How Different Styles of Chinese Soups are Made
YOUR GUIDE TO THE DIFFERENT STYLES OF MAKING CHINESE SOUPS
Is there a benefit to low or high intensity?
What is a measurable property of intensity?
What happens if you under or over cook?
All great questions! Read more to explore the answers to these questions.
There are 5 main cooking methods (that I know of, but would love to hear more if you’ve got some!) in cooking Chinese soups.
This image is a summary of the cooking methods available for cooking Chinese soups, but allow me to elaborate more below.
Why does this matter?
Depending on the soup outcome, how long you cook it for, how hot the heat source, and the equipment you use matters!
The image attached shows the relationship between time and temperature when it comes to cooking Chinese soups. That’s why it’s important to know what soup you want to cook and how much prep and cook time you have until service!
For example, if you’re coming home from a long day of work and have about an hour (or even less), quick boil Chinese soups are your go to solution. I’ll often use ground meats and smaller cut vegetables with less herbs for these types of soups such as a cabbage and pork quick boil or Chinese corn and egg drop soup.
How do you measure flavour intensity?
So my thought process around this is, well, there’s also a component in Cantonese called “loong”. Which means how intense tasting something is. This is the subjective property I’m using for this seeing as it might be the easiest barring any real scientific measures we can pull off at home! So you may have you own gauge as well.
This flavour intensity (if scientifically defined) is the nutrient count by volume of soup. I’m still thinking on how to measure it, but for the sake of just getting on with it and cooking soup, it’ll come with experience. And I don’t really count adding powdered soup or premade broth as natural soup intensity, but do encourage to add these in situations where you need more flavours.
For example, quick boil soups have less flavour intensity because the ingredients spend less time in a heated environment (although arguably, some ingredients don’t need that much time to cook like leafy vegetables). Double-boiled herbal bone broths are the most dense because of their cooking time needed for the bones and herbs to be extracted.
Would love your thoughts on this as well!
What happens if you under or over cook?
Same concept for cooking food, although less consequence unless you evaporate all the water and burn your pot (which I have done before!).
Under cooking soups, as per their suggested cook times) will either leave it under flavored, ingredients not softened, or herbs not fully extracted in benefits. Anything over 20 minutes of at least medium boil should cook it all, so raw consumption usually isn’t a risk.
Over cooking soups is what I would err on the side of instead. When in doubt, boil more! Especially if you’re using bones and Chinese herbs, they love longer boils.
Primarily used for herbal teas. Steeping is best for dried flowers, roots, seeds, and fruits or vegetables. Steeping is the process by which you use the heat source of the boiling water to cook or tease out the flavours of the ingredients. This takes less energy and is the quickest way to make Chinese teas or herbal drinks, although it’s best with flowers and thinly sliced roots. For more potency in your herbal tea or tonic,
Steeping varies between 5-10 minutes depending on the ingredients and I’ll usually do it directly in a cup and cover.
This is one of the best options for traveling, making something at the office, or you want to throw something together quickly. I’ll actually bring my ingredients in a baggie and carry it with me (along with a flask!).
For example, this chrysanthemum and hibiscus honey tea is a great herbal tea for cooling and calming the body!
QUICK BOIL SOUPS
Quick boiling is the quickest method to get a hearty, warm, sufficiently cooked Chinese soup if you’re in a rush, want something fast, or really want those quick flavours without the long boil.
A few key things about quick boil soups is that they tend to have easier to cook ingredients. You don’t always use bones, but if you do, likely pork ribs or chicken wings and thighs will work as these soups tend to cook between 20-40 minutes in time.
Use leafy vegetables, or thinly sliced or cubed root vegetables such as your carrots, radishes, or melons. I will usually cube them quite small and pair with ground meats or tofu. Get creative! Anything you can do in a hot pot style, you can definitely use for quick boil soups (such as thinly sliced beefs and pork). Often times, these soups will also require additional flavouring such as pre made broth bases or soy sauce, salt, chicken soup powder, etc…
Chinese herbal tonics (Chinese medicines) are often boiled in this fashion for consumption.
Desserts are also made using this method of cooking.
One of my favourite quick boil soups is this easy one pot cabbage and sukiyaki pork quick boil soup. It eats like a meal, serve with rice, and the soup is also delicious! Perfect for the whole family!
THERMAL POT BOIL
This Recovery Healing Soup (for coughs) was made in a thermal pot and all the mushrooms, corn, and carrots were amazingly soft and cooked when dinner rolled around. I prepared this in the morning and let it sit in the thermal pot all day.
The thermal pot is one of the most amazing heat saving and efficient cooking methods available when making Chinese soups. For more information on thermal pots, you can check out this post on My Introduction to Thermal Pots (actually, was super excited to unpack it!). It’s almost like a set it and forget it thing!
The thermal pot is similar to a long boil, except it uses the induction technology to gently cook itself. It’s definitely best used for ingredients that require more heat to cook, so avoid leafy vegetables (until the end) as they will overcook or disintegrate. Bones and root vegetables, along with Chinese herbs are amazing and will soften over time.
I will usually prepare and pre-boil the soup for 30 minutes at the beginning of the day and let it slowly cook in the pot until dinner. Just take out and reheat to a boil and serve!
STOVE TOP BOIL
This is likely the most common way of cooking Chinese soups traditionally. In Cantonese, it’s called “煲湯” simply, which is boiling soup. In the end, you should have a soup that’s also called “老火湯” (lo fo tong) with a literal translation of “old fire soup”. These soups are boiled a lot longer on low heat and just gently simmers until the flavours are deep, the meat is falling off the bones, and the soup is often a milky, thicker color because of its density.
These soups often have a mix of protein, Chinese herbs, and more root vegetables over leaf vegetables.
This type of cooking method is energy intensive. I usually boil first for about 30 minutes on medium-high heat and then reduce to a low covered boil for 2-3 hours.
One of my favourite stove top boils to create those deep, intense flavours is this Abalone Chicken Herbal Soup. Anything with chicken and herbs usually taste better as a longer boil.
The double-boiling method in Chinese soup making is one of old traditions and milking the ingredients for all its flavours and nutrition. In double-boiling, the soup itself doesn’t directly come into contact with the heat source, but rather uses either steam or boiling water as direct contact. The most common type of double-boiling is to use a ceramic or glass pot submerged in a pot of water. Or, in some cases, you use a melon to store the soup and submerge or steam that in pot of water.
The purpose of this is so that the soup itself doesn’t have the same bubbling effect and simply circulates within the inner pot itself, thereby not disturbing or physically breaking up the contents of the soup. The flavours still some out, but most of the ingredients are intact! This soup definitely takes more work, more equipment, is just as energy intensive as long boils, but does create a different type of soup profile. There are certain soups that are perfect and designed for double-boils such as Korean Ginseng and Chicken soup.
What’s the best method for you?
The things to evaluate to choose the best Chinese soup cooking method for you is to look at:
- How much time do you have? Quick boils are faster and more energy efficient where as you really need a few hours for long boils and double-boiling.
- What are the ingredients you’d like to use? Leafy vegetables are usually quick boils or if they are used in long boils, are added at the end (like watercress). Big-boned ingredients (such as pork legs, whole chickens, beef bones) will need a longer boil to allow the meats to fully soften and to penetrate into the marrows.
- What equipment is available? Thermal boiling and double boiling are equipment dependent. So you’ll definitely need these to make these types of soups.
- What are the desired outcomes of making a soup? Of course, beyond tasting yummy! That’s a given! Sometimes we make certain soups depending on weather, our bodies, our conditions, how we’re feeling, the season, and traditions. For example, in the winter, I tend to do more double-boil and long boils because these methods often produce more warming soups. You can check out my post on Using TCM concepts for Chinese Soups!
Would love to hear about your experiences with these types of cooking methods and whether you have other ones! I am always looking for ways to try new soups, experiment with new cooking techniques, and blending modern with traditional, eastern with western! Enjoy!!
One guiding principle in Traditional Chinese Medicine is the yin yang theory. In the natural world, there exists a balance between 2 opposing and co-existing forces and yet, they also exist in each other. Our bodies, minds, and souls are designed the same way in that to be healthy, we need to be in harmony between these 2 bipolar states. Yin is receptive and passive, calm and slow, embodying cold and damp qualities (when we are sleeping). Yang is its exact opposite in aggressive and active, embodying heat, dryness, and movement (when we are awake).
One of our mission at The Chinese Soup Lady is to bring these principles into the foods and drinks we consume in order to support harmony.