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The Boston Globe

Food & dining

taste kitchen

Ladling out a winning tomato soup

Debra Samuels for The Boston Globe

Foods stir memories, and tomato soup with a grilled cheese sandwich may just be the most dynamic comfort food for many Americans. With school ending, summer coming, and hopes for minimal cooking in the months ahead, we tasted half of the classic lunch duo: ready-to-heat cream of tomato soup.

A group of graduate students sipped six brands of soup simmered simultaneously (say that three times fast!), ranging in color from “orange like a Sedona sunset,” to “rusted red.” Between spoonfuls they nibbled on crackers and water. Later, they were rewarded with the other half of the lunch: grilled cheese sandwiches.

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Most recipes for cream of tomato soup use chopped or ground tomatoes, milk, flour, butter, and a little sugar to balance the acidity. All of these use tomato paste or tomato puree as the tomato ingredient. Trader Joe’s and Pacific have reduced fat milk as the first ingredient. And Imagine Natural Creations Creamy Tomato Soup has no dairy at all (a fact they might announce on the package). Sodium content ranges from 20 to 30 percent. Sugar, in some form, is in every bowl. Only Campbell’s Creamy Tomato Soup uses high fructose corn syrup.

Campbell’s took top honors, but not by much. “Tastes like my childhood,” and “punchy bright tomato-y flavor,” said some. Others did not like it, and also turned down their noses at Nature’s Promise Cream of Tomato (Stop & Shop house brand), calling it “watery” with “no tang, no zip, and no real tomato essence.”

Sprinkle fresh basil and garlicky croutons on any of these to upgrade your childhood bowls. Don’t forget the grilled cheese.

Amy’s Organic Soups Cream of Tomato Low Fat

$2.99 for a 14.5-ounce can

“Best red vibrant hue of the bunch,” said one. Another: “Reminds me of pasta sauce — not a bad thing.” Others didn’t like it for that reason. “Is this marinara sauce or tomato soup?” “It belongs over pasta.” “Smell reminds me of Chef Boyardee or SpaghettiOs.” Lauded for texture: “Consistency is thick and not watered down,” “lots of body.”

WINNER: Campbell’s Creamy Tomato

$2.50 for a 15.4-ounce round plastic container

One nailed it: “Could Campbell’s be this good?” “Tastes like comfort.” It was love or hate after that. “Like roasted tomatoes,” “aftertaste of cardboard,” “more bisque-like than others, which I like,” “oddly thick and thin at the same time, like cold cream was added at the last minute.” Many found it “oily,” with “lots of little grease globules on top.” References to “Indian curry” and “burnt sweet potato.”

Imagine Organic Creamy Tomato Soup

$3.99 for a 32-ounce carton

There is no cream or milk in this brand. “Could benefit from some more dairy,” and “thin, not creamy.” Salty comments: “Like someone dropped a salty bouillon cube into the pot.” Many picked up on celery, which is on the ingredient list. “An overpowering celery finish.” Only two used the word “tomato” for flavor. “Tomatoes taste fire roasted,” with most agreeing it is “like a combo of vegetables,” and lots of guesses at random herbs — “basil?” “turmeric?”

Nature’s Promise Cream of Tomato Soup

$2.99 for a 32-ounce carton

The only thing appealing was the color, more orange than red. “Looks like my mom’s cream of pumpkin soup,” “like a burnt-sienna crayon.” Texture is “thin enough to drink,” and “watery and clumpy at the same time.” As for lack of taste, one said, “Someone offered me tomato soup and served me vaguely vegetable water instead.” Water is the first ingredient but tomato puree is second. One found “not much of an aroma.” Another: “smells like school lunch cafeteria food.”

Pacific Organic Creamy Tomato Soup

$3.99 for a 32-ounce carton

Tumeric, pumpkin, and butternut squash all came up when tasting this “orange-y” colored mixture. The texture is “very creamy,” and “almost feels like diluted Velveeta.” Which brings us to the unusual ingredient, “cheese flavor.” Several took note: “I can taste some Parmesan cheese more than true cream.” “Smells like Kraft macaroni and cheese, not tomato-y at all.” One said it is “dairy tasting,” and “tastes more like cream than tomato.” Reduced fat milk is the first ingredient.

Trader Joe’s Organic Creamy Tomato Soup

$2.49 for a 32-ounce carton

“Smooth and velvety,” and “good body,” was a constant comment. Also, “very sweet but pleasant.” Aroma described as “cheesy and bready,” and “smells like moldy cheese,” though neither cheese nor bread are ingredients. Two preferred it: “Like a classic,” “like cream of tomato soup should taste. ” Finally, “would be a good vessel for dipping grilled cheese.”

Debra Samuels can be reached at dgsamuels@gmail.com.
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