Chicken soup for the flu

I can’t remember many details, but I do remember my feelings about the situation. I was miserably sick with either the flu or a cold. Doesn’t matter. And then my husband Barry (we hadn’t been married very long at the time) brought me a bowl of his chicken lemon soup and said it would make me feel much better. It did. And it was also delicious.

Bowl of chicken soup/Adobe stock

What is it about chicken soup that makes you feel better when you’re sick? I asked Kitty Broihier, a registered dietitian at Nutricomm, Inc. Here’s what she had to say:

  • While chicken soup certainly doesn’t ‘cure’ a cold or any other illness, there is a small amount of data suggesting that it has respiratory benefits such as easing congestion. Other purported benefits aren’t backed by much human research.
  • That said, soup is an excellent way to get liquids when you’re not feeling well—and staying hydrated is important when you are sick. It helps your body fight a fever, can help cut down on headaches and supports general healing and recovery.
  • Hot liquids offer the extra benefit of feeling warm and comforting and can soothe a sore throat.

My husband’s bowl of chicken lemon soup did all of the above and more. It also warmed my heart. He had made it himself. From scratch. I don’t remember anyone doing that for me before and he has done it many times since. For me, our daughters, other family members, friends — people who just need a little nurturing.

He’s one of those people who can look into a refrigerator or pantry, pull out a bunch of items and cook a delicious meal. Unlike me, who has to pull up a bunch of recipes on my phone or sit on the floor surrounded by cookbooks before I can figure out what to do.

I have learned how to make his soup though, or at least, my own version. By watching him do it, not by following his recipe. He doesn’t really have one. It’s in his head and he’s apt to change things up here and there.

I asked lots of people if they had a chicken soup recipe I could share for this blog post. I did not get one recipe. Like my husband, it appears that a lot of people who make chicken soup carry the recipe in their head and say it would be hard to write it down.

So instead of people’s chicken soup recipes, here’s what you’re going to get. I searched for what I thought was a good recipe for chicken stock to get you started and that’s what I’m going to share, along with all of the tips people gave me instead of their recipes. I’ll also take a stab at my husband’s chicken lemon soup.

Everybody I talked to agreed that even if they use store-bought chicken stock in their soup, homemade is so much better. When I was looking for a recipe, I discovered something I didn’t know. There is a difference between chicken stock and chicken broth.

  • Stock is generally made from the bony parts.
  • Broth is generally made from the meat.

How to make a basic chicken stock

Jar of homemade chicken stock

When Ina Garten (The Barefoot Contessa) makes chicken stock, she says she uses whole roasting chickens. Other people will roast a chicken and boil the leftover carcass. My friend Maria says she likes to make her stock by boiling chicken wings.

Because I’ve got one of her cookbooks right in front of me, I decided to share Ina Garten’s recipe. I love most of her recipes.

Ingredients

  • 3 5-pound roasting chickens
  • 3 large yellow onions, unpeeled and quartered
  • 6 carrots, unpeeled and halved crosswise
  • 4 celery stalks with leaves, cut into thirds crosswise
  • 4 parsnips, unpeeled and halved crosswise
  • 20 sprigs fresh flat-leaf parsley
  • 15 sprigs fresh thyme
  • 20 sprigs fresh dill
  • 1 head garlic, unpeeled and cut in half crosswise
  • 2 TBS kosher salt
  • 2 tsp whole black peppercorns (not ground)

Directions

  1. Place the chickens, onions, carrots, celery, parsnips, parsley, thyme, dill, garlic, salt, and peppercorns in a 16 to 20-quart stockpot.
  2. Add 7 quarts of water and bring to a boil.
  3. Lower the heat and simmer uncovered for 4 hours, skimming off any foam that comes to the top.
  4. Set aside until cool enough to handle.
  5. Strain the entire contents of the pot through a colander and discard the solids.

Of course, instead of freezing the stock you can just go ahead and make some chicken soup. If you don’t have one in your head or in your stack of old family recipes, I found a few online, including Ina’s.

My husband’s chicken lemon soup

When Barry makes his chicken lemon soup, he simmers skinless breasts and thighs in organic low-sodium chicken broth. He doesn’t use any vegetables but adds crushed garlic and some grated fresh ginger to taste. He also adds the juice of three lemons plus zest from the peels. Garlic is supposed to boost your immune system, ginger is supposed to be good for a sore throat, and lemon is a good source of vitamin C.

He simmers the chicken for several hours until the meat is tender and falls off the bones. He cuts any large pieces of chicken into bite-size pieces and discards the bones. Then he breaks up a small amount of spaghetti into as small as possible pieces — about 1/2 inch – and adds them to the soup. When I asked how much spaghetti, he made a circle with his thumb and forefinger and said about that much. Add salt and pepper to taste. Serve steaming hot. Feel better, feel loved.

So many good tips

As I said, people may not have had recipes to share but they had lots of tips and advice:

  • Monique always adds sage.
  •  Misty said ideally it’s made with leftover chicken from a whole roasted chicken as opposed to individual chicken breast/thigh. (Sorry, Barry). Also, a little white wine makes everything better.
  • Mark stews his chicken with celery, onions, and garlic and adds thyme and basil.
  • Jill says you need to use chicken with the skin on because the fat adds flavor. You can skim off the fat later.
  • Jill also suggested using different kinds of noodles — try wide egg noodles or Spätzle. Maria uses orzo.
  • Maria also likes to make Italian Wedding Soup, which she said is kind of like a chicken soup with meatballs.
  • More suggestions from Maria: Add some stewed tomatoes. If you don’t want tomato chunks in your soup, remove them when you’re ready to serve. It’s the flavor that matters. And add some oregano.
  • Mary loves how her mother made chicken soup. She has the recipe but it never tastes the same as when her mother made it.
  • Beth always buys her chicken soup at Rosemont Market and Bakery.
  • Everyone likes it when someone else makes them chicken soup, especially when they don’t feel well.

Homemade is better for you

Not everyone is lucky enough to have someone make it for them (like yours truly) but whenever possible, homemade chicken soup is the best.

If having chicken soup makes you feel better when you’re sick, go for it—and if you can get homemade chicken soup, all the better—it’s likely to be less salty and if it’s made with a good amount of veggies, it’ll have more nutrients than canned soups, too.

Kitty Broihier, MS, RD, LD, Nutricomm, Inc

If you have any tips or advice — or an old family recipe for chicken soup — please share it with us in the comment section.

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Diane Atwood

About Diane Atwood

For more than 20 years, Diane was the health reporter on WCSH 6. Before that, a radiation therapist at Maine Medical Center and after, Manager of Marketing/PR at Mercy Hospital. She now hosts and produces the Catching Health podcast and writes the award-winning blog Catching Health with Diane Atwood.