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Tomato Soup

Published October 2011

How we tested

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.

Yeah, right.

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.

 

 

 

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The Results

Winner
Recommended

Skippy Peanut Butter

In a contest that hinged on texture, tasters thought this "smooth, "creamy" sample was "swell" and gave it top honors, both plain and baked into cookies. Its rave reviews even compensated for a slightly "weak" nut flavor that didn't come through as well as that of other brands in the pungent satay sauce.

$2.39 for 16.3-oz. jar (15 cents per oz.)*
Recommended

Jif Natural Peanut Butter Spread

The big favorite in satay sauce, this peanut butter's "dark, roasted flavor"—helped by the addition of molasses—stood out particularly well against the other heady ingredients, and it made cookies with "nice sweet-salty balance." Plus, as the top-rated palm oil-based sample, it was "creamy," "thick," and better emulsified than other "natural" contenders.

$2.29 for 18-oz. jar (13 cents per oz.)*

Reese's Peanut Butter

This is what peanut butter should be like, " declared one happy taster, noting specifically this product's "good," "thick" texture and "powerful peanut flavor." In satay sauce, however, some tasters felt that heavier body made for a "pasty" end result.

$2.59 for 18-oz. jar (14 cents per oz.)*

Skippy Natural Peanut Butter Spread

The only other palm oil-based peanut butter to make the "recommended" cut, this contender had a "looser" texture than its winning sibling but still won fans for being "super-smooth." Tasters thought it made an especially "well-balanced," "complex" peanut sauce.

$2.39 for 15-oz. jar (16 cents per oz.)*
Recommended with Reservations

Peanut Butter & Co. No-Stir Natural Smooth Operator

Though it says "no-stir" on the label, this "stiff" palm-oil enriched peanut butter was "weeping oil" and came across as "greasy" to some tasters. However, it turned out a respectable batch of cookies—"chewy in the center, crisp and short at the edge"—and made "perfectly good" satay sauce.

$4.49 for 18-oz. jar (25 cents per oz.)*

Maranatha Organic No Stir Peanut Butter

On the one hand, this organic peanut butter produced cookies that were "soft and sturdy" yet "moist," with "knockout peanut flavor." On the other hand, eating it straight from the jar was nearly impossible; its "loose," "liquid-y," and "dribbly" consistency had one taster wonder if it was "peanut soup."

$5.69 for 16-oz. jar (36 cents per oz.)*
Not Recommended

Smart Balance All Natural Rich Roast Peanut Butter

Besides being unpalatably "tacky" and "sludgy," this "natural" peanut butter suffered from an awful "fishy" flavor with a "weird acidic aftertaste" that tasters noted in all three applications. Our best guess as to the culprit? The inclusion of flax seed oil, an unsaturated fat that's highly susceptible to rancidity.

$3.59 for 16-oz. jar (22 cents per oz.)*

Smucker's Natural Peanut Butter

With its only additive a negligible amount of salt, the only truly natural peanut butter in the lineup elicited comments ranging from mild dissatisfaction ("needs enhancement with salt and sugar") to outright disgust ("slithery," "chalky," "inedible"). Cookies were "dry and crumbly" with a "hockey puck" texture, and the satay sauce was "stiff," "gritty," and "gloopy."

$2.69 for 16-oz. jar (17 cents per oz.)*