I don’t enjoy thin brothy soups, except when I am sick. I like stews – thick liquids with lots of vegetables and meat. Something I can chew on.

So tomato soup, especially from a can, has been out of the question.  It seemed like a watered down version of tomato sauce. I love me some spaghetti and sauce but thickness is key.

A few years ago, I tried a tomato bisque at a cafe near the office. The server described it as creamy and thick with lots of herbs, including basil. I was surprised by the texture and the flavor – hearty and savory.

But it forever changed my opinion about the salmon-colored soup. The flour and cream adds the texture I like, plus it leaves an interesting dry after-feel in the mouth, much like tannins on the tongue after drinking wine.

Earlier this fall, I had a hankering for tomato bisque, so of course I want to make it from scratch.

Pioneer Woman's Hearty Tomato Soup

Pioneer Woman’s Hearty Tomato Soup

I first started with a recipe from Food Network. Then I heard Tom Douglas’ simple recipe on The Splendid Table radio show. A Facebook cooking group posted one from Cooks Illustrated. Then I perused my Pioneer Woman cookbook and found hers. Over the course of four weeks, I made each of these. Here are my notes.

KEY INGREDIENTS:

All were extremely tasty (I couldn’t stop taking big spoonfuls out of the sauce pan after cooking each one) but the key ingredients for texture were heavy cream (on two out of the four, I used coconut milk with so-so results) and flour.

ALCOHOL:  I don’t cook with alcohol, other than a splash of red wine in tomato sauce. I invested in a decent bottle of brandy and that definitely made a difference in flavor (I used it in two of the four soups). However, especially for those with kids, the tomato soup tastes just as good without it.

FRESH VS. CANNED TOMATOES: For the Food Network recipe, I still had fresh tomatoes from the summer, so I decided to go old fashioned and use those instead of canned tomatoes, which is called for in every recipe. It involved cutting them up, then processing them further in the Cuisinart.

After that mess (of which I’ll get to in a minute), the flavor from canned tomatoes came out far ahead of the fresh ones. That, however, shouldn’t be surprising, as the canned tomatoes have a chance to ferment in their own juices and create a solid acidic base with which to work. I found I preferred canned tomatoes.

PROCESS:

What was interesting about working with four recipes was how much or how little work there was to each one.

Food Network and Cooks Illustrated took FOREVER. I’ll give Food Network a little slack since it was my first time. But Cooks Illustrated called for roasting the canned tomatoes. I tried that and didn’t really notice any significant difference in taste with that additional step. Skip it.

All the recipes called for transferring the soup from the pot to a blender to puree, then strain the liquid to get rid of the leftover tomato skins.

WHAT A DISASTER OF A MESS. Screw that.

Here’s what you do. This will make your life so much easier – Invest in an immersion blender (or as my father calls it, a boat motor). I inherited one from my grandfather years ago and didn’t use it much until this adventure.

After the soup has cooled a little, just plug that sucker in, plop it in the sauce pan, and turn it on. The blade will catch whatever skins that refuse to be pureed (which can be left in the sauce or thrown away – I prefer to leave them in).

Within two minutes, you have the perfect tomato bisque texture, minus the splotches of sauce all over the countertop and stove because you had to transfer it from the sauce pot to the blender to the strainer and back to the sauce pot.

OVERALL:

Basically – use alcohol for additional flavor, use canned tomatoes and invest in an immersion blender.

I can’t really decide which is my favorite, but Tom Douglas’ and Pioneer Woman’s recipes came out on top for me. They were simple, no extra this or that (veggies, broth, bacon, etc). Just simple hearty tomato bisque.

SIDE NOTE: Grilled Cheese to go with it, of course – extra sharp cheddar on Dave’s Killer Bread. Also, my friend Keri suggested infusing rosemary in the heavy cream before adding it to the tomato base. I’m going to try that with the Pioneer Woman recipe this week.

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