Every Soup At Panera Bread, Ranked

It's soup season, y'all, and perhaps no restaurant is better known for its soup than fast casual chain Panera Bread.

Panera Bread is a bakery and cafe whose distinction is its fresh baked bread, featured in its menu of sandwiches, salads, and bread bowls. Over 25 years, customers have developed a fondness for the chain's relaxed atmosphere, coffee, baked goods, and lunch offerings. The chain has remained relatively small, too, with only about 2,000 locations nationwide—compare that to Starbucks, which has well over 15,000. Panera wields a weapon Starbucks doesn't, however: soup and lots of it.

Soup can make the difference between a restaurant feeling like a grab-and-go spot versus a sit-down one. Soup requires bowls, silverware, and a place to sit down and slurp, unlike the fare you can more easily wolf down behind the wheel of a car. There's a reason why the average age of the clientele inside a Panera Bread often seems to push 60. And when it comes to soup, Panera offers more options than most.

Currently, there are seven different types of soup available at Panera Bread. Each one comes with a side (either an apple, toasted baguette, or bag of chips). For $6.79, a cup of soup and a hunk of bread is a refreshingly affordable and balanced fast casual meal. I'm a fan of Panera Bread's soups. They don't all taste good, but as a concept, it rocks.

In order to make sure you don't put that $6.79 toward a lackluster soup, I tasted them all, and I've ranked them from worst to best. Here are the results.

7. Bistro French Onion Soup

The description on Panera's website will have you believe this is French onion soup made by some cheffy Culinary Institute of America graduate. "Sweet caramelized onions in a savory broth with a sherry vinegar gastrique," it reads. A gastrique. Where did Panera learn that word?

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Do not be fooled by Panera's prose — this is the most low-rent French onion soup you'll ever have. The onions have zero caramelization; they look and taste lightly simmered. The flavor is harsh. The broth isn't savory, but watery. There is no sweetness from sherry wine, the croutons are middling, and my order was lacking the cheese, too.

There is just no substitute for a good bowl of French onion soup, nor does the dish exist along any sort of spectrum; it's either made well or made poorly. Without veal or beef stock, good wine, flavorful crunchy croutons, and properly caramelized onions that turn jammy, it's just not a proper French onion soup. This is a bottom-tier option, and one you should always skip. Hell, Panera needs to replace it altogether.

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6. Homestyle Chicken Noodle Soup

Canned chicken noodle soup isn't the worst thing in the world, and that's exactly the vibe of Panera's Homestyle Chicken Noodle Soup: familiar, classic, and loaded with sodium. That saltiness is a recurring theme among Panera soups, but it works. The chicken here is refreshingly a step up from most soups, too, chunks of breast meat that are hearty and tender. The broth tastes weird, almost musty, and the carrots and egg noodles are both cooked to absolute oblivion. But hey, it's chicken noodle soup. The bar is set fairly low, especially if you're used to Campbell's and Progresso. With a side of crusty bread, it's fine.

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Panera's product copy indicates the chicken noodle soup is made with bone broth, but there's almost zero chicken flavor to the broth itself. You can eat canned chicken soup at home. Skip it at Panera Bread.

5. Creamy Tomato Soup

Panera's Creamy Tomato Soup is bright, tangy, and viscous. It's also, once again, pretty damn salty. Hey, at least Panera seasons its soups properly. Proper seasoning goes a long way, and I would say it's the most important element of a good soup. I'm glad that Panera understands this, but I wish the Creamy Tomato Soup had some basil, or maybe even some black pepper. The description lists oregano and hints of red pepper, but it's barely present. For a fast casual cafe that prides itself on fresh baked bread, the croutons could be tastier, too.

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Still, it's certainly better than the French onion and chicken noodle. If you've had one creamy tomato soup, you've had them all. It succeeds because it's a proper blend of cream and tomato puree. Creamy, tangy, and sweet is all tomato soup needs to be to be adequate. This won't blow your mind, and it would probably stand out more if it contained some of the aforementioned basil or black pepper.

4. Cream of Chicken & Wild Rice Soup

All of Panera's cream-based soups have a gloppy, gelatinous texture that I assume comes from the use of slurry or other thickening agents. If you shake the bowl holding this cream of chicken soup, it'll jiggle like a bowl of porridge. Call me old fashioned, but soup shouldn't jiggle. Especially while it's hot.

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However, the Cream of Chicken & Wild Rice soup works because every ingredient is chopped to be the same size. There's something satisfying about getting a little bit of everything in a single spoonful. The rice, chicken, carrot, celery, and onion all fit snugly into your utensil, making every bite delicious. It's filling and substantial, too. For the price, this is a great option.

3. Turkey Chili

Panera's turkey chili does exactly what it's supposed to: overwhelm you with aromatics and meatiness. Every spoonful is hearty, with chunks of ground turkey, carrots, kidney beans, and chickpeas. The broth is full of tomato flavor and herbs, too.

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The turkey chili stock is made with tomatillos, tomatoes, edamame, carrots, cilantro, cumin, and lime, which makes for a surprisingly flavorful broth. The cumin flavor is strongest, but the hints of lime and cilantro are perceptible, too. I thought the turkey chili was completely satisfying. The only knock on it is that the chunks of ground turkey were quite small.

Oh, and the chickpeas are a great call. Their firm texture plays wonderfully in a chili. Well done, Panera.

2. Broccoli Cheddar Soup

For many loyalists, this is the reason you go to Panera.

As opposed to French onion soup, a low-rent version of broccoli cheddar is just fine. Panera's is rather gelatinous (and thus less cheesy), but it's still deeply satisfying. The cheese sauce features more roux or slurry than cheese, but the flavor and texture are still quite good. The chunks of broccoli are less prevalent than in the picture, but all in all this is a hearty, cheesy cup of soup that's going to hit the spot come winter. It's one that Panera fans love to pair with a bread bowl, and it holds up for a reason. There's only one soup on the menu that beats it.

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1. Vegetarian Autumn Squash Soup

A seasonal soup available in the fall, the Vegetarian Autumn Squash Soup is just delightful. It's a mix of squash and pumpkin blended with vegetable stock, then finished with sweet cream, making for a thick, sweet, and velvety smooth experience. It's also garnished with pepitas, so you get a little bit of crunch there, too. The overwhelming flavor, though, is sweetness. There's the natural sweetness from the squash, but then also from the addition of apple juice and honey. There's an added dash of curry powder, too, for a warm earthiness on the back end. All in all, this is just a wonderful fall soup, and it strays away from the gloppiness of some of Panera's other offerings. It's not available year round, but dammit, it should be.

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