Chicken soup rates high on the list of comfort foods, a fact reflected by its many canned variations. As with most prepared foods, however, homemade is superior, as it allows you to control just what goes into your soup. If you start from scratch, you have a choice of using a whole chicken or any of its parts, as all produce an equally rich stock that serves as the base for any other ingredients you use.
Chicken Anatomy 101
A whole chicken comprises a breast, legs and wings, and each part can be subdivided into smaller units. A whole leg, also called a quarter, is made up of a drumstick and thigh that account for roughly one-fourth the weight of the meat of the whole bird. The meat of the drumstick and thigh are formed around two separate bones that connect at a joint about midway up the leg. If you buy whole legs or quarters, they are easy to separate at this joint by bending them all the way in the other direction until you hear them snap. You can then use a sharp knife to cut through the skin and tendons, or you can leave the quarters whole to make stock with.
You can make chicken soup using legs and thighs in several ways. The most time-consuming is to make it completely from scratch, using the chicken parts to make a stock. When the chicken is done, the stock is strained and the chicken shredded and set aside. The vegetables are cooked in the hot stock and the chicken meat is returned to the pot toward the end of the cooking time, along with noodles or rice. You can skip the stock-making step and use leftover thigh and leg meat added to store-bought stock along with other ingredients.
Dark chicken meat has a stronger and gamier taste than white meat and contains more fat, resulting in a richer, more flavorful broth. Roasting the chicken legs and thighs with the skin on adds even more flavor to the soup, as the stock will pick up any seasonings used during roasting as well as the richness from the roasted skin. If using skinless chicken parts, rub them with olive oil and season them liberally before baking, as this produces a crispness on the outside of the meat that also adds flavor to the stock.
When making chicken soup from scratch, there are two ways to remove any excess fat released during cooking. You can skim the liquid fat from the top of the stock as it cooks, or you can remove the meat and refrigerate the strained broth. As it cools, a thick layer of congealed fat rises to the top, and this can be easily removed, leaving only pure, relatively fat-free broth behind. You can enhance the flavor of stock made with any chicken parts with store-bought canned broth or with bouillon cubes. If using bouillon cubes -- which are very high in salt -- be sure to adjust the amount of salt you add to the stock.
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