Brow Beat

This One Genius Ingredient Will Make Better, Quicker Soups

Vegan, store-bought magic.

Three bowls of clear-broth soup.
Bobbi Lin

Making soup at home can often feel like an unsavory trade-off: Though we very much want the homey comforts of a brothy bowl of something (preferably soon), do we bite the bullet and buy a random box of stock, with its long, aimless-seeming list of ingredients and faded flavor? Or do we take the time to make a better-tasting homemade broth?

I clearly feel this mental tug-of-war often, since I’ve already written about several solutions: herby sauces to freeze and deploy into boiling water, homemade veg bouillon you can keep on hand forever, water-based soups bolstered with miracle vegetables or carbs or—well, what is nutritional yeast exactly? Miracle microorganisms? These will all come in handy.

But maybe you’ll sense how happy I was to learn about another quick fix for the cozy soup now conundrum—one I never saw coming. Perhaps the simplest and most unexpected of them all, this genius trick is all thanks to Food52 contributor Yi Jun Loh, who writes and photographs the gorgeous blog Jun & Tonic.

The fix is coconut water, which, thanks to its reputation as a healthful, hydrating drink since around 2009 (thanks, Madonna!), you can find it at pretty much any grocery store, just like you would the box of stock with the carrageenan and the natural flavors and the caramel color. Unlike that box of stock, you can even find it at the gas station.

Vegetables on a cutting board.
Bobbi Lin

Also unlike that box of stock, this ubiquitous store-bought wonder is made up of just one very straightforward ingredient that happens to be vegan: the water that comes out of young coconuts—which turns out to be a shockingly good substitute for the umami and subtle sweetness of even meaty bone broths.

Jun’s mom discovered this sleight-of-hand trick when his sister Jia went vegetarian, and the long-simmered chicken or pork-based soups that fed their family in Malaysia needed to be rethunk. Jun, a reformed chemical engineer who trained at culinary school and restaurants like Blue Hill, recognized the brilliance of this substitution, experimented with it further himself, and then—lucky us!—sent it my way. “There’s clearly some sort of liquid magic happening here,” Jun wrote to me. “Sure, it does taste slightly different, but the depth and richness it adds to the broth simply blows my mind.”

Vegetables in clear broth.
Bobbi Lin

You can use this trick to quickly give a backbone to any soup or stew (2), but a very good place to start is Jun’s riff on his mom’s ABC soup, the Malaysian version of the classic, simple chicken soup. Here, Jun simmers a few humble vegetables in big chunks in a measured dose of salted coconut water till they soften, then adds one more round of coconut water at the end, to create two layers of flavorful broth. The first is deeper and subtly steeped with the vegetables; the second remains light and fresh. A little crushed white pepper at the end grounds the soup, and finishes off the illusion of a more complex and long-simmered broth.

If you’re still feeling skeptical, I’ll leave you with these words from Jun’s blog:

Let’s all embrace a little weirdness in our cooking, and embrace foods that are a little strange but surprising, weird but wonderful, unfamiliar but nostalgic!

I urge you to listen to Jun, trust, and try it. I’m sure glad I did.

Yi Jun Loh’s One-Pot Coconut Water ABC Soup

Serves 4 to 6.

• 4 cups water
• 8 cups (~2 litres) coconut water, divided
• 3 medium white or yellow onions, peeled and quartered
• 4 medium potatoes, peeled and cut into 1 1/2-inch chunks (we especially like starchy Russets for this)
• 2 medium carrots, peeled and cut into chunks
• 2 medium tomatoes, quartered (drained canned tomatoes are fine)
• 2 teaspoons salt, or to taste
• 1 teaspoon crushed white peppercorn, or to taste

See the full recipe on Food52.

More from Food52:
Our 11 Most Popular Soup Recipes to Warm You Up This Winter
Mom’s Caribbean-Style Chicken Soup Is a Celebration of Trinidad’s Melting Pot
A 10-Minute Egg Drop Soup to Get You Over That Midweek Hump
Korean Dduk Guk Rice Cake Soup
Aunt Renee’s Chicken Soup
Spicy Korean Chicken & Potato Stew (Dakdoritang)