Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Condensed cream soups in the slow cooker: why?

I'm really surprised by the number of slow cooker recipes out there that call for condensed cream of *insert soup here* soup. Why? Do you really need it?

To begin with let's talk about what condensed cream soup really is. Would you be surprised to find out that it's just gravy? That's right! Gravy is a white sauce, cream soup is a white sauce, you're eating gravy as soup! How does that grab ya?

No, I'm not a health food nut, but I am a food realist... not to be confused with an alarmist who would then list all the reasons in the world why cream soups should be banned from the planet. No. I'm not like that. I prefer offering facts and letting everyone decide for themselves what they prefer. I'm not going to force you into my beliefs.

So! The truth is that I love condensed cream soups in food. They give dishes a rich and delicious flavor. In fact, no matter how healthy I could eat, it will never taste as delicious as cream soup, for me. It's also economical. It's all about product and demand. Right now, more people are eating healthier so fewer are eating cream soup. This is good for us rebels who enjoy them. They're cheaper than they were before and they were never all that expensive to begin with.

My first husband was Army and when he was a Private we were dead broke. I mean, not a single dollar in the bank. Our food budget was $30 for two weeks, I kid you not. This meant a lot of cheap meals. One filling meal, though less nutritious but it kept us alive, was condensed cream soup with rice. That was a our meal and you know what? I loved it! However, I digress.

Still, is it really necessary to use them in slow cooker meals? I find it doubtful. Let's look at my go-to cream soup substitute that's way cheaper than a can of soup (I wish I'd known this is my early days), but doesn't have the veggies in it like mushroom soup. I make it chicken, so it's cream of chicken soup base, which can sub for mushroom any 'ol time. This equals exactly one can:
3 tablespoons butter
2 1/2 tablespoons all purpose flour
1 1/4 cups milk
1 1/2 tsp sodium free chicken bouillon powder
  1. Melt the butter, whisk in flour and let cook a couple of minutes, whisking constantly.
  2. Whisk in milk and cook until thick; it'll be VERY thick and will equal a can of undiluted cream of chicken soup.
I've seen recipes for slow cooker stew or roast. They'll tell you to melt butter, whisk in flour and add liquid, stir until thick and then pour it over meat or vegetables. Did you know what a waste of your time, energy and money that is? You're wasting electricity (or gas) by turning on the stove. You're wasting your time when all you really had to do, was put the meat in the bottom, sprinkle the flour on top and stir to coat, then pour the liquid in. Guess what? You just relieved the need for butter too! It will cook and thicken, making its own gravy and you didn't have to use the stove!

The same thing goes for condensed soups. The only real difference is the liquid. You can't use milk. I mean you can, but it will curdle. I mean it WILL curdle. There is no doubt. You can use evaporated milk instead, many recipes mention it, but then you're back to canned goods. You may as well get the cream soup which is probably cheaper if you buy store brands.

However, there are two other options. One is powdered milk. Now before you blanch and run off screaming "yuck" know that you'll probably not notice the difference. It's worth a try. Just combine flour and milk in a small bowl (which can be quickly rinsed off) and like the stew/roast above, sprinkle it over your meat then add water and stir. Heck, if you have broth (homemade because if you resort to canned then we're back to square one) you can use that too. It will give you the same flavor as the cream soup.

If you don't like the powdered milk idea or just didn't like it after you tried it, then you could simply eliminate the milk entirely and use water/homemade broth instead. You may not notice much difference. Just try it and see.

Probably the only recipes I've come across that call for a cream soup that I cannot skip are the ones calling for condensed cream of tomato. I've yet to find a satisfying substitute for it. However, if you have a favorite soup recipe, you can maybe use that.

Condensed soup is really just that, condensed. It has half the liquid the soup would normally have. If you have a tomato soup recipe that is easy, you like and can reduce the liquid by half, then by all means use it. It's been my experience that it's too much work for me on a personal level. If I have to buy canned tomatoes, tomato sauce, or paste to make it, then why didn't I just buy canned soup?!

I did once, in a pinch, use 2 tablespoons of tomato paste in place of chicken bouillon powder in my above condensed soup base and added some sugar. It was okay. Not great. Actually it really wasn't okay. I missed Campbell's on that one.

Anyway, the entire point is to rethink your slow cooker meals. Try looking at it without cream soup and see how much that helps you. Just remember to sprinkle flour and seasonings, stir to coat meat (or veggies), pour liquid in and cook.

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