3 Essential Ingredients to Instantly Brighten Up Boring Soups

Your cream-of-whatever soup has never tasted so good.

overhead angle looking down into a bowl of healing cabbage soup
Photo: Dotdash Meredith Food Studios

When it comes to cold weather comfort food, nothing hits the spot quite like a bowl of soup. That is, unless that soup is bland or just plain boring. Then there's nothing quite as sad. Don't suffer through another lackluster chowder, chicken noodle, or lentil soup: We've got an RX for even the most blah bowl, and it's guaranteed to work every time.

What's the secret? The most common reason your soup doesn't taste that great is because it's missing a brightening element. Soup can be heavy, creamy, and rich (that's why we love it so much). But too much richness tastes flat. Almost every bowl of soup can benefit from a zippy and fresh addition. (For proof, just check out this recipe for avgolemono, a Greek soup made with two whole lemons.)

Citrus is just the beginning, though. Here are three essential soup additions that make your soup stew-pendous.

bunch of fresh parsley on wooden background
Riou

Fresh Herbs

While we love using dried herbs during the cooking process, the bright and "green" flavor of fresh herbs really livens up soup… or any hot plate of food, really.

The key here is using the right herbs. Choose tender, leafy herbs for topping soup, like parsley (flat leaf or curly), cilantro, chives, or even mint. Skip the woody herbs, like rosemary and thyme — or add them in the beginning of the cooking process — otherwise they will dull, rather than brighten, the flavor. They're also not fun to chew.

The second rule of adding fresh herbs to soup is to chop them very finely. Getting a mouthful of whole parsley leaves is never pleasant. After rinsing the herbs and patting them dry, pick the leaves from the stem and place them on a cutting board. Use your sharpest chef's knife, and add the chopped herbs just before serving.

Although you can add fresh herbs to any soup and be happier for it, they made a particularly big impact on rich, stew-like soups. Think chili or New England clam chowder.

bowl of balsamic vinegar

Vinegar

If you're raising a skeptical eyebrow at this addition, consider one of the most ubiquitous offerings at Chinese American restaurants: hot and sour soup. This tangy, pleasantly astringent soup is often made with rice vinegar, and plenty of it. While hot and sour soup recipes are specifically calibrated to walk a spicy-sour-salty-sweet line, you can use the technique to give other recipes a boost.

Aged balsamic vinegar is a naturally great choice for this, because it's both tangy and sweet. (Unaged balsamic will work, too, but if you've got an especially good bottle in your pantry, now is the time to use it.) Specialty vinegars, like ones made with Champagne wine or fruit, are also excellent in soup. Just avoid white distilled vinegar — it's a little harsh, and won't add that mysteriously delicious flavor we're looking for.

To avoid adding too much vinegar to your soup, drizzle it in using a spoon or measuring cup, a little bit at a time. It's also a good idea to top off individual bowls, rather than putting it directly in the pot.

Vinegar is a nice match for veggie-heavy soups, especially ones made with sweet and starchy ingredients like squash or potatoes.

Homemade chili crisp (flakes of dried chiles and minced garlic suspended in oil) with a spoon in it surrounded by garlic cloves, dried chile peppers and star anise.
Allrecipes/Buckwheat Queen

Chili Crisp

If you can handle the heat, prepare for chili crisp to be your new souperhero. A highly spoonable condiment of Chinese origin, chili crisp is fiery and pungent. It is typically made with a carrier oil, like peanut, soybean, or olive oil (that last one is less traditional); Szechuan peppercorns; spices; aromatics like garlic; preserved black beans; nuts; seeds; and ginger.

It's tongue-tinglingly spicy, with plenty of crispy-crunchiness in every bite. That happens to be what makes it so good for soup: The chilies inject a lively jolt of energy, and the crunchy bits are just plain fun to eat. You can make your own chili crisp, but we've found a few store-bought jars we like a lot: Check them out here.

Once you've opened that jar of chili crisp, we have a feeling you're going to want to make one of our very favorite soup recipes: Ramen.

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