You Cannot Make a Decent Tomato Soup With Canned Tomatoes

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Aug. 21 2014 1:34 PM

You’re Doing It Wrong: Tomato Soup

140818_YDIW_TomatoSoup
Let the tomato guide you.

Photo by Lisa Larson-Walker

The glowing scarlet tomato soup of my youth served mainly as a dipping sauce for grilled cheese, and that’s the way it should be. The Campbell’s variety, paired with white bread and American cheese, was my introduction to comfort food. It was also the first meal I learned how to “cook” myself, speckling my mother’s kitchen with red splotches and burnt breadcrumbs. It was, and always will be, a perfect childhood meal.

Glad we got that out of the way. Any adult who has recently reached for a can opener to make tomato soup can attest to the inevitable disappointment that results. The tinny purée slides out of the can and doesn’t improve no matter how long you let it bubble on the stove. It has the mouthfeel of tomato-juice concentrate, dull and processed beyond recognition. When I prepared a can I found tucked into my family’s pantry one recent holiday, I felt betrayed—never have warm, comforting memories conspired so cruelly to mislead me. The soup tasted like diluted runoff liquid from chopped tomatoes, and we won’t speak of the smell.   

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Given this grim reality, I was surprised to find so many odd and uninspired recipes for homemade tomato soup. Some are more accurately described as vegetable soup, so prodigious are their list of ingredients. Others drown the tomatoes in too-rich chicken stock. And some even call for canned tomatoes, which are preferable to the gritty varieties sold in winter but still result in the pallid flavors of their precooked brethren. No aromatics can disguise a lackluster main ingredient.  

And that really is the key: Tomatoes should be the star ingredient, and practically the only ingredient. Since I have no passed-down family recipe, the only kind that seems to exist for tomato soup, I finally adapted one from someone else’s grandmother. After making it many times, I’ve disregarded some of the instructions, but this recipe gets two things unforgettably correct: The perfect tomato soup fully embraces its central ingredient, and, crucially, it should only be made when the absolute best tomatoes are available. That time, roughly, is right now, when absurdly buxom tomatoes are spilling out of bins at local markets (and, if you’re lucky, your neighbor’s backyard). Seriously: Sad, ratty, out-of-season supermarket tomatoes will fail you here. The only real time to make tomato soup is when the nearby bounty is ripe.  

I seek no quarrel over what constitutes “bisque,” so I will stick to calling this a tomato soup, but the correct course is to include some cream. Its richness wonderfully balances the tomatoes’ lingering acidity. The key is to take a light hand, lest we forget our first rule and end up with a cream soup. And through many attempts of roasting, stewing, and otherwise pulverizing tomatoes, I’ve come to appreciate my Internet-adopted grandmother’s method of slowly cooking them in a couple pats of butter (not olive oil), letting the pulp break down and the juices flow.

Finally, you must once more resist the urges of your childhood and leave the soup thick and chunky. You want the last bits of tomato to melt in your mouth, not in the pan. There will still be plenty of liquid—which, by the way, is pretty fantastic sopped up with a good grilled cheese. We needn’t desecrate everything.

Tomato Soup
Yield: 3 servings
Time: 35 minutes

3 tablespoons butter
4 to 5 medium ripe tomatoes, halved
Flaky salt and freshly ground black pepper
⅓ cup cream
1 large sprig of rosemary or thyme, optional

1. Put the butter in a large skillet over medium heat. When it melts, add the tomatoes, cut side down, and season with salt and pepper. Cook until the tomatoes have released most their juices (but aren’t charred), 10 to 15 minutes. Turn the tomatoes over and cook until they begin to break down, 5 to 7 minutes.

2. Remove the pan from the heat. After 30 seconds, add the cream and stir, scraping the bottom of the pot as you go. Use the spoon to break down the tomatoes to a chunky but spoonable consistency. Add the thyme or rosemary sprig, if desired. Taste and adjust the seasoning, and serve warm. (Store leftover soup in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to a few days.)

Previously in You’re Doing It Wrong:

Jeffrey Bloomer is a Slate Video assistant editor. Follow him on Twitter.

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