If you put “vegetable soup recipe” into Google, one of the top ones will be this one from celebrity chef Alton Brown. Google describes it as an “all-star, easy-to-follow” recipe, and gives it a five-out-of-five star rating. But it’s not all that easy to make. Brown labels the recipe as “intermediate” and even if you’re up to the task, it takes just under an hour and a half to make. It’s probably not all that cheap, either, given the number of ingredients (especially if you’re cooking for one person). Those are the problems with homemade soup — you have to plan ahead, it’s time consuming, and often, it’s not a good way to save money.
So it shouldn’t surprise you to hear that canned soup is a $8 billion industry worldwide and $5 billion in North America (although it’s shrinking). Not everyone is an intermediate-or-better cook with an hour and a half on their hands and, by the way, has a crisper full of different vegetables.
On the other hand, canned soup can’t match the taste of homemade.
Blame the gargantuan carrots.
In 2002, a writer for Slate named Tim Carvell decided to put canned soup to the taste test, and concluded that they all were basically inedible except, perhaps, as pasta sauce. His food snobbery aside, there are reasons why canned soup can’t be made to taste like the stuff that comes off your stove top after that hour and a half investment. The major reason — the gargantuan carrots are a result of this — is food safety. In order to greatly reduce the chance that your canned soup is going to get you sick, Slate notes, the Food and Drug Administration requires that the soup be brought to a temperature of 250 degrees Fahrenheit after it’s canned. (Yes, that’s actually doable and measurable.)
The process, however, is a violent one. Soup companies want the process to go quickly and they want the soup to be heated evenly, so during this process, the cans of soups are aggressively shaken, mixing up the broth and vegetables and chicken and whatnot. And while you shouldn’t try this at home (and if you have a canned soup shaking machine, that’s really cool and you should post a video to YouTube), you can imagine what would happen to the perfect carrots you can buy at the grocery store. They’d not survive the process, at least not in any visibly solid form.
The solution? Yep. Gargantuan carrots.
Carvell spoke with a man named David Gombas, then the Vice President of the Center for Development of Research Policy and New Technologies at the National Food Processors Association. Gombas told Carvell that regular, everyday carrots would “disintegrate” in the heating-and-shaking process. So to get around this, “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.” That’s probably hyperbolic, but the point holds — soups need resilient, much larger than average vegetables. (And not just carrots.) So they breed them. The selectively-bred veggies come out like regular ones, are safe to eat, and taste fine — albeit not quite as good as the ones in homemade soup.
From the Archives: Baby Carrots: They aren’t born that way.
Related: “How Carrots Won the Trojan War: Curious (but True) Stories of Common Vegetables” by Rebecca Rupp. 4.4 stars on 47 reviews.