/ Dan Lewis / 4 am Mon, Nov 17 2014
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  • Why canned soup tastes like goop

    Why canned soup tastes like goop

    It never tastes quite as good as homemade. Dan Lewis blames the carrots.

    If you Google “vegetable soup recipe,” one of the top results 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-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. These are the problems with homemade soup! You have to plan ahead, it takes time, and may or may not be cheaper than store-bought.

    So it should be no surprise that canned soup is a $8 billion industry worldwide, $5 billion in North America (although that number's shrinking). Not everyone is an intermediate-or-better cook with an hour and a half on their hands. Not everyone has a crisper full of different vegetables.

    On the other hand, canned soup can’t match the taste of homemade.

    Why? Blame the gargantuan carrots.

    In 2002, Slate writer Tim Carvell decided to put canned soup to the taste test, and concluded that they all were basically inedible (except, perhaps, as pasta sauce). There are reasons why canned soup can’t be made to taste like the stuff that comes off your stove top after an investment of serious time and labor. The major reason—and 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, Carvell noted, the Food and Drug Administration requires that the soup be brought to a temperature of 250 degrees Fahrenheit after it’s canned.

    The process, though measurable, is violent. Soup companies want the process to go quickly, and they want the soup to be heated evenly, so 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 would not survive the process in any visibly solid form.

    The solution? 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." And the same is true many of the other vegetables in canned soup. The selectively-bred veggies come out like regular ones, are safe to eat, and taste fine. Just not quite as good as the ones in homemade soup.

    Bonus Fact: Bugs Bunny loved carrots. But he was a bad role model. Rabbits probably shouldn't eat carrots, according to the United Kingdom's Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The high sugar content in carrots (relative to hay, which rabbits should be eating) can cause them to suffer tooth decay and experience digestive troubles.

    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.

    Photo: Wikimedia

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