There are few things on earth as comforting as the sound and smell of a pot of soup simmering away on the stove. While light brothy soups like chicken noodle or minestrone have their place, indulgent, creamy soups are where it’s at for cold-weather meals that feel like a hug from a best friend. This often means dairy, like cream, milk, cheese, and butter. But if your fridge isn’t stocked, you’d like some added flavor, or you’re just looking to avoid the dairy, you’ve got plenty of options for the silky, velvety soup of your dreams. Let’s get into it.
Quick-cooking pulses like split yellow peas, red lentils, and split mung beans break down into fall-apart starchiness in 15–20 minutes, lending body and creaminess to brothy soups in a pinch. Think of the comfort of a steamy bowl of dal, or the hearty mushiness of diner lentil soup. Add ¼ cup pulses of your choice to any boiling pot of soup, then let it simmer until the grains can be easily squished on the back of a spoon. Stick to smaller pulses here—larger beans like canned kidney and black beans can certainly add starchiness, but you’ll need to crank out your immersion blender to incorporate (more on that later).
Add coconut milk.
Other plant-based milks can get the job done, but there’s something special about the richness of full-fat coconut milk. If you’re not a fan of coconut-y flavor, this is (obviously) not the move—it’s difficult to mask the fruity nuttiness. But if you’re pro coconut, stay stocked up on unsweetened cans to whip up Coconut Lentil Soup, or Coconut-Ginger Chickpea Soup that you can make almost entirely from pantry ingredients. (Note: Skip low-fat coconut milk, which is too diluted, and coconut cream, which is harder to incorporate.)
Add sesame paste.
For tantanmen-inspired soup, add toasted sesame paste for nutty, earthy flavor with just as much fattiness as a pour of heavy cream. It could be tahini, zhīmajiàng, or neri goma, whatever you have around. While you’re sauteeing your alliums and aromatics, stir in a spoonful of sesame paste to meld it all together. Then add your water or broth—the sesame paste will dissolve into it, and create a rich base for noodles, vegetables, and tofu. Sesame can stand up to robust flavors, so raid your pantry for sambal, harissa, or curry paste to add to the mix, like in this Creamy Curry Egg Noodle Soup.
Take a page from comforting porridges like jook or congee, and add ¼–½ cup rice to your soup for starchiness that fortifies the broth and clings to your spoon. Give the grains a quick rinse, then stir in while the soup is simmering, cooking until the rice is tender all the way through, about 15–20 minutes. Short- to medium-grain white rice is key here for maximum creaminess: Use uruchimai (Japanese short-grain), bomba (Spanish short-grain), Calrose, or arborio rice. (Long-grain rice has a lower starch content that won’t lend quite enough creaminess to your soup, so save the basmati for fluffy biryani or mejadara instead.)
Make cashew cream.
This Hetty Lui McKinnon recipe for cashew cream skips the lengthy overnight soak. When you start your soup, add raw cashews to boiling water in a separate pot. In 30 minutes, your soaked nuts are ready to blend. Pour the cashew cream directly into the other ingredients, then purée everything together. This broccoli soup uses no dairy, relying on cashew cream for its silky texture and buttery flavor.
Blend your soup.
For the speediest way to achieve a creamy texture without cream, turn to your immersion blender. If your soup has any starchy vegetables, like beans, corn, potatoes, squash, or carrots, it’s as easy as using your immersion blender, and giving it a whirl until you’ve reached your desired consistency. Even non-starchy vegetables like greens, tomatoes, and alliums can reach a smooth, slurpable texture after they’re blended up. No immersion blender? Scoop about a third of the soup into a blender and give it a blitz before adding back to the pot. And you didn’t even have to scour your pantry for any additional ingredients.