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: