How to Make Soup from Leftovers

Learn how to transform your leftover odds and ends into flavorful soups for hearty meals that require little planning and reduce food waste.

Author Annie Mahle in her galley kitchen aboard the J. & E. Riggin. Photo © Ben Krebs.

Nothing beats a steaming bowl of mouthwatering soup for comfort food. Just think how often we turn to chicken noodle soup when we are feeling out of sorts. Considering how easy it is to make soup with whatever you already have on hand, it rises through the ranks as the perfect food, both for snowy days and for those days when it’s too hot to turn on a burner (think chilled soups!).

The beauty of soup is that it can be made from little bits of leftover this and that—things that might not add up to a meal on their own. And while following a recipe is a good fallback when you just can’t think about one more thing, there is almost nothing that can’t be made into a warm, flavorful soup with the simple addition of well-sautéed onions and garlic and some chicken or vegetable broth. If you are not vegetarian, bacon or pancetta is a sure bet as well. Here are some basic steps for making soup from leftovers. The results will be both frugal and flavorful.

Consider the broth. It’s easy to make simple, flavorful broths should you have these sorts of leftovers on hand:

  • Bones from a whole roasted Cornish game hen, chicken, or roast beef can be simmered in water with onions, carrots, and celery for an impromptu broth. It won’t be as full-flavored as true stock, but it’s leaps above plain water.
  • Hard rinds from cheeses such as Parmigiano-Reggiano can be saved and then simmered in several cups of water to flavor any Italian-themed soup.
  • Vegetable scraps that would normally go into the compost can be covered with water and simmered to make a vegetable broth.
  • And for a flavor-packed broth, combine bones, cheese rinds, and vegetable scraps to make the base for a fabulous soup or pasta dish.

However, making homemade broth is not even a little bit necessary. Store-bought broth will work beautifully and makes for a really quick dinner on the fly.

Choose three things from your fridge that seem like they will go together: mashed potatoes, roasted chicken, and kale. Pan-fried fish, julienned veggies sautéed in soy, and some miso. Salsa and cilantro, chili-rubbed steak, and roasted portabella mushrooms. Of course, these are just examples, and you won’t have these exact combinations, nor am I suggesting that you should. But they would all make excellent soups.

Choosing only three main items for your soup will help you focus on what will taste good together and decreases the likelihood that you’ll end up with the unsavory-sounding “everything-but-the-kitchen-sink- soup” or “leftovers soup.” A good rule of thumb is 2 cups of leftovers for every 3 cups of broth.

Sauté onions and garlic (and bacon, if you please) in butter or olive oil until the onions are very soft and translucent, 7 to 10 minutes. Season well with salt and pepper. Add perhaps a little tomato paste and a splash of red or white wine (red for tomato-based soups and white for creamy soups).

Photo © Kristin Teig

Add your broth and bring to a simmer. Add the rest of your ingredients and bring to a simmer again. Taste, and add salt or pepper if needed.

Consider the texture. You can leave the soup rustic and chunky or purée it, if you have a blender or immersion blender.

Garnish with herbs, coarsely chopped or minced. Fresh herbs add flavor and give a nice pop of color. I usually use basil, chives, parsley, or dill, adding just one or, at the most, two.

Add crusty bread, good butter, and a salad, and you’ve got a whole meal from a bunch of little bits.

Excerpted from The Tiny Kitchen Cookbook © by Annie Mahle.

Annie Mahle

Annie Mahle

About the Author

Annie Mahle trained at The Culinary Institute of America. As chef aboard a Maine Windjammer, she prepared three meals a day for guests. Her cooking, recipes, and cookbooks have been highlighted on TODAY and Throwdown! with Bobby Flay. Her food and the Riggin have been featured in the Food Network, Family Circle, Woman’s Day, the Boston Globe, and more. She resides in Maine.

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