HomeChef Kerry asks:
“What’s the difference between soup, stew, bisque, and chowder?”
Soups vs. Stews
In theory, a soup is a combination of vegetables, meat or fish cooked briefly in liquid, so the ingredients are cooked just enough to be palatable, but retain their texture.
A stew is any dish that’s prepared by stewing – meaning that the food is barely covered with liquid and simmered for a long time in a covered pot. Chili Stew is an example of a dish cooked in this manner, whose name has been shorted to just “chili” over the years.
Bisques vs. Chowders
Bisques and chowders are both thickened soups; bisque is generally smooth (pureed) while chowder is chunky, both are usually made with lots of cream and butter, and often start with a roux (see below).
Typically associated with seafood (the word “chowder” derives from the French term for the type of cauldron fishermen used to make these dishes), both words can describe non-seafood dishes as well.
Making a Basic Roux
Roux (“roo“) is a cooking mixture of flour and fat (usually butter), used as a thickener for soups and sauces, with roots dating back more than 300 years in French cuisine.
Made by combining and cooking a flour and oil paste until the raw flavor of the flour cooks out and the roux has achieved the desired color, a properly cooked roux imparts silky-smooth body and a nutty flavor while thickening soups, sauces, and gravies.
Cornstarch mixed with water (slurry), arrowroot, and other ingredients can be used in place of roux, but they don’t add any flavor to the dish, and are only used for their thickening properties.
Making gravies, sauces, and roux-based stews can be intimidating at first, but building a roux is actually a remarkably simple process that leads to many wonderful dishes, including most Cajun and Southern chowders and casseroles, often combined with a Cajun version of a mirepoix known as the “holy trinity.”
The first few steps could be used for basically any thickened sauce or gravy.
- In a large kettle, sauté onions over medium heat, in butter until tender.
- Add flour, salt, pepper (and any other spices); stir to make a crumbled paste. By the way, if you’re not working off a recipe, a good rule of thumb is to start with equal parts fat (butter, drippings, etc.,) to flour.
- Cook, stirring, 1-2 minutes until roux begins to turn golden and gives off a nutty aroma (this step is KEY to cooking off the “flour-y” taste, and creating a deep, rich flavor.)
- Gradually add water, broth, meat drippings, or milk/cream (I recommend one of the latter), starting very slowly (1/4 cup at a time) stirring constantly to keep smooth.
- Bring to a boil; cook and stir for 1 minute.
One trick Dad taught me, while working with him at one of the restaurants, was to warm whatever liquid you’re using to just steaming. This keeps the roux from cooling (stopping the cooking process) each time you add liquid to it. Some folks disagree, but it’s never failed me.
Depending on the broth/drippings, you now have an awesome gravy. Flavor check for salt, herbs, and/or spices, and it’s ready to serve.
For stews, or chowders, this is where you’d start adding all the goodies, and more liquid (usually stock) to thin.
To watch this process, see my YouTube video, “How to make a Roux, Bechamel, & Cheese Sauce” at www.homechefvideos.com
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