How to make the perfect Greek avgolemono soup – recipe

<span>Felicity Cloake’s perfect <em>avgolemono</em> soup.</span><span>Photograph: Robert Billington/The Guardian. Food styling: Loïc Parisot.</span>
Felicity Cloake’s perfect avgolemono soup.Photograph: Robert Billington/The Guardian. Food styling: Loïc Parisot.

Chicken soup for the soul is more than just an American self-help trope: as Carolina Doriti points out in her book Salt of the Earth, “every culture around the world has a restorative chicken soup”, from Romanian ciorba radauteana to Filipino tinolang manok. Creamy, tangy kotosoupa avgolemono is Greece’s version, and it’s “greatly healing and medicinal, and the most delicious, comforting, warming meal you will have”, according to food writer Georgina Hayden, whose Greek Cypriot family prescribes it for anyone feeling under the weather or simply run down.

Based on avgolemono, Greek cuisine’s famous egg and lemon sauce, which is a rich, bracingly sour mixture that’s often added to stews and other dishes (such as stuffed cabbage), in the words of Rena Salaman, “its welcoming aroma always adds a bright note to a cold day, and it makes a very substantial meal by itself”. So if you’re craving sunshine but still feel in need of a little winter comfort, this is the dish for you. It also makes a lovely splash of colour at the Easter table, particularly if you’re serving chicken for the main course.

The chicken

Classically, this is a recipe that starts with a boiling fowl, something that is as tricky (for which read well-nigh impossible, unless you’re “connected”) to get hold of in the UK as it was when I looked into Jewish chicken soup more years ago now than I care to remember. Happily, you can still make great soup from a younger bird, though slower-grown, better-exercised animals generally yield more flavour (as well as being the more compassionate option, should you have the luxury of choice).

Doriti recommends jointing the bird and browning it first, which, if you happen to be handy with the poultry shears or have an obliging butcher, also makes life easier than dealing with a whole bird, because the pieces will sit flat in the base of a pan, rather than needing to be turned over regularly to cook evenly without burning; the frying adds extra flavour to the stock, too. If you’re making a smaller amount, by all means buy a few pieces of chicken instead, but make sure they’re on the bone and ideally skin on (more flavour and fat).

Alternatively, as Hayden concedes in her book Taverna, if you don’t have time to make stock, you can substitute it with the ready-made sort. If you go down that route, though, buy the best you can, so you get the richness as well as the flavour of the real thing rather than just salt and vegetable fat. Daniel Gritzer’s piece for Serious Eats poaches chicken breasts in bought stock for an hour, which works nicely to boost the flavour (if you don’t want to include chicken in your actual soup, use a few wings instead).

Interestingly, chef Akis Petretzikis calls for leftover soup, either beef or chicken, but make sure it’s a broth rather than a cream of chicken soup or anything more exotic. Tessa Kiros writes in Falling Cloudberries that she has an aunt who “even makes avgolemono with lamb instead of chicken, to celebrate the end of the fast for Easter”, so this seems a fairly adaptable kind of dish. Vegetarian and vegan versions I find online use vegetable stock and tahini or soy milk and cornflour, but I can’t say I’ve tested either as yet.

Traditionally, the chicken itself seems to be eaten separately (so you’ll get at least two meals from this one recipe depending on how many you’re feeding), but it now seems to be common to add some of the meat back into the soup for a chunkier finish. Personally, I like the smoother, silkier texture of the soup without any chicken, however juicy it is, but that’s very much up to you.

The vegetables

The stock vegetables are as you’d expect: celery, onion and carrot are popular, as are bay leaves, parsley and peppercorns. Doriti also adds leek, tomato, garlic and thyme – the tomato gives her stock a subtle sweetness while the garlic and thyme are both flavours that work brilliantly with chicken and lemon; the leek, I decide, is so good that I’m going to save it for the soup itself. (Doriti also browns the vegetables and adds white wine, both of which are, of course, delicious, but I’m sticking with a simpler method and adding the vegetables raw for a cleaner flavour.)

Few recipes include any vegetables in the finished dish, but the freshness of Doriti’s diced carrots and courgettes seem to amplify the zinginess of the citrus and give the soup the same light feeling as the first day of spring. I’ve replaced her courgette with leek, because they’re in season and I prefer them with chicken, but you could substitute almost any vegetable you like, or leave them out altogether.

The thickener

The most contentious aspect of avgolemono soup seems to be the avgo (egg) part – whether to use yolks alone, as Katherine Polyzo’s recipe for the New York Times recommends, or whole eggs, like just about everyone else. Should the eggs be separated and the whites be whisked to soft peaks before use, as Doriti and Rosemary Barron’s Flavours of Greece suggest? Or should the whole lot be added together? Should they be beaten vigorously using a mixer (the trick, Hayden reckons, that makes her mum’s recipe “the greatest of them all”)? And how many eggs should there be? Gritzer uses five eggs per four servings, while Doriti and Salaman include just two for four to six people. Hayden, Petretzikis and Polyzo sit somewhere in between with one egg (or egg yolk) per person.

Annoying as it might be to have leftover egg whites – I often feed mine to the dog, but you may not be fortunate enough to live with a sentient waste-disposal unit – using yolks alone gives Polyzo’s soup a gloriously sunny colour and also reduces the risk of ending up with stringy pieces of egg white in the finished dish (though if you follow the instructions below, that is extremely unlikely). However, though Gritzer isn’t keen on the “unfortunately foamy” consistency of whisked egg white, I’m completely won over by the almost ethereal lightness of Doriti and Hayden’s bowls. I admit a moussey chicken soup ought not to work, but it just does, so perhaps it’s the lemon element.

That said, perhaps such a texture would be odd in such an egg-heavy soup – Gritzer’s is so rich, and richly flavoured, it almost reminds my testers and me of a bisque. No one’s complaining, but it does lack the freshness and lightness of those with a more modest egg content.

If you’re worried about the egg scrambling, by all means add some cornflour to the egg yolks, as Salaman does, which will help stabilise it. But so long as you add the hot liquid gradually to the eggs and heat it only very gently, so it doesn’t come to a boil, this is actually a pretty low-risk operation.

The lemon

Again, the amounts used vary wildly, from one lemon per person (Petretzikis) to one to two between four and six serving (Salaman, Doriti, Hayden). This really is a matter of taste and, as Gritzer wisely observes, you can always add more lemon but you can’t take it away, so proceed with caution. (You may also like, as a couple of recipes do, to add some grated lemon zest to up the citrus character considerably.)

The starch

Rice seems to be the most popular choice to bulk out this elegant soup, with Salaman calling for short grain, Doriti and Aglaia Kremezi medium, and Kiros and Hayden long grain. I find I like the squidgy texture of a shorter grain in this context – it’s just more satisfying to eat – but use whatever you have. Alternatively, if you’re more of a pasta person, Gritzer suggests using orzo, which has a similar shape, though for me lacks the satisfying bite of rice.

The extras

Hayden finishes her soup with a sprinkle of cinnamon, which works beautifully with the citrus (I suspect nutmeg would work well here, too), and Doriti tops her with spring onions, which, if you’ve included leeks, would probably would be overkill. Dill, as mentioned by Gritzer, rarely feels a bad idea to me, but you may prefer parsley or simply to let the soup stand alone in all its glorious, lemon-yellow beauty.

Perfect avgolemono soup

Note that, because of the eggs, this soup does not freeze well, but it can be reheated successfully so long as you stir constantly and don’t let it to come to a boil.

Prep 30 min
Cook 1 hr 30 min
Serves 4

For the stock base (or use 2 litres of good-quality shop-bought chicken stock and, if you want some meat in the soup, 1 chicken leg or 4 wings)
1 small chicken, jointed, plus the carcass
1 carrot, trimmed and roughly chopped
1 onion, peeled and roughly chopped
1 medium tomato (optional)
1 tsp black peppercorns

For the soup
2 tbsp olive oil
1 plump garlic clove
, peeled (optional)
1 sprig fresh thyme (optional)

120g rice, preferably short grain
1 carrot, trimmed and diced
2 baby leeks, or 1 slender leek, trimmed and sliced
2 eggs
2 lemons
, preferably unwaxed
Dill, to serve (optional)

If you’re making the soup stock from scratch, put the oil in a large, wide pan on a medium-high heat and fry the chicken pieces until golden all over – do this in batches, if necessary – and transfer to a plate (see below* if using bought stock).

Throw the garlic and thyme, if using, into the hot pan, fry for 30 seconds, then return all the chicken to the pan and add the chopped carrot and onion, the whole tomato and the peppercorns.

Cover with two and a quarter litres of water and bring to a boil. Turn down the heat, partially cover the pan and leave to simmer gently for about an hour, until the chicken is cooked through. Lift the chicken out of the pan, leave it to cool, then strip the meat if you’re using it in the soup (otherwise, save the poached chicken for another use). Strain the stock, discard the solids, then return the liquid to the pan.

(*If using bought stock, fry the chicken leg or wings, if using, in the oil until golden, then add the garlic and thyme and fry for 30 seconds. Add the ready-made stock, bring to a simmer and leave to bubble gently for 15-20 minutes, until the chicken, if using, is cooked through.

Strain the stock and strip the meat from the bones, again if using. Return the stock to the pan and continue with the recipe from this point.)

Add the rice and diced carrot to the hot stock, bring to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, for about five minutes. Add the sliced leek and simmer for another eight minutes, until the rice and vegetables are cooked. Turn off the heat.

Separate the eggs, and put the yolks in a large heatproof bowl and the whites in a bowl big enough to hold them once beaten.

Zest one of the lemons directly into the hot soup, then juice the lemon and beat this into the egg yolks.

Whisk the egg whites until they hold soft peaks, then fold them into the lemony egg yolk mixture.

Gradually whisk in about half the stock from the pot, then whisk everything back into the stock pan.

Cook gently for about five minutes, until the soup thickens slightly, then season to taste, adding more lemon juice, if you like, and some of the shredded chicken, if you want to. Divide the soup between bowls, scatter with a little chopped dill, if using, and eat immediately.

  • Avgolemono soup: is this the springiest soup in town, an Easter treat or reserved for medicinal purposes only? Do you like yours rich and thick, or light and frothy, zingy or subtle – and can anyone recommend a great plant-based version?