To cube or not to cube?


This is for Cathy who when not Rambling in the Garden makes soup and has the cube dilemma.

Even if we do not have the time or inclination to make our own stock, most of us have the choice as to whether to reach for the packet of cubes. There are “quality” versions available: organic, low salt, free from additives with all natural ingredients, but a quick peruse of the list of ingredients poses the question why bother?

For example the ingredient list for a well known brand of organic chicken stock cubes contains: maize starch, palm oil, yeast extract, chicken meat, chicken fat, sea salt, roasted onions, caramelised sugar, turmeric, celery, garlic, parsley and rosemary. How you interpret the term chicken depends on your degree of cynicism and knowledge of the food processing industry.  So unless you feel that the “meat” elements actually add anything to the stock the rest of the flavouring ingredients can be easily replaced by the herbs and spices to be found in most kitchens.

A good home-made stock will add depth of flavour to any soup or casserole, but there never seems to be enough available. However, you can used water and adjust the quantities of herbs and spices or add a pinch fairy dust or or a splash of something or other, which you probably do each time you cook without thinking about it. The secret of a good soup is taste as you go, add seasoning gradually (you can always add more), use your palate and instinct, don’t add too much water (you can always add more) and sweat the vegetables before you add the liquid. If you are going to add milk or cream this will soften the flavours so you may have to use a garnish of herbs or chopped nuts or a swirl of flavoured oil to compensate.
Most of us have a list of “rescue” additives on standby to add that touch of magic and sparkle, so here’s some of mine:

  • Dried mushrooms add great flavour, save the soaking liquid and add to the soup or freeze for later. Mushroom ketchup is also good
  • A dash of sherry or Madeira can work wonders
  • The zest of lemon or orange will add a zing and for a touch of real acidity add some finely chopped rind of preserved lemon or lime. If using lemon juice add carefully it is easy to add too much.
  • Grain mustard will add both heat and acidity, they vary in strength so add carefully
  • Chilli, paprika and harissa will add warmth or incendiary heat depending on quantity. Try Tabasco for a slightly different after-burn
  • Turmeric will add colour and an earthy taste
  • Fennel, dill or tarragon will add  a delicate aniseed essence, fennel seeds also work well. Or try caraway for a slightly different aromatic twist, great with root vegetables and cabbage
  • Worcesertshire or soy sauceor miso paste will add a savoury tang, but use carefully as they are both salty.
  • A little bacon or ham adds a special touch to some delicate soups such as cauliflower, celery or celeriac
  • When using spices either heat in a dry pan or cook for a few minutes in oil to release the flavour before adding to the soup base
  • For a lemony touch try using buckler leaf sorrel or some sumac which is slightly sour
  • Sometimes a touch of sweetness is needed try using maple syrup or pomegranate or grape molasses – just a tiny amount is great in tomato based recipes
  • Don’t forget the old favourites, parsley, rosemary, sage, thyme and bay or the spices, cinnamon, cumin, ginger. cloves, all spice, nutmeg and cardamon
  • Don’t forget the garlic and try some freshly grated ginger for a subtle bite

Be bold and adventurous use your nose as well as your palate and you’ll never look at a cube again.

9 thoughts on “To cube or not to cube?

  1. I couldn’t agree with you more. What I try to do when making soup is use some stock I have already made and frozen in little pots. It works really well for sauces too and tastes so much nicer.

    • Freezing even tiny amounts of left-over stock/cooking juices is a great way of keeping a supply of homemade stock and so much nicer than the cubes.

  2. Oh how kind, Chris, a post just for me (and a link as well)! You will actually be very proud of me as since we last exchanged comments on the evil cube I have not used one at all – see, it just needed your enthusiasm about stock from that previous soupy post to tip the balance and make me realise that enough is enough. I have saved every scrap of vegetable water and used this in my soup and macaroni cheese and rice, adding just salt and pepper and dried herbs, and likewise in lasagne tonight (why have I added red Oxo to mince in the past anyway- surely it’s beefy enough as it is?). And to top it all I now have all these suggestions from your very comprehensive post tonight – how much better can it get? And all from a gardening blog 🙂 Thank you so much, oh wise woman.

    • Well done, you just needed a little encouragement. I think the gardening element of my blog is rather neglected, but my garden is not particularly inspiring at the moment.

      • Yes – your soupy post came at just the right time. Good that you have other things to be inspired about despite the current state of your garden.

  3. Marvellous advice! I find cubes so salty and fairly bland, so herbs and spices are needed anyway. And a dash of sherry is always good! 😉

    • Thank you Cathy, the cooking sherry has rescued more than one kitchen disaster or was it the cause?

  4. I love your suggestions!! Cube Shmoobe!

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