Published October 1, 2011. From Cook's Country.
Canned tomato soup is often disappointing, loaded with salt and sugar to prop up processed, flavorless ingredients. Does any brand actually taste like tomato?
For convenience, a can of tomato soup is hard to beat: Open, heat, eat. Unfortunately, its contents rarely excite us. Canned or homemade, tomato soup should taste like bright, fresh tomatoes.
In our quest to find a product worth buying, we rounded up eight national brands of tomato soup (seven canned and one from a box), heated them according to the instructions on the label, and called our tasters to the lunch table. Twenty-one editors and test cooks spooned their way through 4 gallons of soup. It wasn’t pretty. The soups earned comparisons to “hospital food” and “tomato-flavored dishwater.” But in the end, we emerged with two brands that we could recommend, even if not highly.
You’d think it would be a safe bet that tomato soup would include, well, tomatoes. But only half of our soups did—the top-ranking half. The four bottom--ranking soups derive their only tomato flavor from tomato puree, a combination of water and tomato paste. Three of the top four soups also include tomato puree, but all four add fresh, unprocessed tomatoes. It was no surprise that tomato flavor was an important factor in our tasters’ preferences. Our winner earned the highest ranking for tomato flavor, while our three least favorite soups ranked lowest in the same category.
Tomatoes are naturally sweet, so a certain level of sweetness in tomato soup is desirable; sure enough, some of the sugar on the nutrition label comes from the tomatoes. But several of our samples went overboard adding sweeteners. Our four lowest-ranking soups list sugar or high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) within the first three ingredients. (By law, the order of the ingredient list must reflect the percentage of an ingredient within.) Tasters unflatteringly compared these sugary brands to SpaghettiOs and Fruit Roll-Ups.
Tasters were equally exacting about texture. “You could mortar a house with this stuff,” one noted of a thick soup. Another soup was so thick that one taster dismissed it as “tomato soup chewing gum”; that particular brand uses more cornstarch than any other we tasted. No wonder it ranked near the bottom in our lineup. Soups with the opposite problem—those that were too thin—were panned as “red water.” Our two favorites struck tasters as closest to homemade, with medium body and slightly chunky texture that was created by pieces of real tomato.
From soup to soup, seasoning varied widely. One soup tasted of celery, onion, and other “vegetal” components—anything but actual tomatoes. A low-sodium sample tasted washed out; its watery flavor and weak seasoning failed to deliver the sweet, tangy punch of ripe tomatoes. In fact, the two bottom-ranked soups contained the least sodium. While all the soups featured herbs and spices, the aggressively herbaceous seasoning of two samples pushed them down in our ranking. Even for tomato-basil soups, these were over the top.
In the end, we still vote for homemade tomato soup. But we’re willing to concede that in a pinch, our two recommended brands will do. Both had just enough seasoning to add depth without stealing the show. They were salted but not salty. We also liked their pleasantly sweet flavors—which tasted like ripe, sweet tomatoes—and their home-style textures. A grilled cheese sandwich seen in their company could hold its head high.