Sunday, July 25, 2010

Apple #473: Bisques

I was trading e-mails with a friend of mine -- Mercutio, actually, from the fainting entry.  He was talking about tomato soup, and I said I liked Campbell's Tomato Bisque.  He said, "I love a good Tomato Bisque.  Even though I have no idea what makes it 'bisque'." 

Thus a Daily Apple is born.

This is a crab bisque with hunks of extra crab in the middle.
(The recipe looks really easy. Combine two cans of soup plus your favorite shellfish plus sherry and Worcestershire sauce. Photo and recipe from Thutmose Solomon.)

  • A bisque is a soup that's usually made with shellfish, been thickened with cream and then puréed. 
  • It may also have wine or cognac.  It may also have vegetables.  But usually the three necessary components for a soup to reach bisque status are shellfish, cream, and having been puréed.
  • To get the most flavor into a bisque, many chefs leave the shells on the shellfish during the cooking process. 
  • A chowder is close to a bisque, but it hasn't been puréed. 
  • Making a bisque used to be far more complicated, time-consuming, and difficult.  Here is the traditional French method described by Ochef:
The preparation of a bisque is no small achievement. It involves marinating the shellfish of your choice in a sherry-infused court-bouillon [a type of broth] overnight, cooking the fish in the court-bouillon with tomatoes, removing the fish and pounding it to a purée in a mortar and pestle, passing the purée through a sieve back into the bouillon and simmering it for a couple of hours. Finally, the hot soup is whisked into a tureen where three (not two, not four) beaten egg yolks are waiting, after which some cream and brandy or sherry is added. 
  • This demanding recipe is probably why it used to be the case, if you saw a bisque on the menu, you knew you were at the finest of French restaurants.  And you'd probably have to pay scads of money for that bowl of soup.
  • Perhaps the most commonly known bisque is the lobster bisque.  Often its presence on a menu today, whether it is prepared according to those traditional instructions or not, still signifies an upper class meal. 
A lot of lobster bisques have the creamy puréed broth, but then people also put chunks of lobster and maybe other shellfish into it. This one seems to be more like a "true" lobster bisque with a hunk of lobster tail added as a garnish.
(Photo and soup from Heller's Sea Food Market, which sells a bowl of this bisque for $6.99)

  • In the case of lobster bisque, many chefs remove the shells before cooking so that nobody bites into a stray chip of tough lobster shell.  But some chefs still leave the lobster shells on, and they purée the shells along with everything else.  They say that without the shells, the flavor just isn't as good.
  • After reading all these definitions of bisques, I started to wonder about my good friend, Campbell's Tomato Bisque.  I went downstairs and got a can out of my cupboard and checked the label.

Sells for $19.55 for a pack of 12 cans on Amazon.

  • They've got the cream in there, and they've got the purée, but there's no shellfish.  
  • I suppose they wouldn't be able to sell as much of the soup if they put any kind of shellfish flavor in it.  Too many concerns about allergies, and maybe not enough people like shellfish either.
  • Considering that Campbell's sells their tomato bisques for about $1.75, I'm going to bet that, in addition to not using shellfish, they don't marinate anything overnight or pound anything with a mortar and pestle, or whisk anything into a tureen.  
  • Well, maybe they use some gigantic industrial-sized vat with a mixing paddle as big as your head.

This is a 60-gallon processor used by Campbell's in one of their manufacturing plants.  You can see the mixing paddle on the floor next to it.  This particular one was purchased in 1975 and it's been decommissioned.  If you want to buy it, they're offering it for sale on their asset recovery site.

    • If you made your own bisque, you wouldn't need a machine that big.  Even if you didn't marinate anything or use any shellfish, as long as there was cream involved and you puréed it, I think you could call it a bisque and the soup police wouldn't come arrest you.

    The recipe for this tomato bisque doesn't include shellfish, though it does call for chicken broth.  It also has butter and cream and sugar. Yum. Still, I think the key to making a good tomato soup would be to allow it to cook slowly, for a long time. That would reduce the acidity in the tomatoes and coax out the sweetness.
    (Recipe for and photo of tomato bisque from

    • Well, I don't actually know if the food police have a department dedicated solely to soup.  But here are the food police at work in London:

    Actually it's just the regular East London police closing down a take-out restaurant because a law was passed recently forbidding the sale of fast food within so many meters of schools.  But you never know when the food police might darken your doorstep and say, "Ma'am, we've received information that you're making a chowder and calling it bisque."  
    (Photo from the Daily Mail)

    I think if there really were a soup police, it would be Alton Brown.

    Sources, definitions of Bisque
    Wise Geek, What is Bisque?
    O Chef, Difference Between a Bisque and a Chowder


    1. But what about the soup nazi?

    2. He's just re-opened his store!

    3. P.S. And he sells crab bisque.

    4. Yum. But if I don't get any bread...

    5. Lobster bisque is soooo yummy! Costco sells a delicious version with no preparation required other than heating it up!


    If you're a spammer, there's no point posting a comment. It will automatically get filtered out or deleted. Comments from real people, however, are always very welcome!