Water_bubble_4                                                                                                                             Photo by Donna

Water is an overlooked tool in the kitchen, a fundamental ingredient so thoughtlessly used it's often omitted in the recipe list.

I was delighted, then, to see Mark Bittman's column in today's NYTimes on
making soup
using vegetables herbs and "a secret ingredient (OK, water)."

How right he is.  In his column he gives recipes for making use of the vegetables and herbs that are so abundant at this time: Late Summer Ministrone, Zucchini Lemon-Egg Soup, and Fresh Tomato Borscht. They all look good and I especially love enriching soup with egg as he does with the zucchini soup.

I have strong opinions about using water rather than canned broth.  As I wrote in this post on making stock, "I cannot say this strongly or loudly enough: DO NOT use canned stock/broth.  Use WATER instead.  I repeat.  You DO NOT NEED to buy that crappy can of Swanson’s low sodium chicken broth!  It will HURT your food.  Use water instead.  When that recipe says 1 cup of fresh chicken stock (or good quality canned broth), please know that your food, 90 percent of the time, will taste better if you use tap water instead of that 'good quality' canned broth.  Water is a miracle."

Does water always work?  No, sometimes you need stock, which is why it's good to have some in your freezer or to be in the habit of making small amounts (after you've roasted a chicken, for instance). But where soups are concerned–well, we've kind of lost our tradition of soup making in this country, largely I think because canned soup just isn't very good and soup you make at home using Swansons or College Inn is never going to be very good either.  Think about it—you take wonderful ingredients and put them into a mediocre one.  How good can it be?  Bittman does cooks a service by reminding us that soups do not need to take a long time to make and do not necessarily require stock.


35 Wonderful responses to “In Defense of Water”

  • Amy

    I actually try to make all my stocks homemade anyhow…Freezers are great…And so are slow cookers. : p

    I do however have handy the Stocks that Whole Foods carries…The frozen ones.

  • Dana McCauley

    I once had a long conversation with a couple of other cookbook authors and an editor about what should and shouldn’t be on an ingredient list. Together we decided that water didn’t need to be listed in the ingredient list since if you didn’t have water, you really shouldn’t be cooking.

    THen, about a year later I was called upon to consult for a pizza chain (no thankfully out of business) who had no water on premises except in the bathroom. Needless to say, after the initial meeting I broke off that relationship.

  • zach wilson

    I doesn’t hurt that NYC has really, really good water. The water that comes out of our tap is better than anything you’ll find in a bottle anywhere.

  • luis

    In sofl were I live the tap water seems fine. Better than some bottled water even. But there are times it tastes strongly chlorinated. At such times which may last several days even weeks… I switch to bottled water. The quality of the water is extremelly important to us everyday.

  • Tags

    Jeffrey Steingarten has a great essay on water in his book, “The Man Who Ate Everything.” It’s titled, “Water.”

    Ian Wisniewski has a great essay on water in Michael Jackson’s book, “Whiskey, The Definitive World Guide.” It’s titled, “Water.”

    Last week on Letterman, Robin Williams told about how his father used to say, “When we were kids, we didn’t HAVE water. We had to take hydrogen and oxygen and push them together.”

  • Charlotte

    I swear by my spigot-mounted Pur filter — flip it up to fill pots or for drinking water — flip it down to wash dishes. It’s just a simple carbon filter but our water is mined, and heavily mineralized. The filter seems to help with that and with the chlorine issue.
    What I found most interesting about the Bittman piece was the perception people seem to have that soup is difficult or time-consuming. Soup — what could be easier? I have some leftover roasted chicken, potatoes and artichoke that I did last weekend that I feel strongly is about to become soup for lunch. Just add water!

  • Brian

    Really good stuff to be aware of. I need to get in a better habit of using my chicken carcass and the other bits from randomn meats to start making my own stock.

    Let me ask-how long is it considered safe to keep stock in the freezer? I’ve got a quart of veal stock that I’ve had frozen up for about 4 months…I’m assuming I’m pushing it by using it at this point..


  • Robert Lucas

    Brian: You stock is still good… it will still be usable until it is about a year old but quality starts to degrade noticeably after about 6 months… so dont try to make the best dinner ever out of it after that, but don’t waste it either! at this point tho you should be a ok… the best way to tell the quality tho is to pull it out (when your gonna use it, thaw it, and smell and taste it!

  • carri

    We make so much soup that if we insisted on making stock and THEN making soup with it, I’d have to hire someone just for that! When I’m training a new prep cook, the subject always comes up…do you make stock? My explanation is that soup and stock are the same… saute a bunch of aromatics and add water and simmer, if you are making soup, add to it, if you are making stock, say for a sauce, then strain it. Soup/Stock is one of the simplest things in the world to make…and water, no matter how you look at it, is the number one ingredient!

  • Cameron S.

    I always vacuum seal and freeze my veal / chicken etc stocks. Helps keep them fresh. I vacuum seal everything that goes into the freezer actually.

    Also – the water in Vancouver, BC is excellent out of the tap. Good post Michael.

  • ntsc

    We not only freeze stock, I can stock.

    On freezing stock it is important to get the air out. We use plastic bags and adjust to get as much out as possible, freezing in 1 and 2 cup put ups.

    Canning gives you a vacum seal by definition, but it is important to store in a dark, dry and cool space.

  • Blushing Hostess

    Oh! I SO agree. I try to keep several pints of Zuni chicken stock hanging about the place waiting for their moment of greatness. Failing that, I use good water. However, in making aspargus soups, I have been known to boil the tough ends in the water to be used as broth with a bit of salt. It adds a lovely, deep asparagus flavor.

  • Aubrey

    I, too, had stock on the brain. I just decanted a 12-qt potful. LOL I save every chicken carcass (and whatever remains of their roasted veggie aromatics and pan juice), bits and pieces of flesh and fat and skin from trimming up chicken to cook, and celery tops and onion peelings, and parsley stems, and those 2 sad leeks in the veggie drawer. When all the individual bags threaten to take over the freezer, it’s stock day! Most of it will get made into individual soups for my cooking challanged husband, but my dinner tonight is just the broth, and good bread. Yum.

  • Elisa

    You are so right. I am about a novice home cook as they come, but I do make my grandmother’s simple chicken soup recipe with “chicken on the bone,” as we call it, and WATER, and it is about 50 times better than any soup recipe in any well-known TV chef’s cookbook that calls for low-sodium canned chicken broth.

    Real stock with real gelatin gives soup the right texture that the canned stuff just can’t deliver. And I’m not even going to talk about flavor. . . .

  • Nila

    Michael, you are SO right! I remember my mother making the most AWESOME chicken/beef/vegetable soups at home and she never, EVER used anything but water. The idea of buying canned chicken broth would have been incomprehensible to her. And her soups always came out tasting wonderful. I agree with another poster here that it does depend on the quality of the water where you live, but I am blessed to live in NYC where the tap water is arguably among the best in the country. Still, I once did try using pre-packaged chicken broth for a recipe that I tried for the first time and I was not impressed by the flavor that I got. There was a weird almost tinny kind of undertone to the liquid that marred what might otherwise have been good soup. That was strange, too, since I made a point of not buying the canned variety but rather the kind that comes in the waxy cartons like milk does and still it had a tinny undertaste. Needless to say, that was my last foray into the world of pre-packaged broths.


  • TJB

    I clearly have an unrefined palate. I’ve made soup with both canned stock and water and greatly prefer the stock. Is it as good as homemade stock? Of course not, but it’s not nearly as awful as Ruhlman and other foodies like to rant.

  • FoodPuta

    I really have to say, that after the first thread regarding water and stock that Ruhlman posted, it has definitely changed the way I cook. Between Pardus, and Delgrosso, it forced me to test the theories. I fully admit I always had a box or two of those blue and white Swansons, chicken and beef stock. I wouldn’t have thought to make a soup using water straight from the tap. Now, if I don’t have my own stock (which I now go out of my way to roast a chicken, or query the butcher for Lambs shank bones, just to make stock. I just use tap water. One of the things that I feel like it has improved in my soups, is consistency in flavor. I don’t really have and explanation for that.
    So much of my kitchen behavior has changed from this. I always look at what vegetables I have left in my fridge, and before they go bad, they usually end up in a simple stock. As before, they ended up being ground down the drain with the disposal.
    Anyway, I think this is one of the best topics you have covered on here.

    Water is the base of life…..

  • neil

    Forgive me Lord, for I have sinned, not just canned stock but powder as well. I feel cursed and dirty whenever the dark angel whispers so seductively in my ear.

    How many Hail Mary’s will that be?

  • NYCook

    Ruhlman, couldn’t agree with you more. The canned “stock” is an abbomination. If you aren’t like US. People who just happen to have more stock then you know what to do with laying around make a simple veg stock and use that as a base of your soup.Take a pot fill it up chop up a load of veg and simmer half hour to 45 minutes and your strait. Don’t forget a Sachet! In the words of the victim of your previous post “Make stock already! It’s easy! Life without stock is barely worth living, and you will never attain demi-glace without it.”

  • NYCook

    Chicken stock recipe from my old Little Black CIA Book. The ratio is the same for chicken as it would be for lamb or beef. Only cooking times differ.

    8# bones
    6QT h2o
    1# mirepoix
    Sachet d’epices- 3 parsley stems, 5 crushed black peppercorns, 2 thyme sprigs, 1 bay leaf, and 1 crushed garlic clove.

    Put bones in pot, cover with water. Water should be about 2 inches above bones. SLOWLY bring stock to boil, reduce to simmer 3-4 hours add mirepoix and sachet, and simmer 1 more hour. Strain and Save. DON’T FORGET TO SKIM or you will get a nsty cloudy stock. and you can forget about a consomme.

    Honestly, if you are to lazy to do this why even bother with the rest.

  • luis

    While I agree that supermarket stock is bad and insipid. I often use restaurant supply stock bases to add flavor to pastas and rices and to start soups and sauces and braises if don’t have sufficient drippings. Bases from such as “Le Gout”, ” Kitchen Essentials” are fine.

    Of course fresh stock is best but It’s time consuming and a real bother for the modern home cook. At the restaurant supply store I can even find brown sauce bases and demi-glazes. It’s a short cut a home cook press for time can live with most of the time.

    High quality water is essential and there is NO COMPROMISE there. NONE!. Makes all the difference.

  • Kate in the NW

    I predict that after this post the Stock Market will crash.

    (Sorry. I’m just that kind of person. Please forgive me.)

  • Tags

    Another important thing to remember – no calories.

    Volumetrics (rated best diet method by Consumer Reports) reminds us that broth-based soups are best for flavor-to-calorie ratio.

  • heather

    My mom taught me how to make stock when I was a little girl. She always roasted the bones, added the usual suspects of carrot, celery, onion. Herbs…and covered with water. I still make stock weekly. I find it adds a nice flavour layer to my carrot and butternut squash soup.Also a great way to get squash into my 5 and 2 year old boys.

  • Maura

    If I decide that I want to make pasta e fagioli (one of the few soups I make on a regular basis) and don’t have chicken stock in the freezer, I throw a vegetable stock together. As NYCook says, it’s fast and easy. I like having veg stock around because some of my friends are vegan.

    I was feeling like hell the other night, and one of my friends made some egg drop soup for me. She used a quart sized carton of Swanson’s fat free/MSG free broth. (If you do use broth that’s marked MSG free, please note that it’s still loaded with salt – 940 grams per serving). God bless her, she was trying to help. I had to eat it.

    I pulled two bags of chicken parts out of the freezer today. There’s stock cooling on the stove right now. *Sigh* it’s a wonderful thing.

  • Cygnetos

    My favorite trick is to roast a spice rubbed chicken
    to perfection either on the grill or in the oven then save the bones and crunchy tasty bits for stock.
    The spices used on the chicken and the subsequent ingredients tossed into the stock pot along with the gnawed bones and detris determine where this stock will be used. But aside from the bits and pieces the largest ingredient is water.
    Where would we be without water?
    I could live without sex, but not water.

  • diego

    Water really is a great ingredient. I find it peculiar that more cooks don’t make flavored broths or short stocks out of more distinguishable ingredients. Instead of stock to cook you risotto, why not use a quick caramelized onion stock or parsnip broth?

  • Sara

    I make my own stock, but I get a little panicky when I start to run low – I need to just get over it and use water instead!

  • barbara

    I prefer water for creamed vegetable soups. I find stock can overtake the taste of some vegetables. I keep homemade chicken stock in the freezer for heavier soups.

  • Ms. Glaze

    Perhaps this is a really stupid question. But why can we not find really good canned or bottled chicken stock? Why!!?!? I hate swanson’s (it’s murky), detest the Whole Foods brand (it tastes like carrots) and can’t handle the saltiness in bouillon cubes.

    I sub water or wine when I’m making simple meat/fish sauce reductions. I also prefer to use water in soups if I’m making a single vegetable soup. For example if I’m making zucchini soup I will simmer the zuc’s in water and then use that same water to purée it. Or corn for that matter.

  • Frances

    We have roast chicken a couple of times a week and always make stock from the leftover bones and bits. It’s probably the most hassle-free thing we do in the kitchen.

  • skippy

    I make my own stock often, and it is indeed a wondrous (and easy) thing.

    But if there are any two things that foodies rant about that I just don’t get it’s canned broth and garlic presses.

    Cooking up some simple brown rice with all water vs. 50% canned chicken broth is no contest, and sometimes I don’t feel like chopping anything.

    Take that!

  • Ana

    @skippy: Canned or packaged broth usually tastes insipid and too salty if you’re used to making your own. I always store rendered fat from roasted chicken in the fridge and add a couple tbsp to a pot of water when making soups. I haven’t used the canned stuff in ages, and I don’t miss it.

    Regarding garlic presses? They often take much more time to clean than to use, they can make garlic taste acrid, and you can’t really use them for anything else. Then again, I’m no fan of most single-function kitchen gadgets. I concede their usefulness if you don’t feel like chopping stuff.