How to make your favourite cream soups dairy-free
Surprising subs and swaps to make bold and full-bodied soups without a drop of milk or cream
It's soup season! And the creamier the better right? If you're thinking, "not for me thanks", you may think again after reading this. Whether you simply must refrain from dairy for health reasons, or you are trying to opt for less rich meals, the dairy-free substitutions below may have you slurping creamy soup as soon as tonight.
How, you ask?
Sometimes you can simply eliminate dairy from a soup recipe, sometimes you can simply reduce a soup for longer, or puree a part of it, to get the body you want. Dairy's role in soup recipes is often just to build body by bulking up the broth so it's not so watery and thin. In some cases, dairy even mutes flavours, so when you skip it, don't be surprised when you can taste more of the soup's star ingredient. And for the times you do want to build that body, there are so many ways to do it — no cream or milk needed. Try this Greek Egg Lemon Soup in which egg yolks and the starch from the pasta act as thickeners. And for all of your others faves where dairy is usually added, here are ways to bring out the starch from vegetables, use nuts to add structure, and more techniques to try.
Cream of mushroom
Swap in nut milk, either almond or cashew, in place of the cow's milk or cream. If the soup still seems too thin, cook it a little longer than normal to reduce some of the liquid. Make sure to do this uncovered so the liquid evaporates.
Cream of tomato
Work hard to develop the tomato flavour, and you won't miss the cream at all. Roasting the tomatoes first will help achieve this. Unless your blender is super powerful, you'll probably want to skin them first. To do this, mark an x where the stem was before blanching the tomatoes and cooling them to the point where you can pull back the skin where you've already made the cut. Then roast them, uncovered, in a 350F degree oven for roughly 30-45 minutes, or until they're soft and the juices begin to brown. Continue to make the soup as per your recipe and puree it smooth until smooth. If it's still a little thin, simply cook it longer to reduce it down. No one will miss the cream with all that tomato flavour!
Cream of cauliflower
Throw a handful of cashews into the pan when you're softening the aromatics and let them work their magic. You'll need roughly one cup for each head of cauliflower. Puree the finished soup in a blender before serving and see if anyone can guess the secret ingredient. If you really want to thicken things up and add extra fiber too, toss in some cannellini beans with the cashews too. They're mild tasting, naturally creamy, and neutral in colour so they won't give themselves away.
Creamy lentil or vegetable
Familiarize yourself with the technique of pureeing only part of the soup and then apply this to most vegetable and bean soups to thicken them up without dairy. To do this, remove about two-thirds of the soup once it's finished cooking and transfer it to a blender to blend smooth. (Do this carefully! Hot liquid can be dangerous and seems to have a life of its own sometimes especially when it comes to sloshes, and you definitely don't want the steam building up as you blend.) Add the pureed portion back to the chunky portion on the stove and admire the creamy base you've just made without cream. This works for vegetable soups or anything where you want the broth to have more substance.
Creamy chicken and rice
Skip the cream and take advantage of the starch from the rice. As the rice cooks in the broth it releases starch, which helps to thicken up the soup and create a silky texture too. The amount of liquid you add here is key. If you use less, the soup will be thicker and seem creamier, so keep that in mind when you're playing around.
Cream of leek
Toss an avocado into the blender as you're pureeing your finished leek soup, and enjoy the velvety texture simply by combining. There's no need to cook the avocado at all, it's best added after all the rest of the ingredients are soft. And since avocado and lime juice are inseparable, finish the soup with a little squeeze before you start slurping.
Cream of broccoli
You don't need much more than the right potatoes to turn this into a satisfying dairy-free soup. Russet potatoes are best, as they contain the most starch and will add the most luscious texture. And if you're strapped for time and want the soup to thicken without waiting for it to reduce down (remember that trick from above), you can add potato starch to help speed things up too. To do this, add a bit of the hot broth to 2-4 tablespoons of potato starch, depending on how big your batch of soup is. Stir until smooth before adding it slowly back into the soup to prevent lumps. You don't have to cook it very long after, just a couple minutes as you don't want it to over-thicken your soup either.
Ditch the cream and butter and make shrimp bisque with lots of corn instead. The kernels will release their starch which equals creaminess. Puree the finished bisque in a strong blender to make it all super smooth, and lay any shrimp you've reserved for garnish back down in their bed of velvety liquid. Reduce a bit, uncovered, if the soup still seems too thin, but do that before garnishing so the shrimp don't overcook.
Cream of celery
Here, I recommend making a slurry — a method which can be used with other vegetable soups as well. A slurry is really just another example of how to use starch for its thickening power. To make a slurry, mix 1 tablespoon of oat flour or all-purpose flour with 2 tablespoons of cold water for every two cups of hot liquid you plan to add it to. Combine the slurry with a cup of hot broth before adding that mixture back to the pot, and add it gradually so that it doesn't get lumpy. Cook the soup for about five minutes more, to cook the flour, although note that some types of flours lose their thickening power after too much heat. A slurry can be made with other starches too; try arrowroot, cornstarch, or potato as we explained above.
Creamy sweet potato
Boost the natural starch content of sweet potatoes by adding a handful of breadcrumbs to the soup; a quarter of a cup is all you'll need for most recipes. The breadcrumbs dissolve into the soup and release, you guessed it, their starch! The starch as thickener trick here goes a long way to help mimic the creamy texture dairy would also provide.
Jessica Brooks is a digital producer and pro-trained cook and baker. Follow her food stories on Instagram @brooks_cooks.