How to make creamy soups without adding dairy


One of my family’s go-to meals in the winter is a smooth and creamy soup, served with crusty bread and a side of roasted vegetables. Often we’ll pour in a nice glug of heavy cream for richness and luscious flavor in the soup.

But heavy cream is not always the answer when it comes to silken soups. Maybe there’s none in the fridge. Perhaps the night’s menu needs to be plant-based or dairy free. And it’s just nice to have something a bit lighter. Whatever the reason, know that there are several great alternatives for creamy soups without the cream. Here are a few particular ingredients to consider instead.

Canned coconut milk — not the refrigerated stuff intended for drinking — is an easy, pantry-friendly stand-in for heavy cream. Of course, depending on the recipe, the coconut flavor may come through, though it may not be noticeable when paired with such assertive ingredients as onions, garlic, ginger and cruciferous vegetables. Keeping a can or two around makes it simple to whip up an improvised pureed soup, especially Food editor Joe Yonan’s Any Vegetable Instant Pot Soup. As long as you have the coconut milk and some aromatics, you can cobble together a satisfying meal with whatever vegetables you have on hand.

How to choose the right nondairy milk for your recipes

Coconut milk also stars in Aaron Hutcherson’s Coconut Corn Soup With Chili Crisp, where it’s combined with broth or water to keep things vegan. The mellow sweetness of the corn plays well with the coconut milk, allowing the spicy chili crisp to really pop.

There’s a wide world of chili crisp. These are our favorites.

Like coconuts, cashews are a plant-based option for adding creamy richness with plenty of fat for luxurious texture. You can maximize the potential with a high-speed blender such as a Vitamix. That’s the approach taken in Roasted Carrot and Cashew Soup, where the cashews are supplemented with unsweetened coconut milk or cashew milk.

If you don’t have a high-speed blender, you can set yourself up for success by soaking the nuts overnight in the fridge or in just-boiled water for 15 to 30 minutes. This will help soften them for a smoother texture, if not exactly as silken as those processed in a high-end blender. Don’t fret if you haven’t thought too far ahead, as plenty of recipes make working the cashews in pretty seamless. In Creamy Potato Chowder, the cashews get a brief soak in cold water while you prep the soup base. In Cauliflower and Roasted Garlic Soup, they’re tossed into the soup just before blending.

Cashews combine with coconut milk for creaminess in Spiced Chicken Soup With Cashews and Coconut Milk (Murgh Kaju Ka Shorba). This dairy-free but not vegan recipe (leave out the meat if you want!) cooks the cashews for 30 minutes along with the chicken and carrots to soften before blending.

To add creaminess with more protein and fiber and less fat, it’s beans to the rescue. Use canned or home-cooked beans from dried, both of which are pantry staples. If you use dried, hang on to some of the cooking liquid to use in place of the broth or water called for in the recipe — it’s packed with flavor and can help with a thick, smooth texture, too. White beans are perfect when you want a mild flavor that will allow the other ingredients to shine. Navy, cannellini and chickpeas are all accessible go-tos.

Simmering the beans for a least a little while will make them easier to blend to a smooth consistency. In Nourish columnist Ellie Krieger’s new recipe for Creamy Roasted Mushroom Soup, canned cannellini (say that five times fast) are cooked for just 10 minutes along with the pre-roasted mushrooms and shallots, a step that helps the flavors meld as well.

Pick whichever white bean you like for Daniela Galarza’s White Bean Soup With Calabrian Chile Oil. As with the coconut and corn soup, a mild soup base lets the Calabrian chiles, Italian roasted and crushed peppers soaked in oil, stand out.

But don’t discount black beans. Sometimes their distinctive earthy flavor is just what a recipe calls for, such as in Daniela’s Coconut Black Bean Soup With Mango-Avocado Salsa. Two cans of black beans cook for just about 10 minutes before half (or more) gets pureed. As with several other dishes here, canned coconut milk is part of the supporting cast for ultimate creaminess.

Yes, you can have a creamy soup even if you add none of these enhancements. Some of the silkiest soups we’ve had at home have been primarily made with butternut squash, supplemented with varying amounts of potato. If the soup is on the thick side, you can always thin with additional broth or water, no need to turn to cream, which can dull the vibrancy of the vegetable’s flavor in addition to adding more fat. Dairy-Free Butternut Squash Soup relies on broth, with an optional addition of almond, soy or rice milk. In Roasted Butternut Squash Soup, the squash gets a boost from 1/4 cup olive oil.

Soups made with all or primarily potatoes also boast a natural creaminess. Thai Sweet Potato Soup combines the tuber with vegetable broth and a bit of Thai red curry paste. Warm Potato Almond Soup works well with russet or yellow/gold potatoes, with an assist from blanched almonds.

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