November 1, 1999

24 Min Read
Designer Soups

Designer Soups
November 1999 -- Design Elements

By: Ann Juttelstad
Associate Technical Editor

  Gumbo. Goulash. Chili. Stew. Stock. By any name, it's soup. Steaming, satisfying bowls of comfort common to cuisines around the world. Soup has nurtured nations and fortified fighting troops. It's one of the first foods fed at the beginning of life, and one of the last at life's end. It is one of the few foods that can be both comforting and exciting.

  Soup even made big on the small screen when an episode of "Seinfeld" introduced the Soup Nazi to millions of television viewers as a soup chef who was uncompromising in his demand that his product be treated with the respect it deserved.

Soupy sales

  In America, 99% of households purchase some form of soup in any given year, consuming more than 10 billion bowls annually, according to Campbell Soup Company, Camden, NJ. This strong penetration of soup into the market has realized one drawback, however. Soup sales have plateaued over the past few years, although statistics from Campbell's have indicated a turnaround in recent months.

  Flattened soup sales have prompted some major changes in the industry. One indication of this can be found on store shelves, where Campbell Soup Company's famous red-and-white label - recently redesigned after more than 100 years - is now present. Sporting illustrations of serving suggestions, the updated labels are expected to attract consumers to the product, and make finding a family favorite easier and more convenient for busy shoppers.

  One big trend in the soup industry is tantalizing consumers by offering a larger and larger variety of soups to try. Simply said, chicken noodle isn't chicken noodle any more. It has become Thai chicken noodle with lemon grass, or German chicken with spaetzle. Even veteran Campbell's is getting into the act by offering Campbell's Soup-To-Go microwaveables in test markets.

  In the foodservice sector, convenience reigns as the most important factor in product development. The market for soups reconstituted with water, milk or non-dairy creamer is moving in favor of single-strength soups that are heat-and-serve, says Mark Whitham, consultant, Harrisburg, OR. He finds that increased competition calls for improvements in quality, while keeping costs down.

Soup-er flavor

  "People are craving new flavors," says John Matchuk, CCC, CCE, T. Hasegawa U.S.A. Inc., Northbrook, IL. One absolute when incorporating flavors or combinations from another cuisine is an authentic flavor profile. "Accuracy is a must," says Matchuk. "You cannot offend the people that know the product in its original form. You can't just throw in garlic anymore and call it Italian." Product designers must look for the flavor profile of a distinct region, or the signature tastes of a certain type of cooking method.

  Portuguese flavors, with their emphasis on seafood, are currently emerging says Matchuk, as are distinctive Asian Rim flavors, again dominated by seafood profiles. Companies based outside of the United States, he says, are particularly well-placed to develop authentic flavors in new food products. "We can sample Asian-style flavors directly to our Japanese associates, and they will make sure that our systems are right. European-based companies have the same advantage; they may have a heads-up in German or Hungarian flavoring systems that will appeal to the consumer here in the United States."

  In the quest to find new or unusual soups to please the expectant palate, Matchuk urges designers not to overlook the American classics. "Look at the Philly pepperpot or snapper soup, or San Francisco's cioppino." Also, be specific about the flavor being profiled, he suggests. "There is a difference between a Cajun and a Creole gumbo."

  Paramount to the development of upscale soups is that the chef or consumer can add their own touches. Price points can be higher in these types of soups because the end consumer is willing to pay more for the final product. A chowder that is finished off table side with a little sherry, or a minestrone that is accented with a sprinkle of fresh herbs, brings a mere soup to the level of a gourmet production.

  Soup is becoming more of a meal in itself, and it's an easy alternative to a three-course meal. Paying a little extra for a product that is quick to prepare, satisfying, and a little bit different isn't much of a problem for most people, Matchuk feels. And, by allowing the opportunity for fresh touches when serving, the consumer gets the element of creativity and a "homemade" quality that may otherwise be missed.

  "Consumers are always looking for something new and different," says Jeff Carlson, Hasegawa's western sales manager. "But really far-out, wild things don't sell that much." Just an accent of olive-oil flavor, for instance, can go a long way toward bringing out the flavors of a simple minestrone.

  Simplicity still sells, however, says one assistant R&D manager for a major frozen-soup manufacturer. "Ethnic flavors have a niche market, but we find that most chefs make their own. Although, those are the most fun to work on in the lab," she admits. Instead, the concentration in the frozen soup market is more mainstream, with offerings of ravioli or chicken fajita soup usually as exotic as it gets.

Soup-making 101

  Key to soup formulation is the processing it undergoes. Stationary retorts produce a more traditional cooked flavor than rotary retorts, says John Rendazzi, vice president of flavor development, applications and technical sales, Eatem Foods Co., Vineland, NJ. The flavors resulting from stationary retorted soups are more like condensed soups, with a more caramelized overall flavor development.

  There's also a flavor reaction between the can, can liner, and the soup ingredients that must be considered. Rotary retorts produce a more home-cooked and less scorched flavor, says Rendazzi. They also retain better vegetable consistency. Rotary-retorted products are considered more upscale, and are often packaged in glass, a high-end image, he says.

  Frozen soups generally have more formulation flexibility and better finished quality than canned soups because they avoid retorting. Vegetables can be blanched to the optimum doneness, and filled as a second-stage step in the frozen process, maintaining their integrity. The frozen soup is heated directly in a double boiler rather than being "slacked out" (defrosted) to ensure top quality. One drawback, however, is the necessary shipping and storage conditions that increase cost.

  "Frozen soups really haven't caught on for the retail consumer," says a frozen-soup manufacturer source. "We've all tried them, Campbell's, everyone, but the home consumer just doesn't seem to be interested in them." Some smaller processors have found regional success with frozen retail products, however.

  Not all soup lines use two-stage filling. Many soups, both canned and frozen, use a single-stage filling process that is physically taxing on the ingredients. Vegetable particles must be small enough to pump, and starch systems must provide the required viscosity for the filling process and for the end product.

  Aseptic processing can offer product developers new avenues to upscale products. It allows for shelf-stable products using lower heat and pressure levels than retorting, resulting in fresher-tasting product. Problems associated with aseptic processing, however, include validating the process, and determining that the fastest-moving and largest particulates have been exposed to enough heat to kill pathogens. Ohmic systems seem to provide the best overall solution to maintaining product quality while achieving sterilization. Tubular heat exchangers may provide benefits as well, as they heat more uniformly than scraped-surface heat exchangers. While aseptic processing machinery costs about the same as conventional thermal equipment, processors may be reluctant to invest in technology that has not been proven on the consumer level.

The starch story

  Starches possess significant adaptability as primary soup components. Evidence of this is found in the starches incorporated into condensed soups versus those used in the single-strength variety. Much of the starch used for condensed soups is simple, unmodified starch, or flour, which has a similar functionality, explains Mike Augustine, director of food ingredient applications, A. E. Staley Manufacturing Company, Decatur, IL. These starches are heavy-bodied, with high viscosities up-front, which commands a more intensive, prolonged heat process in order to secure the required kill time. The finished body of the canned soup has a gel-like consistency - we've all witnessed the condensed soup that slides out of the can and virtually stands on its own.

  On the other hand, the finished viscosity of single-strength soups is far lower than that of the condensed sort, which makes processing a bit easier, explains Augustine. Modified starches lend the processor greater versatility. "You can do a little bit more with the starches too, in terms of when you want them to kick in and thicken the system," he notes. "We have starches that you can get immediate viscosity from. We've got starches you can use to fill the system with and then dissipate. We have also modified some of those cream condensed systems such that they will set up later rather than earlier to allow them to get better heat transfer early."

  Single-fill operations use starch as a can-filling aid to suspend particulates for even distribution, and to prevent drip or tail-over. "You don't want to get all the beans in the last can," says Mike Kramer, applications scientist, Grain Processing Inc., Muscatine, IA. For this purpose, a slightly modified waxy maize or potato starch works well. These thicken during the initial cooking to suspend vegetables, pastas, meats, etc., then break down during retorting to deliver little, if any, finished-product viscosity. Unmodified tapioca or waxy maize starches have a long, or slimy, texture and are not suitable for these applications.

  A second starch in canned soups can deliver the finished viscosity. This starch, a highly crosslinked or substituted waxy maize or dent corn starch, provides viscosity and storage stability, and is activated by the retort process. The retort heat and the formula's liquid hydrate the starch to produce the desired consistency.

  In choosing a starch, it is important to determine whether the cans will be processed in a static or rotary retort, particularly when the objective is to create an emulsion or suspension. Situations have arisen in cream-style soups where an emulsion has been broken through the stress forces generated from the retort's motion, notes Augustine. He recommends using a thin starch at the beginning of an agitated retort process to accelerate heat transfer through motion. The starch would thicken later in the cooking process.

  In a retorted product, says Kramer, it is essential that the starch granules be checked microscopically in order to establish that the proper cook has been achieved. "Most processors just take a viscosity measurement of the product out of the retort, but that's not enough," he says. "You need to look at the starch to make sure that the maximum effect of the starch has been met. Otherwise, flavor and clarity may be affected if the starch isn't cooked all the way out."

  Furthermore, a few starch granules must remain intact to absorb some of the water given off by meats and vegetables as the product sits on the shelf. Starch granules have a "balloon effect," states Kramer, "meaning that if the starch 'balloon' is not ruptured, it is assumed it can take on a little more water, like an unpopped balloon is assumed to be able to take on a little more air."

  In frozen soups, starch functionality also has to be considered in terms of the freeze/thaw process and frozen storage stability. Modified starches enable the finished soup to maintain textural stability during adverse storage conditions such as cold or freezing temperatures, says Jane Gottneid, applications specialist, convenience foods, Cerestar USA, Hammond, IN.

  "The crosslinking level is selected on the abusiveness of the process," says Gottneid, from low (batch-kettle cooking) to high (continuous series of swept-surface heat exchangers). "The more abusive the system, such as low pH, long time, high-temperature heating, or extensive shear conditions, the more heavily crosslinked the starch needs to be to maintain granular integrity." Crosslinking is a chemical modification of the starch that reinforces the integrity of the starch granule. Substitution imparts a stearic hindrance along the starch chain, lowering the starch gelatinization temperature and minimizing retrogradation during storage (reassociation via hydrogen bonding of neighboring starch chains), says Gottneid.

  "Freezing is not as rough as canning on starches," says Kramer, but physical processing can adversely affect starch. "Pumping is like acid on a starch. It breaks it down," he says, "and the more 'elbows' you have in a system, or the more agitation you have, the more it breaks down."

The plot thickens

  The rest of the ingredient matrix also affects starch function. Highly acidic soups (pH below 4.3), such as tomato soups, may need a more highly crosslinked starch, says Gottneid. In can-filling starches, the presence of acid may cause the viscosity to break down pre-retort, though this may be an advantage in products where a complete breakdown of the starch during retort processing is desired.

  "Acid and salt have an effect on any starch bearing a charge, such as the phosphate groups naturally occurring on potato starches or the OSAN (octenyl succinic anhydride) groups used to modify some can-filling starches," says Gottneid. "The negatively charged starch molecules repel one another, contributing to a repulsion viscosity. When acid or salt are added to this system, the negative charge is neutralized and the viscosity is decreased."

  Potatoes and noodles also affect the performance of a starch, says Kramer. Unmodified wheat starch leaches out of the noodles and may affect soup clarity. The same is true for potatoes. The unmodified starches, upon cooling, form a rigid gel that is opaque and cuttable, and seriously reduces bowl life. It's possible to prevent this by cooking the pasta separately and adding it after draining, but in a retorted product the additional cooking would turn the noodle to mush.

  When cooking soup over a stove, unmodified starch will cook-up quickly, leaving an inadequate supply of water for pasta hydration. "We looked at slower-hydrating starches so that the pasta would hydrate preferentially, and would still be the appropriate texture when the product is done being cooked. You can certainly control which sets first by picking the starch, and that may also help to create viscosity on the outside that prevents some of this leaching, too, if you go with a faster setting system," adds Augustine.

  Beans in soups have also been known to cause adverse affects in finished product due to the bean's unmodified starch leaching out. "Whenever we talk about any kind of starch system that has to have some type of stability to it, we recommend you don't get more than 20% of your stabilizer system as unmodified starch," advises Augustine. "That way, you can keep product from creating undesirable textures." This percentage includes not only flour, but starch from other ingredients such as beans, pasta or potatoes. Adding some unmodified starch can be beneficial in terms of adding opacity and lowering ingredient cost; however, use caution in determining the proper amount.

  Another alternative is for the end user to add the pasta before serving, though few, if any, processors opt for this. Noodles with added gluten hold up better in the retorting process, as do noodles with egg white. Wheat fiber in a noodle forms a basket-weave effect on the noodles' structure, strengthening it and reducing cook time. Higher-protein pastas may leach less, says Kramer, but they may not necessarily be better. Pasta made from modified food starches may eliminate the leaching problem, but would be cost-prohibitive.

  Gums are sometimes used in conjunction with starches to provide finished viscosity and to manipulate fill viscosity. Gum selection is based on flavor, processes such as pumping, the pituitous quality of the gum and the cost. "Xanthan gum works well in soups," says Kramer. "It has a good flavor, but it's expensive. Guar is pumpable, but has an off-flavor. However, at lower levels, it may be fine."

  Soups with a very thin body and large, heavy particulate, such as a meatball soup, pose problems for developers because it's hard to keep the particulate in suspension during filling. Generally, says Whitham, these soups use gelatin to suspend the meat and vegetable portion while filling, but the gelatin contributes no viscosity when heated.

  Primarily, though, soups depend on starch systems for viscosity. "Starches are the primary viscosifier for soups, controlling syneresis in condensed cream soups where flour is used, adding texture, smoothing the product out and making it more pourable and easier to reconstitute," says Gottneid. "The higher the modified waxy starch fraction, the more fluid the soup becomes." Optimal texture and stability of soup can be achieved through the appropriate selection of starch, as well as the balance between degrees of modification, adds Augustine.

  All experts agree that the abuse imparted by the final user, such as uneven heating in the microwave, sitting on steam tables for hours, or improper storage after reheating may have a deleterious effect on the starch performance.

Taking stock

  Meat, poultry and vegetable stocks are the other vital components in soup manufacture. These provide the base flavor of the soup, and constitute the matrix in which all the other components must commingle. Chicken stock or broth is by far the most commonly used, but combinations of broths can add background notes and flavor interest, observes Matchuk.

  Stocks are made with bones, meat and large chunks of aromatic vegetables that are cooked for extended periods of time (12 to 16 hours) or under pressure. These methods render a product that is rich in flavor and deep in color. Further reduction produces a glacé, a gelled or congealed product with an even more robust flavor.

  Once strictly the product of restaurant and home kitchens, stocks and glacés are increasingly manufactured on a commercial basis as well. "People aren't making their own stock anymore," says Matchuk. "It's too labor intensive, and you can't find the ingredients any more. The veal producers are making stocks and glacés under their own brand names." A meat extract is similar to a glacé, but may contain spices, herbs and salt.

  Broths are made in a less intense manner than stocks; meat and aromatic vegetables are cooked for a few hours, then the product is reduced and frozen. Seafood stocks are prepared with even less cook time in order to preserve their delicate flavors.

  "Virtually 100% of broths used in the United States start out as frozen concentrates," says Bob Hoopingarner, national sales manager, International Dehydrated Foods, (IDF), Springfield, MO. "Typically these come in concentrates of 16%, although we manufacture concentrates to 32% solids. Broth concentrations of more than 32% tend to give burnt or off-flavors to the product. You can only concentrate so much." Dry broths are not typically used for canned or frozen soups because their flavor profiles do not meet the standards expected for the product.

  Dehydrated stocks and broths often lack flavor nuances because of the harsh condition of the spray-drying process. They also tend to be hygroscopic. New advances in drying technologies have greatly improved dry-broth processes, says Hoopingarner. A new agglomerated product from IDF will eliminate these flavor drawbacks, he feels, and allow the use of a dry stock with the same flavor profile as frozen.

  Dry soup mixes rely on chicken and beef powders to get the desired label declaration, says Hoopingarner, but the real flavor profile comes from the chicken or beef fat added to the product.

  Stocks and broths, even those from the same supplier, can vary from region to region and season to season. The species of bird used, the feed, the season and the weather all play a part in the final flavor. "The consumer may not pick up on this," says Hoopingarner, "but you can tell if you are in the industry."

Vegetables in the pot

  Historically, cooks in both restaurants and homes used soups as a vehicle to get rid of their no-longer-prime vegetables. Old carrots and onion skins were thrown into the pot and allowed to simmer for hours. In today's world of designer soups, however, nothing could be farther from the truth.

  "We blanch vegetables to just the right level of crispness for the needs of the customer," says an R&D assistant manager for a frozen soup manufacturer. "We are able to use any type of vegetable available. Then, we can drop them in a two-stage fill to preserve their integrity." In higher-end soups, consumers expect larger cuts of vegetables and fresh flavor. Today's customers also expect a homemade appearance in their soups, Whitham says. "It used to be that processors would use a 1/4-in. dice for their vegetables. Now, everyone is going to random cuts."

  Vegetarian soup lines are generally run at the beginning of the day, after a thorough cleanout of the equipment, to prevent contamination. The soup is then kept segregated throughout the packaging process to maintain integrity.

  Some vegetables take to soups better than others. "Green beans have a tendency to perfume the entire pot," says Matchuk, "but lima beans are successful in a soup." Rendazzi agrees: "Never put green beans or peas in a can. The high sulfur content of the vegetable becomes skunky over time." The same is true for most other sulfurous vegetables such as cabbage and broccoli. When using broccoli in formulas, it's best to use more stems than florets, as florets contain more sulfur compounds. Frozen applications are more suitable for these ingredients.

  Green herbs do not fare well in either frozen or canned applications. "Herbals are tough to retort," says Matchuk. Most soup manufacturers use natural or artificial flavors to achieve the effect of fresh cilantro or parsley. Again, fresh, chopped herbs added to the finished product can give the impression of an upscale product, with very little effort or cost to the end user.

  Precooked roasted vegetables can lend an added caramelized flavor profile. Fire-roasted peppers and chiles have a hint of smoke that consumers find appealing, and roasted garlic and onion are hot buttons for today's consumers. These high-end flavor profiles are "nuance items" says Rendazzi. Though they may not be the characterizing flavor in a formula, they do have a synergizing effect that makes a soup taste chef-made. "It's the difference between a jelly or a jam flavor," he says. "Jelly is more like a fresh fruit, while jam has that slow-cooked flavor." The richer flavors of roasted vegetables can give soups a home-cooked appeal that is absent in traditional condensed soups.

  Dried legumes have always had application in soups. Beans are boiled or steeped prior to cooking or retorting. A great variety of legumes are available, and consumers continue to look for unusual beans. Beans act as a thickening agent, as they hold up to six times their weight in water, says Janelle Sterner, product development chef, Inland Empire Foods, Riverside, CA. Depending on the desired final look of the product, beans can be whole, broken, or powdered.

  Sterner observes that beans are one of the "least-processed foods available," making them ideal in applications aimed at the health-food or organic markets. One trend is the growing awareness of heirloom bean varieties and their history. "People want to eat something with a story behind it," she says. Asian bean varieties, including the adzuki bean, are popular, as are beans typically seen in South American cuisine, such as the camario. Sterner echoes other product developers when she finds that consumers are seeking authenticity in their foods, and are willing to pay for it.

One potato, two potato

  Choosing the right potato is important in maintaining the soup's integrity. These tubers are instrumental in the development of the starch character, and their texture in the final product is also critical. "Use waxy potatoes in a soup," advises Matchuk, to minimize sloughing. Fresh potatoes must be peeled, diced and color-stabilized (if they are going to be stored for any length of time) prior to being added to a soup mix. Dried potatoes are easier to handle in soup mixes because of their uniformity, but may lack the textural and flavor qualities required in premium products.

  Dehydrofrozen potatoes may be the best solution to maintaining good potato character, according to Nick Ross, QA and technical service director, Oregon Potato Company, Boardman, OR. Low-defect tubers are diced in 1/4-in. to 1-in. pieces, depending on the application. Larger pieces lose the effect of the dehydrofrozen technology. The dices are then blanched to deactivate enzymes and gelatinize the starch. Drying the blanched pieces in a tunnel dryer reduces their weight by 50%. Average finished moisture for the potatoes is 48% to 50%. The product is then frozen, where the pieces take up less space in the frozen warehouse than their fresh-frozen counterparts.

  Dehydrofrozen potatoes offer advantages over fresh potatoes in soup because they slough less in solution, retaining corners and edges even during the punishment of retorting. They also maintain their creamy white color without sulfites or other preservatives. Ross points out however, that there's increasing interest in yellow potatoes for use in high-end products. Yellow potatoes have a more buttery flavor profile and waxy texture.

Going coconuts

  Coconut is increasingly used as an ingredient in processed soups. Coconut milk, the liquid squeezed from fresh coconut meat, is rarely use in soup formulations, but finely processed desiccated coconut is useful for its contribution of both flavor and texture in Thai, Indonesian and Brazilian dishes, says Mary Taylor, associate business manager, Kraft Food Ingredients, Baker's Coconut Division, Memphis, TN. "Coconut works like butter in a system," she says, "to finish off a flavor profile. It provides the same functionality in Asian cuisine as butter does in French cuisine."

  Coconut can be used as a flavor carrier or base, and also serves as a thickening agent. With a particle size of less than 30 mm, coconut powder absorbs liquids and acts as an emulsifier. It imparts a whiteness to a formula similar to that of milk, and does not brown in the retort. However, due to microbial considerations (the product is not pasteurized), coconut powder should be used in retorted or frozen product, not in refrigerated or HMR applications, unless thoroughly cooked.

Dealing with dairy

  Milk-based soups such as chowders have some specialized considerations. The modified starch in a milk-based system can help control milk-protein coagulation, producing smaller particles and helping impart a smoother character.

  The protein in the milk denatures with the application of heat, and helps contribute viscosity to the soup, depending on time, temperature and mixing parameters, according to Gottneid. Caseinate, whey-protein concentrate, and milk-protein concentrates and isolates help emulsify and add creamy characteristics to soups, says Lee Huffman, Ph.D., technical service manager, NZMP (North America), Santa Rosa, CA. They also contribute dairy notes, balancing the flavor of milk or cream in a system.

  Soups with a milk base may suffer from Maillard browning in the retort process, or may brown after prolonged periods on a restaurant stove, due to naturally occurring reducing sugars. Soy isolates can be added to increase whitening, as can titanium dioxide. High-calcium milk proteins also impart a whitening effect, increasing opacity because of a synergistic effect of the calcium and the protein, says Huffman. The ingredient reduces chalkiness and improves mouthfeel, while providing a "lift" to the flavor profile. Ingredients with high calcium levels are also a hot button for today's consumers.

Phosphates are also used in milk-based soups to aid stability. Phosphates keep proteins from precipitating, resulting in less syneresis and feathering of the product, says Barbara Heidelph, principal, food phosphates application, technical service, Monsanto, St. Louis. Phosphates help adjust the pH of soups, aligning with the proteins and making them more functional. Disodium phosphate is primarily used in soups, though monosodium and trisodium phosphates can also be used.

Keeping trendy

  The importance of a balanced diet fits easily with the concept of soup and all of its nurturing associations. Campbell's Select brand, once called Home Cookin,' implies an upscale approach to the humble bowl and improved nutritional qualities.

  Soup designers agree that the most forward trend in product development is the fortification of soups. Soups with added soy and nutraceutical ingredients are making their way into health-food stores, and are just a short distance away from the local grocery. Campbell's Plus line of soups contain vitamin, calcium and mineral supplementation, and other product developers are considering the same tactic.

  One other item, although not directly involving soup, may help this stable market increase its share. The availability of good artisan bread in mainstream markets provides the perfect foil for a bowl of soup, says Matchuk. Consumers are learning that a bowl of seemingly hand-crafted soup along with a chunk of good bread can be a full, nutritious meal. New product developments that address consumers' concerns about wellness and feed their desire for interesting, authentic, convenient foods will play hand in hand with the comforting image of soup, making this dish more popular than ever.

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