It’s winter, and that means soup is top of mind. For many people—myself included—thoughts of soup and fast-casual eatery Panera Bread go hand-in-hand.
The combination bakery-café got its start in St. Louis circa 1987 with an initial focus on selling fresh-baked bread. Somewhere along the line, soup became a cornerstone menu item, gaining popularity at the chain’s nationwide restaurants—perhaps even more than the bread itself? Classics such as Homestyle Chicken Noodle, Creamy Tomato, and Broccoli Cheddar are on the docket. And, every year and season seems to bring a new flavor to try.
Panera has plenty of soup variety, and it’s something the chain does very well. But, when pitted against each other, which one reigns supreme?
To find out, I paid a visit to my nearest Panera in Columbus, Ohio, for a soup taste test—perfect timing as this year’s bout of bitterly cold weather barreled into the region. I ordered a cup of every single soup on the menu for $7.29 each (plus my free side, of course). At the time, this included eight different kinds. I originally saw nine on the menu but was disappointed to learn the Chicken Tikka Masala had sold out.
With every spoonful of steamy soup, I considered the qualities of each option and found one clear winner. Let’s jump into the rankings in order from least to most adored.
Homestyle Chicken Noodle Soup
PER 1 CUP: 100 calories, 2 g fat (0.5 g saturated fat), 1040 mg sodium, 11 g carbs (0 g fiber, 3 g sugar), 10 g protein
Soup, as a category, is a quintessential comfort food, and chicken noodle is likely the most comforting of them all. It strikes a perfect balance of warm broth, nourishing chicken, tender noodles, and other flavors—all thrown together in a way that warms the soul and cures just about anything.
Any bakery, café, or bistro worth its salt has its own version of this established classic sloshed on its menu, and Panera Bread is no different. The chain’s Homestyle Chicken Noodle Soup is one you can order year-round and consists of a standard mix of white meat chicken, egg noodles, carrots, celery, onion, and herbs.
The look: Sad and oily. I wasn’t impressed when I popped the lid off this one. The broth is a light yellow shade, and it somehow looks both translucent and murky. Beads of oil can also be seen forming in the stock—something that is fairly normal but still a little off-putting. The chicken is standard white meat that comes in good-sized hunks and is surrounded by yellow-tinted egg noodles, bright orange carrots, and specks of herbs like pepper, thyme, and parsley. I’d say the soup as a whole is a little light on ingredients—a ratio of about 50/50, broth to other elements.
The taste: I didn’t feel soothed by this soup at all. The base is thin, watery, and dull as dishwater. Veggies are scarce. And, the chicken is nearly tasteless and dry, despite soaking in its briny bath. One highlight is the egg noodles. They are firm yet easily chewed, and I have an admitted soft spot for them as they’re one of my favorite kinds of noodles. This small win isn’t enough to save the rest of this soup, and overall it’s not one of the cafe’s best showings. I would recommend sticking to your grandma’s recipe next time you’re feeling under the weather.
10 Vegetable Soup
PER 1 CUP: 60 calories, 1 g fat (0 g saturated fat), 730 mg sodium, 10 g carbs (3 g fiber, 4 g sugar), 3 g protein
If you’re looking for Panera’s most health-forward soup option, in addition to one of the healthiest items on the entire menu, then you’ve found it. The 10 Vegetable Soup is exactly what it sounds like: a plant-based stock filled with—you guessed it—many different kinds of vegetables. Tomatoes, onions, corn, carrots, celery, spinach, yellow and red peppers, and chickpeas represent and live in harmony with brown rice and sprouted red fife.
The look: It’s darker than many vegetable soups. But, it’s teeming with veggies in shades of green to yellow to red, all congregating in this thin, rust-colored broth. I don’t want to be too critical or graphic, but it reminds me of something a clogged kitchen sink would regurgitate.
The taste: I would refer to this as an “everything but the kitchen sink” kind of soup, and it tastes like it. I can appreciate a heaping cup full of fresh vegetables, but there are too many things going on in the soup. All the conflicting flavors get lost in translation, and they end up with the same mushy texture. The only element I could pick out was the firmer chickpeas, as well as the strange earthy taste soaked into every bite. I assume this was the cumin or dried Aleppo chili peppers, but either way, it’s not a taste I prefer.
Creamy Tomato Soup
PER 1 CUP: 260 calories, 16 g fat (9 g saturated fat), 760 mg sodium, 25 g carbs (0 g fiber, 11 g sugar), 4 g protein
Tomato is a real workhorse of a soup. It does its job quietly, never attracting too much attention. But, it’s reliable and never too far away when those cravings hit or when you need something warm on a chilly fall or winter day. Panera’s recipe starts with vine-ripened pear tomatoes—a type of sweet heirloom tomato—and features whipping cream, extra virgin olive oil, butter, onions, and an array of subtle spices to round it out.
The look: A muted orange-red color—much less vibrant of a hue than fresh tomatoes. The whole soup looks uniform and flecks of spice or other add-ins don’t stick out. Black pepper and sea salt croutons come as embellishments and sit atop the soup without sinking due to its high viscosity.
The taste: Like a big serving of pasta sauce. I know tomato soup and pasta sauce are similar (they’re both puréed tomatoes when it comes down to it). Something about this cup reads very sauce-like to me. It could be the consistency. It’s smooth and somewhere in between thin and thick, but it also has juicy tomato chunks throughout. I think a touch more cream and an extra sprinkling of spices like oregano and red pepper would be the perfect remedy. I do think the croutons help to zhuzh it up a bit and add a welcome layer of added texture.
All in all, it is what it is: a basic and straightforward tomato soup. It would pair well with melty grilled cheese—and Panera serves a rather tasty one.
Vegetarian Autumn Squash Soup
PER 1 CUP: 210 calories, 11 g fat (5 g saturated fat), 800 mg sodium, 27 g carbs (3 g fiber, 22 g sugar), 5 g protein
The Vegetarian Autumn Squash is one of Panera’s seasonal soups. Despite its name, it has stuck around into winter. Perhaps the soup has gained favor with customers and continues to be a hot menu item—in more ways than one.
Straight from the mouth of Panera, the soup is “a rich blend of butternut squash and pumpkin simmered in vegetable broth with select ingredients, including honey, apple juice, cinnamon and a hint of curry, and finished with sweet cream and topped with roasted and salted pumpkin seeds.”
The look: In color, it’s not dissimilar from the tomato soup, but in the burnt orange shade of butternut squash. A cluster of pumpkin seeds sits on top to distinguish it, and other dark freckles can be seen—presumably spices.
The taste: This is my first time trying squash soup, and the sweetness threw me off. Flavors like cinnamon and turmeric consumed my entire palate after taking that first bite. It felt like I was eating a dessert—a warm, liquefied pumpkin pie. Once I got accustomed to the flavor, it morphed into something more creamy and pleasant. It does taste like fall poured into a cup. I don’t think I could eat the entire serving, and not an entire bowl.
PER 1 CUP: 200 calories, 7 g fat (3 g saturated fat), 460 mg sodium, 20 g carbs (9 g fiber, 6 g sugar), 14 g protein
The Turkey Chili at the café joins Autumn Squash as a cyclical offering that comes around in fall and winter. The turkey, raised sans antibiotics, is all dark meat. Red kidney beans and chickpeas give an extra dose of plant-based protein. Tomatoes, corn, carrots, green chilies, onions, and edamame also make the list. The entire stew sits in a stock of ancho and pasilla—two varieties of mildly spiced chilies.
The look: Thick and chunky, just like a good chili ought to be. The broth resolves to a deep auburn color, and the entire gamut of colorful vegetables and other ingredients can be identified swimming on top.
The taste: Savory and filling. It’s a classic take on the dish that reminds me of my mom’s chili recipe, giving it a comforting nostalgia factor. The beans and vegetables exude a nice texture between too firm and too soggy, and it’s not spicy like some chilis. I would prefer more spice, actually—which is a rich sentiment coming from me—or a pinch more seasoning (but less cumin) for added flavor.
The one thing I found odd was that there appeared to be pieces of ground turkey in the soup. I also came across some flat, thin pieces of meat that looked more like shreds. Both tasted just fine and not grisly, but seemed incongruous.
Bistro French Onion Soup
PER 1 CUP: 190 calories, 8 g fat (3.5 g saturated fat), 1300 mg sodium, 22 g carbs (2 g fiber, 11 g sugar), 7 g protein
When it comes to cuisine, the French do a lot of things right, and this breed of soup is one shining example. Its rare combination of affordability, simplicity, and savoriness are what make it so universally sought-after and why it’s one of my personal favorites. I order a crock almost every time I see it listed on a restaurant menu and have indulged in Panera’s rendition more times than I can remember.
As is the case with most French onion soups, the chain’s version is made up of caramelized onions in a broth of sherry wine vinegar gastrique and stock—specifically chicken in this case. Ground puréed tomatoes, tomato sauce, and soy sauce are also included. Fontina and mozzarella cheeses and croutons are the icing on top.
The look: This isn’t the most attractive of soups. While some French onion soups come with a bubbly and delicious cheese layer on top, Panera’s looks less put together—a cup of brownish liquid and onions. The croutons do improve its presentation.
The taste: What this soup lacks in looks, it makes up for in taste 100 times over. The onions have perfectly cooked down, with no trace of bitterness. They were a tad on the crunchier side compared to what I’ve had in the past, but it’s a minor slip-up in the grand scheme of soup. I could drink the broth straight up, and it offers a flawless balance of vinegary, garlicky, savory, and sweet flavors. I’m a sucker for a good cheese pull, and the mozzarella blend delivers a few–they were understated but present.
Pro tip: Make sure to forgo the apple or chips and add a French baguette as your side. French bread with your French soup only makes sense, right? The broth soaks into the crusty bread, creating a heavenly pairing that does more favors for the soup than the seasoned croutons.
Cream of Chicken and Wild Rice Soup
PER 1 CUP: 190 calories, 10 g fat (5 g saturated fat), 940 mg sodium, 18 g carbs (2 g fiber, 5 g sugar), 5 g protein
Along with Autumn Squash, this Cream of Chicken and Wild Rice is one of Panera’s few soups that deviate from the other more well-known staples. It’s a healthier choice on the menu—despite its inclusion of heavy cream—and is chock-full of white meat chicken, celery, onion, carrots, and cabbage. Both long grain and wild rice come together in the dish, giving the soup not only its name but also its body and robustness.
The look: A deep cream color and unbelievably dense. It barely wiggled at all when I shook it lightly in the cup. Once stirred, I could see a hearty amount of chicken and other ingredients. Stinginess is not at play here.
The taste: I think this may be one of Panera’s most underrated menu items. It has the rich creaminess of the chain’s Broccoli Cheddar soup. It includes both chicken and rice, so it eats more like a meal and provides a higher level of nutrition. It was difficult to decipher exactly what was in each bite, but that didn’t matter because every taste was delicious. The chicken is fresh and plump, and the consistency resembles chicken and dumplings, which I adore. I enjoyed every bit of it, and can confidently say it is miles ahead of the other chicken-based soup Panera offers (looking at you, chicken noodle).
Broccoli Cheddar Soup
PER 1 CUP: 230 calories, 15 g fat (12 g saturated fat), 980 mg sodium, 16 g carbs (1 g fiber, 6 g sugar), 8 g protein
If there’s one Panera soup that is unlikely to slip off the menu anytime soon it’s the Broccoli Cheddar. The fusion of cheesy sauce with chopped broccoli and shredded carrots is an instant favorite. The dish now has something of a cult following in the U.S. Did you know you can flaunt your broccoli cheese obsession outwardly through the chain’s cheesy swimsuit collection? That’s right. “Pick two” takes on a whole new meaning with mix-and-match bathing suit separates for men and women.
The look: Akin to the Cream of Chicken and Wild Rice Soup. It comes in nearly the same light yellow to cream color and shares a similar level of thickness. Its distinguishing factor is the green broccoli heads and florets peeking out from below the surface.
The taste: It’s a fan favorite for a reason. Digging into the cup is like accepting a warm, cheesy hug. The soup is velvety and buttery, and the broccoli is so nice and soft that it practically melts in your mouth. There is also plenty of it—something which has held for all of my Panera soup indulgences. The chain does not skimp on that front. Top everything off by dipping a baguette into the smooth liquid, and you’re golden.
This Broccoli Cheddar soup never seems to miss. It’s the first item I think of when I think of Panera, and it will forever hold a special place in my heart.