Perfecting Fresh Soups

October 31, 2007

17 Min Read
Perfecting Fresh Soups

Having steeped himself in Italian standards for nearly 40 years, Chef Antonio Cecconi, author, educator and executive corporate chef at Dakota Growers Pasta Co., Carrington, ND, has high regard for culinary tradition. Nowhere is this truer than in his approach to fresh soups. Being a chef, I personally wouldnt call something fresh unless it is, he declares. And by Italian standards, you call a soup fresh if it has beans that you soaked in water overnight and cooked. Yet, while Cecconi is a fresh-soup purist, hes also a food-industry realist. I understand that we are projected into the 21st century, he concedes. And you need to make adjustments to formulations. You also need to meet what the consumer sees as a good product. If that means stirring some convenience into a fresh-soup recipe, so be it. You cannot get away from that if youre in the food industry, he says.

After all, manufacturers need to keep their focus on what counts: serving consumers a warmor chilled bowl of nourishment that tastes as good as fresh, anytime, anywhere.

Not long ago, the supermarket was the last place youd go for a bowl of fresh soup. We came into the fresh-soup category in grocery and retail about six years ago, and we were really one of the fi rst players out there, recalls Brian McGinnis, director of marketing, Kettle Cuisine, Chelsea, MA. At that point, he says, fresh soups were a key middle category that retailers didnt know whether to buy into or not. But, I think that with the growth of prepared foods within the grocery store, soup has been one of the prepared-food items that has seen a great amount of growth.

Ron Hendren agrees. While the vice president and corporate executive chef at Harrys Fresh Foods, Portland, OR, notes his company has been making fresh soups for three decades now, its been in the last three or four years that its really taken off.

Perception is reality

The product-category growth has required some reflection on what fresh soup really means. Youll find about as much consensus among chefs and technologists over what fresh means as youll find over Astro Turf vs. grass in a sports bar. On one side, youve got purists like Cecconi. Fresh, in my dictionary, means made from scratch and recently made, he says. Fresh means using freshly prepared ingredients, or freshly picked vegetables, or ingredients that are assembled in the immediate time preceding the eating occasion.

Hendren isnt too far from that view himself: The fundamental difference is that fresh soup has not been canned or retorted. It has not been frozen. And it is something that, in most cases, the consumer needs to do very little to in order to eat.

The convenience factor rings true to Volker Frick, executive chef, Kettle Cuisine, who notes if you cant simply take it out of the refrigerator case, go home, put it in the microwave and open a bottle of wine, youre probably not going to buy it.

But convenience isnt alland soups freshness isnt purely objective. From a chef s perspective, I think of fresh as being how flavors release: their potency, their impact point, says Bill Schoenleb, corporate executive chef, CF Chefs, Inc., Dallas. Do I get them in the front, the middle or the back? Where am I picking up those notes? So, for example, fresh basil is very distinctive. If I can pick up fresh basil on the front end of a soup, then my immediate perception is thats fresh. Those key ingredients can swing peoples perceptions.

Perception, it appears, is the key. Fresh, as it applies to soups and food in general, doesnt have a defined meaning for consumers, but is a feeling, says Adam Walker, research chef, McCormick & Co., Inc., Hunt Valley, MD. That feeling partly explains why consumers perceive fresh as better. The type of consumer that is concerned with freshness is often the type of consumer that has an appreciation for ingredients, he says. And, quite simply, fresher ingredients make better soup. Freshness conveys a feeling of health: When you think of nutritious food, youll think of ripe, crisp vegetables before youll think of retorted soups. There is something alive in a fresh soup thats not there in a canned one.

Fresh cred

Pinpointing the source of that life force remains tricky. What makes one soup better than another? asks Dan Hemming, senior food technologist, ConAgra Food Ingredients, Omaha, NE. Ask two consumers and youll get two widely different answers. For example, if we agree that a fresh soup doesnt come from a can, does that mean that none of its ingredients may? If consumers associate fresh soups with health, does that make clean labels a must? The product developer needs to define his or her goals for a particular product and market segment, and keep that in mind while progressing through the development process, he advises.

In Fricks book, the special something that distinguishes a soup as fresh is fundamentally simple. It means that as many ingredients as I can possibly get are raw or unprocessed, he notes, and then we turn those into soup without the help of any kind of bases, precooked this, or flavor-enhancer that.

Hendren tries to view his ingredient statements through his consumers eyes. Can you pronounce it? he asks of his ingredient choices. And do you know what it is? That means, in Harrys universe, multisyllabic gums and hydrocolloids dont make the cut, even though they are often natural and organic, because the consumer will wonder, What is carrageenan? They do not know that its seaweed, he says. Its not a term that the general public has any understanding of. MSG and HVPs occupy a similar no-mans land, he says, and we try to stay away from disodium inosinate and guanylate, and hydrogenated vegetable oil.

Schoenleb, however, is of a different mind. The buzzwords out there are all-natural and preservative-free, he admits. I think those terms resonate. But I dont think, at the end of the day, that anybody really cares, as long as it tastes great. Theres a difference between the perception of fresh and the terminology of fresh.

More often than not, Schoenleb says, perception is driven by quality. Frozen soups, technically, wouldnt be considered fresh, yet they can be perceived as being fresh, as can dried, depending on what you threw into it. Ultimately, he concludes, if the soup were preprepared, and yet the consumer didnt know thatif it still came across that the vegetables were crunchy and colorful and flavorfulI think you could say that it was fresh because the perception would be fresh. Loosely defining fresh this way grants a liberating degree of leeway in making ingredient choices.

Calculated choices

Thus, savvy ingredient choices will enhance a soups quality, even if they dont adhere to textbook definitions of fresh. So, if youre doing a tortilla soup, Hendren says, and you want some black beans to bring out the color contrast or make it more eye-appealing, the best product you can use is a canned black bean. Boiled from scratch, black beans can appear purple when rinsed of their cooking liquid. But, once youve settled on canned, then you take it another step, he says, and you go after a canned bean that does not have EDTA in it, doesnt have calcium chloride, doesnt have added salt and all those criteria.

Frick similarly justifies using dried herbs. Lets take, for example, a tomato soup, he says. We would steep dried herbs in the soup as it cooks and then take them out and squeeze out whatever liquid was there to retain all the flavors, he explains. Wed build the profile that way to give it an all-around flavor, but then we really drive the point home by finishing the soup with fresh chopped basil and extra-virgin olive oil to give it what it needs.

Still, individually quick-frozen (IQF) herbs and vegetables can provide fresher notes. In dehydration of vegetables and herbs, some drying techniques add heat to the process, explains Alan McGuirt, marketing manager, Van Drunen Farms, Momence, IL. This heat, over time, will rupture cell walls and allow for the evaporation of not only water, but also volatile oils contained in the cells. Losing these volatile oils can result in less flavor than the fresh vegetables and herbs. While an IQF process causes some cell rupture, he says freezing takes place quickly after cleaning and further processing of the raw ingredient. Loss of the crucial volatile oils is minimal; therefore, the product retains more of the fresh flavor.

When strategic ingredient choices account for how the consumer will prepare and serve a soup, they bolster the products fresh cred. Youre going to have to think about how the end consumer is going to use it, says Schoenleb. Are they going to take it from a cold state and throw it into a pan and heat it up quickly, or are they going to heat it up and hold it for a couple of hours? Those two applications have totally different processes and ways that youd build that tolerance into the product.

If a soup has gone through a freeze/thaw cycle prior to refrigeration, itll likely have some cell-structure damage. In some cases, we engineer products on the back side knowing whats going to occur in the freeze cycle, Schoenleb says. Some of those soups will give off more moisture, so you engineer the product to absorb the moisture on the back side when the consumer gets it. Or vice versa: You make it slightly thicker so that when the cell structure breaks down and you do get some weeping, you engineered it to take that into account.

To control syneresis, a manufacturer might tap a modified starch. But, as Joe Lombardi, marketing manager, National Starch Food Innovation, Bridgewater, NJ, notes, The introduction of functional flours in the United States last year has provided food product companies the option to include specialty flour in commercial soup offerings without any problems. These functional flours deliver the opacity and texture typical of all-purpose flour with the freeze/thaw stability not otherwise possible with all-purpose flour, he says. They solve production issues by eliminating end product variability and improving batch processing time and consistency. They do all this with a simple, consumer-friendly label.

Such tolerance-targeted formulationeven if it requires ingredients alien to Grandmas cupboardis no compromise. Its a calculated decision based on whats the best product you can buy and the best quality that you can put into that product, says Hendren.

Slow and steady wins the race

Gentle batch processing and postproduction handling techniques are just asand sometimes even moreimportant for keeping soups looking and tasting fresh. When it comes to freshly prepared soups, the clear trend is toward process minimization, Lombardi notes. With simpler, less heat-intensive and process-intensive production methods, soup makers can better retain flavors and better manage ingredient integrity.

Slow and steady wins the race. Fresh soup takes a reasonable time to cook, Frick admits. Its not as simple as bringing it to 212°F and holding it for two minutes and then packing it. You mark progress by judging how the flavors have developed. Thus, when he makes a classic chicken noodle, the first step is that the vegetables need to sweat in a high-temperature kettle, at 200°F-plus, in maybe a little chicken fat with very gentle agitation so that they enhance their flavor on their own, he says. You dont have to add any flavor to it; youre just bringing out whats already there. Try doing that by dumping things into a retort and flipping the switch.

Schoenleb also stresses the role of temperature control. I would say thats most critical if you want to maintain the perception of freshness in soups, he says. What you have to do is figure out how to chill that product down in the process before you bag it. And thats the critical part of it: If you can chill the soup down rapidly and get it uniformly dropped in temperature before you take it to the freeze cycle, you can preserve the freshness of the flavor. The longer you let it sit, the more off notesthe muskier, the dirtierit becomes.

Some aspects of fresh-soup production require the floor crew to act less like technicians and more like chefs. Kettle Cuisine uses light cream in its soups and, while stabilizers could keep it from breaking, they let their employees run interference instead. You have to follow some basic culinary principles, Frick says, meaning that youve got to heat up the cream before you add it. Youve got to temper it like you do in a restaurant. If you add it, dont just dump it in. And if cream is a small amount of the formulaperhaps 3% of the whole thingyou can add it cold, but add it carefully and under constant agitation, keeping that stirring mechanism at a good clip, but without destroying vegetables.

Foodservice freshness

Employee responsibility really comes into play when a fresh soup shows up in foodservice. The biggest problem is not so much the product but the personnel, and how much attention they give the soup, Hendren says. All too often, they will turn the piece of equipment up to the highest level at the start of the day to heat the soup and get it going. And, if they forget to turn it down, theyve got a problem. When these soups are on the steam table or in a soup pot and theyre held there for hours, that is a challenge.

Even the most conscientious employee cant ensure that a soup ladled out at 3 P.M. will be as vibrant as it was at 11 A.M. But, where fresh soups have an advantage is in starting from a higher level of quality in the first place. Your carrots are al dente, your potatoes are al dente, Hendren says. In a canned or frozen product, those vegetables have already been overly processed. So those will not hold up on the four-, five-, six-hour timeline as well as a product that was made with fresh vegetables that have never been frozen or subjected to the high temperatures of retorting.

Foodservice operators can also preserve freshness with just-in-time preparationadding delicate components at the last minute. Some foodservice operations use a frozen soup concentrate to which they add fresh dairy ingredients at the point of service: half-and-half, sour cream, real cheese, says Sharon Gerdes, technical support consultant, Dairy Management Inc. (DMI), Rosemont, IL.

Notes Cecconi: In Italy, whenever you make a soup with pasta, you add the pasta much later, after all the other ingredients are added. 

Using 100% durum semolina pasta also increases the odds of surviving steam-table service. The secret lies in durums quality gluten proteins, which, Radwan Ibrahim, vice president, quality assurance, Dakota Growers, says, are strong and make a pasta that can tolerate overcooking. Beyond that, he says, foodservice pasta for soups usually has two characteristics: its thicker and requires additives.

Those additives, notes Shawn Baca-Baldwin, qualitycontrol supervisor, Dakota Growers, do basically one thing, and thats hold starch in the pasta to prevent it from releasing into the soup and to keep the mouthfeel or firmness throughout the residence time in the water and the cooking process. Egg-white protein is common, thanks to its label friendliness and its ability to strengthen the gluten matrix. The other common additive is GMS, or glycerol monostearate, which is actually a fraction of butter. What it does, he says, is basically have the same end effect as adding egg whiteskeeping the firmness of the product throughout the processing and heating postpurchase but its got a different mechanism for doing it.

As for the increase in thickness for fresh-soup applications, fortunately, it doesnt need to be as large an increase as if you were planning on retorting the soup, Baca-Baldwin says. The pressures exerted in processing fresh soup, vs. any significantly heat-treated retort soup, are going to be lighter. So, you really only need to increase it, say, one-hundredth to two-hundredths of an inch.

That leaves a wider range of shapes to choose from, and when Baca-Baldwin makes soup at home, the rule of thumb that I always use is that you want something smaller than the size of the spoon. His recommendation tops out at a rotini, which is actually ideal for soups because the fins, especially in thinner soups, tend to pull in some of the broth with it. Youre creating more surface area, basically, to attach flavors to the pasta. And, by increasing the surface area, youre making a more-complex bite.

Youre also increasing the pastas potential to absorb water, which requires a recognition on the part of the person processing or preparing the soup of how the pasta needs to be treated, Baca- Baldwin cautions. If youre using a pasta like orzo, for examplesmall rice shapesyou can overcook those and theyre not going to get much bigger or absorb that much more water. But if you overcook rotini excessively, it will absorb slightly more moisture and yet the size increase becomes significant.

Challenging opportunities

Fresh is fleeting, adds Hendren. We cant make a years supply and put it in a warehouse and ship it out from there, he says. His soups promise a shelf life of 60 days from manufacture, but distribution alone can eat away a quarter of that, leaving, in effect, 45 viable days. Lower-pH varieties may tough it out longer, but speaking broadly, anything that has dairy in it is going to have an even shorter shelf life, he says. So, if were going to guarantee the end user that theyve got 45 days on our fresh products, we have to make them and ship them and get them to their destinations throughout the United States and still have that shelf life.

Freshnesss evanescence has a silver lining. Shelf life in a fresh soup is expected to be shorter, Walker points out, and thats OK. Its a price consumers are willing to pay in return for higher-quality ingredientsand, ultimately, higher-quality soups. In fact, some soups simply arent conceivable in a form other than fresh. Gazpacho, a rendition of a chilled tomato soup, is simply not itself if it sees any heat at all, he notes, making it impossible to do correctly in a can.

Manufacturers are capitalizing on fresh, chilled soups to enliven their lines. Weve done chilled fruit soups in the past and have had mild success, McGinnis says. I think the consumer is becoming more aware of the availability of chilled soups. I think for a while they didnt get it. But now theyre getting it, and we did pretty well this summer with Volkers strawberry- and-Champagne and sourcherry soups.

Such unconventional flavors should come as no surprise. As Walker notes: The flavor profiles that work with fresh soups are sometimes more adventurous and allow for greater flexibility than retorted soups do, and the same consumer that appreciates freshness oftentimes appreciates more-unique foods.

This puts the spotlight on global flavors, with classics from the Asian, Latin American and Mediterranean culinary traditions gaining new currency with adventuresome palates. That doesnt preclude giving our own classics the fresh treatment. Thai curry, African peanut stew, chicken noodle and cream of mushroom are all at home in the refrigerated soup case, Walker maintains.

If a product developer is targeting an aromatic, ethnic-inspired soup, using an herbal base would be appropriate, says Hemming. He notes that vegetable and/or herb purées are helpful tools to add bright, fresh herbal and vegetable flavors to soups and stews. The purées are available in everything from garlic and roasted onion to custom profiles, and have chunky particulates, including aromatics like lemongrass and cilantro, which add to the fresh appeal, he says.

Fresh also lets manufacturers take advantage of seasonal themes. We have customers in major grocery-store chains throughout the United States who want their menus refreshed, says Hendren. So, during spring, theyll have cream of asparagus. And theyll have a cream of artichoke that they run through the summer months, he notes. Now the winter months are coming up and were doing chicken and wild riceits heavier, heartier and curried butternut squash soup, apple-butternut squash soup. What is on trend, and what are people going to want during different parts of the year? With todays formulations in the offing, theyll probably want fresh soups, no matter the season.

Kimberly J. Decker, a California-based technical writer, has a B.S. in Consumer Food Science with a minor in English from the University of California, Davis. She lives in the San Francisco Bay area, where she enjoys eating and writing about food. You can reach her at [email protected]

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