With East Coasters now ankle-deep in slush, it seems safe to say that soup season has arrived. Not only is hot soup more appealing when it's 10 degrees below freezing outside; soup is also eminently stockpileable for times when you can't bear the thought of leaving the house to find supper. But if you're buying canned soup—I don't recommend stockpiling bowls of minestrone in your cupboard—be aware that what you're buying is food that's been through hell. There are plenty of differences between factory-made and homemade, but the major one is this: The food you make at home isn't reheated while being violently shaken. In order to destroy any pathogens, FDA requirements dictate that soup, once canned, be heated to 250 degrees; many manufacturers speed that process by agitating the can, thereby ensuring that the heat distributes itself more rapidly.
This requirement changes the flavor of soup, which means that it changes the way the soup itself is actually made. David Gombas, the vice president of the Center for Development of Research Policy and New Technologies at the National Food Processors Association (and a former research scientist for Campbell Soup), notes that soup companies shy away from ingredients that break down in the canning process: "When you're making a soup, you might buy young, fragile carrots. You put those in a canned soup, they won't last. They'll disintegrate. So companies grow special carrots for soups. They look like tree limbs—they're like baseball bats. But once they go through the cooking process, they come out looking like the small young ones that you'd put into your soup."
Given that soup companies' chefs have to work with freakish mutant vegetables, can a canned soup exist that actually tastes as good as homemade? To find out, I undertook a bold experiment: I bought all the cans I could find of three varieties of soup (chicken noodle, tomato, vegetable beef) and cooked up a bowl of each. You may feel that this does not qualify as a bold experiment. Move along.
Chicken Noodle Soups I evaluated each soup on its constituent ingredients: the chicken, the noodles, the broth, and the special guest stars (that is to say, any major ingredients that weren't chicken or noodles). The results, from best to worst:
Campbell's Select: Chicken With Egg Noodles ($2.99)
Campbell's Chunky: Chicken Noodle ($2.99)
Progresso Chicken Noodle ($2.69)
These three are, with minor differences, the same soup. The chicken in all three is more or less the same—small chunks of meat with a mealy, grainy texture. (The chicken in the Progresso also has an odd, smoky aftertaste; whether this has anything to do with the fact that this is the only soup that lists MSG among its ingredients, I know not.) The broth in all three is alarmingly salty; a 1-cup serving of each contains about 40 percent of your recommended daily intake of sodium—and there are two servings per can. The special guest stars in all three are carrots and celery, which, after a few soups, I came to think of as the Claude Rains and Sydney Greenstreet of chicken noodle soup: They aren't billed above the title, but they provide able support. I wouldn't call any of the soups good, but the Campbell's Select is slightly better than the other two; the carrots and noodles are a touch firmer.
Healthy Choice Chicken With Pasta ($2.39)
Since this is Healthy Choice, the amount of salt is halved. This makes the soup a tad blander, but at least it doesn't make you as thirsty as a horse. Unfortunately, while the carrots hold up nicely in the soup, the chicken is tough and the noodles are squishy, giving the soup an unappetizing mix of textures.
Wolfgang Puck's Chicken & Egg Noodles ($2.39)
The chicken bits are good—tender and identifiable as chunks of actual chicken—and the noodles are thick egg noodles that held up well in the soup. The major problem, though, is the broth: It's oddly slick, leaving a film on everything it touches (pot, bowl, spoon, inside of your mouth).
ShariAnn's Chicken Noodle Soup ($2.79)
This is not a soup. It is a crime scene. The noodles have broken down into small pieces. The chicken is macerated into tiny little shreds. The vegetables (in this case, not deserving the special-guest-star label) are tiny dots of carrot. The soup looks as if it has been pre-chewed. It has almost no taste; what taste there is is mildly salty and starchy. It is extremely unpleasant.
Health Valley 99 Percent Fat-Free Chicken Noodle Soup ($2.19)
The soup has an oddly cloudy appearance, and its broth smells and tastes strongly of garlic and onion powder. The chicken turns out to be tiny little rubbery cubes, while the rotini pasta is unnervingly squishy. The special guest stars—carrots, celery, corn, and red peppers—are all cut into such tiny pieces that they all but dissolve into the soup and have no discernible flavor. As with ShariAnn's, I couldn't eat a whole bowl of this.
Tomato soup has pretty much one main ingredient: tomatoes. So, in evaluating tomato soups, I focused on texture and taste. The results, from best to worst:
Wolfgang Puck's Country Tomato With Basil ($2.79)
The soup has a lovely texture to it—it's a smooth purée of tomatoes, with some chunks of tomato throughout to give it some variety. The ingredient list contains butter, which undercuts the acid of the tomatoes and gives the soup a (slightly) more complex flavor. With the basil, this tastes like pasta sauce—but very good pasta sauce.
Progresso Classics Hearty Tomato ($2.69)
In texture and taste, this one is extremely similar to the Wolfgang Puck brand, albeit without the butter, which means it has a slightly more tart flavor. No basil, but the ingredient list includes onion and garlic, which explain why this, too, tastes like a pretty good pasta sauce.
Campbell's Tomato Soup ($1.79)
Eh. I know Campbell's tomato soup is an icon, but the stuff's watery and bland and has an artificial tang to it. If the others are pasta sauce, this one's more like thinned-out ketchup. That's not to say it's terrible: I'm a fan of ketchup; it would easily make my top three condiments. I'm just not sure I want to have it for dinner.
HealthValley No Salt Added Organic Tomato Soup ($2.49)
As one might expect, taking the salt away from tomato soup leaves you without much flavor. But the tomato taste does come through strongly; unfortunately, so does a strange sharp, acidic aftertaste. If the first two soups are pasta sauce and Campbell's is ketchup, this is tomato juice. And not good tomato juice.
ShariAnn's Organic Tomato With Roasted Garlic Soup ($2.19)
Inedible. I spat out my first spoonful, but then—in the interests of judging every soup thoroughly—swallowed a few. (Take that, Michael Kinsley!) The tomato flavor is overwhelmed by a rancid garlic flavor. This does not remind me of any tomato-based product. It reminds me of paint. I can't figure out if ShariAnn is an inveterate practical joker or is seriously mad at me.
Vegetable Beef Soups
Of the vegetable beef soups I found, three were produced by Campbell's, whose Chunky line seems to represent an unending quest to find new ways to combine beef with liquid. As with chicken noodle, I assessed headliners vegetables and beef, broth, and special guest stars. From best to worst:
Campbell's Select Vegetable Beef ($2.69)
The little meat gobbets look unappealing—they're an odd shade of reddish brown and raggedly shaped like they've been chewed on—but they taste fine, like tiny cuts of a pot roast. The special guest stars—carrots, celery, and a new player, green beans—all hold up fine in the broth, which is, in keeping with the Campbell's method, incredibly salty.
Campbell's Chunky Beef With Country Vegetables ($2.99)
The soup slides out of the can in a solid lump, bearing a striking resemblance to high-end dog food. As it warms, the gelatinous stuff thins out a bit, but it remains thick and gluey. In case you're wondering what constitutes a "country vegetable," the answer is carrots, potatoes, celery, and peas. One eagerly awaits the day they go to visit the city vegetables. The peas' unpleasant squishiness explains why so few soups feature them in a supporting role. The beef isn't bad—disturbingly soft, but it tastes like beef. The broth has the distinctive taste of mass-produced gravy. Not quite like meat or like vegetables, it tastes … brown.
Campbell's Chunky Pepper Steak ($2.99)
The label touts the presence of "lean beef!" in this soup, which translates to it being chewier and less flavorful than in the other Chunky variety. There's more broth than in the other Chunky brand, and the substitution of green pepper for the peas lends it a bit more flavor. Instead of tasting like brown, it now tastes like brown, plus a hint of green.
Progresso Steak Grilled Steak Soup ($2.69)
The soup has the bright, off-putting smell of starting-to-rot tomatoes. Which is, as it turns out, exactly what it tastes like. The beef bits are the usual small, chewy tidbits. The vegetables are mushy, and the pasta is overcooked and squishy, but none of the other attributes of the soup really matter because the weird taste of the soup base is just too repellant.
Of all the soups I tried, the only ones I would actually eat again were two of the tomato varieties—the Wolfgang Puck and the Progresso. Some of the chicken noodles had fine elements to them, and recombined, they might make for one decent soup: The broth from the Healthy Choice, the carrots from the Campbell's Select, the noodles and chicken from the Wolfgang Puck (assuming you could wash the slimy broth off). Although really, once you're assembling a soup out of the elements of four different cans, you might as well buy a chicken and start from scratch. As for the vegetable beef, the most generous assessment I could give is that I'm certain there are less palatable foods in the supermarket. I hope never to find them.