Sometimes a recipe comes to you fully formed and perfect – my grandmother’s pimento cheese, the tiny meatballs the church ladies bring to the potluck every fourth Sunday, or the cheese dip from Taqueria del Sol. And sometimes, as is the case with this roasted tomato soup, a recipe is the culmination of many years of tweaking and experimentation – something that is perfect right up until the next time you decide to try just one more little thing.
I’ve always been picky about tomato soup. So many (*cough* Campbells *cough*) have a slick, slippery sweetness that reminds me of melted, slightly vegetal plastic. I need my soup to taste richly of tomato, with a thick, spoonable consistency that sits somewhere between a restaurant-style salsa and a melted milkshake. I want something you can sip from a mug but will still cling thickly to dipped bites of grilled cheese.
Oh, and I want it to come together from pantry staples and canned tomatoes – because ho wants tomato soup in late summer, when fresh tomatoes are actually worth eating?
On the origins of roasted tomato soups
If we look way back along this roasted tomato soup’s phylogenetic tree, I think you’d find this recipe from Smitten Kitchen at the base – though I admit I have never made it with fresh tomatoes as the recipe suggests. It has always come out fine for me, though I never felt it was tomato-y enough – until I came across another recipe from Cook’s Illustrated, which suggested sprinkling the tomatoes with brown sugar to encourage browning and saving the liquid from the canned tomatoes to use as the liquid to thin the soup.
And so my recipe evolved for the first time – I seeded my tomatoes and roasted them with brown sugar, keeping the roasted garlic from the Smitten recipe and adding the kick of sauteéd shallot suggested by Cook’s Illustrated, before pureéing everything together with the liquid I saved from the canned tomatoes, adding chicken stock as necessary to loosen everything up.
This was quickly followed by two more changes.
I rarely have shallot on hand, so I swapped it for yellow onion. I also found that the chicken stock muddied the tomato flavor, so switched to plain water, which had the added benefit of making this vegetable-based soup actually vegetarian.
And the recipe stayed that way for years, until my last semester of college when I was spending my free time reading every cookbook that wasn’t nailed down – and playing a lot with the chemistry of flavor.
Tomatoes are rich in glutamates, the type of amino acid that binds with the “umami” taste receptors on our tongues to produce the full, rich, almost meaty flavors we associate with savory foods. So, incidentally, is soy sauce.
I often use a tablespoon or so of soy sauce in savory dishes as a natural flavor booster, in the same way a food production company might add a sprinkle of MSG to Doritos or Chex Mix. I use it here to reinforce the underlying savoriness of the tomato – you’ll never taste it in the final soup, but it serves to highlight the work we did concentrating the flavor of the tomato by roasting.
That roasting comes with a downside, though. Cooking dulls the vibrant punch you get from biting into a fresh, summer-perfect tomato – while cooked tomatoes are certainly acidic, they lose the brightness we associate with fresh fruits because the citric acid responsible for that sensation degrades somewhat as it is heated. And while we can’t replace that brightness in the final tomato soup exactly, we can certainly simulate it with the addition of another acid – in this case, a few teaspoons of red wine vinegar.
My final tweak wasn’t so much about changing the flavor of the soup as much as it was about changing the way we experience it. About 80 percent of what you taste is actually based on what you smell. Your tongue only has receptors for sweet, salty, sour, savory, and bitter – any other nuance is based on what wafts up the back of your throat into your nose as you chew. This is why food tastes dulled out when you have a stuffy nose from a cold or allergies.
Because alcohol evaporates easily, finishing the roasted tomato soup with a splash of wine or liquor just before serving helps to vaporize some of those olfactory flavor compounds, intensifying the way you experience the smell, and therefore the taste, of the soup. It’s a little sneaky, but it works much better than you might expect. I was shocked by the difference a tablespoon or two of dry vermouth made the first time I tried it.
The final thing I added?
Grilled cheese, for dipping. Obviously.
Roasted Tomato Soup
Time: about 90 minutes Yield: 4 servings Source: The Eighth Street Mess
Depending on how long you roast your tomatoes, how juicy they were, and how thick you like your soup, you may need to add more water than I call for. I would adjust the consistency after you’ve finished pureéing everything.
If you haven’t seasoned tomato soup with vinegar, soy, or dry vermouth before, please go slowly! Taste the soup first to get a baseline, then add each component a teaspoon at a time, tasting after each addition to see how the flavor changes. This way you can customize your soup to your palate without going overboard, and you learn how these techniques might alter other dishes you make in the future.
- 5 cloves garlic
- 2 28 ounce cans whole tomatoes
- 1 tablespoon brown sugar
- Kosher salt
- Ground black pepper
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 medium yellow onion, cut into small dice
- 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flake
- 2 sprigs of fresh basil or 2 teaspoons dried basil leaves
- 1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon dry vermouth or dry sherry
- 2 teaspoons red wine vinegar
Preheat your oven to 400°F.
Wrap the garlic tightly in foil and set aside.
Line a rimmed baking sheet with heavy-duty aluminum foil, and spray the foil down with non-stick spray.
Pour the tomatoes and their juices into a strainer set over a large bowl. Using your hands, break the tomatoes up, removing as much of the inside pulp and seeds as you can. Lay the empty tomato shells flat on the foil-lined baking sheet in a single layer. Sprinkle the tomatoes evenly with the brown sugar, salt, and a healthy amount of black pepper.
Place the packet of garlic on the sheet pan with the tomatoes. Roast until the tops of the tomatoes look dry and are starting to brown around the edges, 30 minutes to an hour. I know that’s not a hugely helpful time frame, but a lot depends on your tomatoes, your oven, and your patience. For reference, my tomatoes were fine to come out after 30 minutes, but I wanted noticeable browning on the edges of the tomatoes, which took another half hour.
Once the tomatoes are in the oven, press any remaining pulp through the strainer. You want as much seedless tomato juice as you can manage. Set the juice aside for now.
When your tomatoes are done roasting, set them aside to cool.
In a large pot or dutch oven, heat the olive oil over medium until it is shimmering. Add the onions and a pinch or two of salt. Sauteé the onions until they start to brown around the edges, then add the red pepper flake and roasted garlic – I just squeeze them out of their skins directly into the pan. Stir that around until the garlic is broken up and the red pepper is fragrant, 30 seconds or so, then add the tomato juice, 1 cup of water, the roasted tomatoes, and basil. Make sure you scrape the bottom of the pot well to get up any stuck brown bits. Bring the whole mixture to a boil over high heat, then cover, drop the heat to low, and simmer for 25 minutes.
Remove the basil, then puree until mostly smooth with an immersion blender. If you don’t have an immersion blender, you can pour the soup into the carafe of your normal blender and go that route – just pop out the center plug and cover the hole with a towel! The built-up heat and steam will blow the lid off and send hot tomato soup all over your kitchen the second you start blending. If it’s too thick for your taste, just add water until the texture is what you’re looking for.
Stir in the soy sauce, vinegar, and sherry. Taste, and adjust as necessary.
This soup will keep, covered, about a week in the refrigerator, or up to six months in the freezer.