan to eat, so as not to make a waste of that thyme by annihilating its winning qualities with too much simmering.

In any case, at some dang point you will have simmered a bundle of thyme in the soup for like 20 minutes. Now it is time to finish this damn (figurative) shit. Turn off the heat and stir the fatty milk product in there. That's it. Mushroom soup.

Ladle soup into bowls; top each with some chives, some of the chopped parsley leaves, and some of the sliced scallions. Lean over the steam rising from a bowl and smell what the hot soup does to these, and vice versa. Hell yeah. Tear off a hunk of crusty bread; eat soup with a spoon in one hand and the bread in the other, dredging the bread through broth and heaping mushrooms onto it and chowing down immodestly and making a great horrible spectacle of yourself. So it's not the most photogenic damn food in creation! Who are you, Rudolph frickin' Valentino?

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