Well, it’s more like 1-2-3-4-5-Soup!, but 1-2-3 is just catchier, so there. And the credit for this post idea goes to Steph, the Cheapskate Cook, who just finished a round-up of great winter soup recipes.

The truth is, this is how I usually make soup: not with a recipe but with a basic guideline or formula (hence the 1-2-3-4-5). It’s hard to imagine that about a year ago or so, I could count on one hand the times I made soup. For some reason, soup seemed kind of nebulous to me, a concoction I couldn’t quite pin down to definable details and measurements, so I avoided it. When I did make soup, I wasn’t 100% satisfied with it, so I rarely tried.

Then I realized how frugal soup could be, as well as how cheap and quick. Of necessity, I needed some very quick, ready-at-the-instant weeknight dinners, and soup in the slow cooker was a perfect solution. So I began to experiment with a variety of soup recipes and began to realize that they all had an awful lot in common. And then the revelation deepened and I realized that most soups fit around a basic flexible formula.

And voila! There was no more mystery surrounding soup! I had uncoded it! Now I can make practically any soup using this formula and it almost always turns out great. I’ll share the formula with you in case there’s anyone else out there who hasn’t figured it out yet.

Note: this “formula” is for your basic broth-based soups. Creamy soups, stews, and other kinds of soup use different ingredients and methods.

I almost always make my soup in the slow cooker, because even though it takes a longer time, it’s ready immediately at dinner time, so it’s perfect for those days when you simply don’t have time to make dinner when it’s time to eat dinner. Also, even when I set the burner on the lowest setting possible, soup simmering on the stove-top tends to evaporate a lot more quickly than I think it will, which is just not good when combined with my absent-mindedness!

So without further ado, here’s how to make a perfect pot of soup any day. Just dump all the following into a slow cooker and cook on high 4-6 hours, or low 6-8 hours:

1. 6-8 cups liquid

This liquid could be any kind of broth (chicken, vegetable, beef), preferably homemade. Or it could be tomato juice (or combination of both). You can even use just plain water with a hamhock  for a great ham and bean or ham and potato soup. For a slightly creamier soup, you can add a 1/2 cup or so of milk or cream about 15-20 minutes before serving.

2. Mirepoix + 1-2 additional cups chopped vegetables

The magical combination of onion, carrots and celery always ends up in soup. I would add a fourth member to that group, namely garlic. Those four ingredients can almost always be found in a broth-based soup, and for good reason: they add a lot of flavor and give depth  to the broth. It’s kind of nice that they add a lot of nutritional value at the same time! You can saute them in butter or olive oil before adding them to the slow cooker, but that’s not necessary. I usually  use about 1/4-1/2 cup chopped onion, 2 cloves minced garlic, 2 medium chopped carrots, and 2 chopped celery stalks.

Beyond the mirepoix, exactly what vegetable you use is limited only by what is in season and in your pantry, fridge or freezer. Corn and tomatoes are popular additions to soup, as are green peppers (hot peppers if you’re going for a spicy flavor!). Root vegetables do very well in soup: potatoes, carrots, parsnips, and beets (borscht, anyone?) all taste great in soup. I also like winter squash, like delicata, butternut, acorn or even pumpkin.

3. 2 cups cooked meat

This is where leftovers come in really handy! Pretty much any leftover meats can be worked into a soup with delicious results. I almost always end up with chicken or turkey soup, but I have also used sausage, ham, pork and beef. You can use seafood, lamb or buffalo if you want! If you want to go vegetarian, no problem: just throw any kind of beans in there instead. (If starting with dry beans, be sure to soak them before adding them to the soup.)

4. Seasonings to taste

Salt and freshly ground black pepper are a given and can be added any time. Dried herbs, like the Italian favorites parsley, oregano, rosemary, thyme and the like, can also be added any time. Hot spices like paprika and cumin – great in a Southwest bean soup or similar – can be added at the beginning. I prefer to add fresh herbs at the end, so they maintain a bit of their texture and flavor.

5. 2 cups cooked grains (added at the end)

Most grains don’t do so well in the slow cooker, so it’s best to cook them separately and add them at the end. Again, leftovers shine here! Barley is the exception here, as you will see in the recipe below. Barley actually cooks up nicely in a slow cooker (on high 4-5 hours), and bulks up quite a bit, so all you have to do is add 1/2 – 3/4 cup at the beginning. Any kind of pasta and any kind of rice (brown, white, wild, etc.) work very well in soup. Quinoa is a delicious and trendy option.

As you can see, starting with this basic formula, you can create a million different tunes soups, by mixing them up, like this:

Like I said, this makes a QUICK dinner when it comes to dinner time. All the work is done earlier in the day when you (hopefully) have a little more time.

It’s very EASY, especially when you follow the formula!

Soup is SO CHEAP! One of the most frugal meals available, for sure.

It’s also super HEALTHY. I actually think of soup as a healthy diet in microcosm. It has all the right proportions of protein, carbs, and vegetables, plus plenty of liquid (essential for our bodies made mostly of water!). Check more blogs here.