This past Spring, I made up a batch of “portable soup”, a concentrated beef broth dried to the point that it becomes leathery and can be stored in a tin or even in your pocket! It appears regularly in 18th Century cookbooks and was a way of preserving and transporting the essence of beef for use in making soups, stews, and gravies or sauces. According to Wikipedia, Sir Hugh Plat (1552-1608) wrote in his unpublished notes of boiling the feet or legs of beef cattle for a long time to make “a good broath” which was then strained and boiled down to “a strong & stiff gelly”.  Historically, portable soup was used by the military for troop rations, it was used by travelers, and it was used in broth as a source of protein for the sick. Making it was difficult and very time consuming in the home setting in the 18th Century; its production was actually industrialized.
In this article, I’ll look at my process of making portable soup and how I’ll use it. I’ll discuss the time necessary and the cost of the finished product, and I’ll give my thoughts on some alternatives.
Making the Portable Soup
In order to make portable soup, you’ll need a cut of beef that contains lots of collagen, like beef shank, neck, or ox tails. For my portable soup, I chose beef shank. It’s a tough cut of meat with a big chunk of bone and lots of connective tissue. I used 5 shanks and it cost me about $30 in all (your cost may vary).
I got a cast iron frying pan good and hot and seared the meat to caramelize the outside, just for flavor. I salted and peppered each piece according to my taste. Once the shanks were browned nicely, I put them into a crock pot with enough water to cover them. I deglazed the cast iron pan with water and added that to the pot as well as some more salt and pepper and a couple of bay leaves. Then I slow-cooked the shanks on low overnight.
Once the meat was really tender, I removed the meat and bones and strained the remaining liquid through a sieve and a coffee filter to get all the bits out. I rinsed out the crock pot, then put the broth back into the crock pot and chilled it in the fridge.
Once the liquid was cooled and congealed, I skimmed all the fat off; it was easy to do since it was quite hard at this point (it will appear as a cloudy layer on top of the clear). It’s really important to get all the fat off the liquid. Fat doesn’t preserve well and will go rancid after a relatively short period of time, making the portable soup unfit for use. Once the fat was removed and discarded, I set it on low heat and left it with the lid off until the moisture evaporated from the broth. NOTE: Be careful not to use too high a heat or you’ll burn the broth as it reduces.
After about 24 hours in the opened crock pot, the broth had reduced to a semi-transparent gelatin. I moved the crock pot liner back to the fridge to chill the reduced broth. Once it was chilled, it became a firm gelatin. I took a moment to skim off any more fat that was visible, then carefully peeled the “beef jelly” off the bottom of the pot and laid it out on a paper towel. I wasn’t able to get it out in one sheet, but the pieces it broke into as I removed it from the pot were more convenient later on anyway.
For the next eight days, this jelly remained uncovered in my refrigerator to dry in the lower humidity there. You can’t use a dehydrator or anything that uses heat, no matter how slight, to dry the gelatin. It HAS TO BE KEPT COOL or it will melt. After a few days, the gelatin became firm enough that I could handle it gently, so I transferred it from the paper towel onto a drying rack.
Once it was completely dry, it became quite stiff and leathery. There were still a few tiny spots of fat on some of the pieces; I scraped this off with a knife. In the end I ended up with just under two ounces of portable soup; that’s less than half a quart zip-lock baggie full.
I kept my portable soup in a zip-lock baggie in the fridge until I was ready to start experimenting with it. My understanding is that it will keep fine at room temperature.
So, Now What?
Portable soup needs to be kept clean and dry, but not refrigerated. It can be wrapped up in some waxed paper and stored in a backpack for use on the trail or kept in a tin in a cool cupboard for use at home. Again, I chose to keep mine sealed up in the fridge until I was ready to use it.
As an experiment, I decided to make some “spring soup.” I went out and foraged some wild greens from around my yard. I picked a handful of dandelion greens and some chives and supplemented that with some baby spinach and some arugula that I had in the fridge. I put two cups of water into a pot and brought it to a boil.
Once the water was at a boil, I added in a large handful of barley (I used “quick barley” because that’s what I had on hand). While the barley cooked up, I chopped up the greens. After the barley had softened, I added the greens to the boiling water. I added a large pinch of salt and pepper; it’s not unlikely that I’d be carrying some basic seasonings if I were out and about in the woods for an extended stay.
Once the greens were tender, I removed the pot from the heat and stirred in a handful of the portable soup. I remembered hearing that the portable soup should be added AFTER the soup/sauce/gravy was taken off the heat. As I stirred my spring soup, the portable soup pieces melted quite quickly in the hot broth.
In the end, I was left with a filling pot of soup. It was hot and tasty and, had I been out in the field, it would have been very satisfying. I couldn’t really detect much of a beef flavor; it’s possible that I didn’t add enough of the portable soup to the pot. Still, it was a good soup and I’d be glad for it on the trail.
The meat that I used to make the portable soup was used for our dinner that evening. I served it with mashed potatoes and some greens and it was delicious! So, really, the portable soup might be considered a by-product of that particular supper. Still, that was about $30 worth of meat and, in the end, the portable soup was a LOT of work. I’d call it expensive.
If you’re hiking about in the woods and you’re not too concerned with “being period”, there are loads of dried and pre-packaged alternatives for you. If you’re trying to do some foraging or you really want to travel lightly, you might find that beef bullion cubes are a better, more flavorful and economic alternative to portable soup. They’re light. They’re cheap. They pack a lot of flavor for their size.
Medieval foresters and travelers were known to carry dried meats with them. They’d carry dried beef, mutton, lamb, or goat, or they might pack along some dried and/or salted or smoked fish. A similar modern-day alternative to this is beef jerky. It’s light, it’s got a lot of flavor, and it keeps. I recently made a couple of batches of beef jerky; each batch was made from about $10 worth of bottom round beef and, like the portable soup, will keep for a long time. I plan to make the same “spring soup” using a big handful of the jerky added in for flavor and filling instead of the portable soup. For the money, I can add a lot more jerky to my pot of soup and I suspect that it’ll be a much more substantial meal.
Given that the portable soup is so expensive and time consuming to make, it doesn’t seem like it’s worth the effort. Now that I’ve made it, I’ll use what I’ve got but it’s not likely that I’ll be making it again. On the trail, jerky will travel just as well and will provide for a quick snack, unlike portable soup, as well as serve as part of my on-the-trail dinner.