Research: Soups vs. Stews

Wednesday, January 4, 2017
“Versus” implies an adversarial relationship, but in all of the Versus posts to date, the information I tracked down was delivered with a mostly precise, academic tone of voice. After all, it’s entirely understandable why you might not know the differences between Cajun and Creole food, so there’s no need to get emotional about it. When it came to discerning the differences between soups and stews, however? People have opinions. Strong ones! That’s probably because the soup/stew label is more about personal style, rather than an accepted historical taxonomy. There doesn’t really seem to be a standard definition that can be applied to either soup or stew, but that certainly doesn’t stop people from trying.

If you asked most people to come up with the main difference between soup and stew, they’d say something about texture. Soups are thin and liquid; stews are thick and hearty. And honestly, this isn’t a terrible method of differentiating. After all, when you describe soups, you’re usually focusing on the broth. When you describe stews, you’re usually describing the solid ingredients that make up its bulk. Plus, stewing is a specific cooking method that involves slow cooking solids in moist heat, which would lend support to this argument. As one article put it, “When you make a beef stew, you are stewing the beef, which says nothing about what you’re stewing it in. On the other hand, when you make a chicken soup (or a chicken stock or broth which is the base of a chicken soup), then your objective is essentially to make chicken-flavored liquid – to extract the flavor of the solids into the liquid. If some flavorful solids remain, then that is incidental as opposed to intentional.”

The thick/thin dichotomy may be the main way of differentiating soup and stew, but it is not the only metric, though. There are plenty of soups that have as thick a consistency as any stew. So let’s take a brief look at some of the other ways people assign distinctions:

Serving Temperature: Soups can be eaten hot or cold. Some don’t even need to be cooked at all, and some are served for dessert. But while soups fall all over the spectrum, stews are always eaten hot.

Importance to the Meal: This was one of the stranger claims I found, but it makes a certain amount of sense. In short, stews are generally eaten as an entree, but soups are incidental. That is to say, if you’re eating a stew, it’s the centerpiece of your meal. Soup, on the other hand, is treated as an appetizer or a side dish. Some people even dug down into the size that the ingredients are chopped into. Big chunks of meat are important, and thus belong to a stew. Small ones are just there to flavor the broth, and are thus a soup.

Cooking Method: As mentioned above, when you “stew” a meat, you’re slowly cooking it in moist heat over a long period of time. So, if you’re making a stew, it’s more likely that you’re doing just that: Cooking the ingredients low and slow. Meanwhile, a great number of soups (though by no means all) can be made quickly and with a high, rolling boil. Plenty of soups can be knocked out in no time, but stews take patience.

Flavor Source: Are you relying on herbs and spices? Are you bringing out the flavors locked in bones or root veggies? You, sir or madam, have a soup on your hands. If, however, the main flavor of your dish is coming from meat (fish, vegetables, etc.), then it’s more likely to be thought of as a stew. This difference is a little too imprecise for me, but I did run across it, so I'm passing it along.

Cultural Background: Some sources noted that something that would be called a stew in one country would be considered a soup in another. The most fanciful thing I found suggested the following thought experiment: If someone you love isn’t feeling well, would you bring them this dish to make them feel better? If so, it’s a soup. If not, it’s a stew.

No matter what the differences between soups and stews, they're certainly always welcome, especially in the colder months, when we’ll all be spending a lot of time indoors. If you’re looking for something to do, why not whip up a big, hearty beef stew, settle in, and write a more definitive categorization for this food family? Both the culinary world and the linguistic world would appreciate it, thanks.