Photo: Antonis Achilles, Food Styling: Mary Claire Britton and Sarah Epperson; Prop Styling: Prissy Lee

Basic canned soup will be anything but boring with a few simple upgrades. Hint: everything you need is probably in your pantry or fridge right now.

Kimberly Holland
February 19, 2019

Canned soups can pinch-hit for lunch or dinner when you’re looking for a filling, warming meal without a lot of fuss. You can even keep a few cans of soups with pop tops around and heat them up in your workplace microwave for an effortless lunch. In short, canned soup really can be a lifesaver.

But canned soup can also be really boring. Many canned soups are loaded with sodium but somehow manage to still taste a bit flat. You can give new life to a warmed up can of soup with a few quick topping ideas. Most of these are likely in your fridge right now, which means you can be creative and try whatever sounds good in the moment.

1. Protein

You can add heft and interest to almost any type of canned soup with a bit of protein. Meats like chicken, steak, or pork are a great option. (Leftovers are even better.) You can also buy a rotisserie chicken just for the canned soup meal and stir in a few ounces before serving. Cook and crumble up some bacon or sausage for a punch of additional meaty flavor. Try sauteing ham for split pea soup. Even some pan-fried shrimp would be great on canned potato or corn chowder.

If you steer clear of meat, you can turn to vegetarian protein options like eggs and tofu. A poached egg on a bowl of tomatoey pasta e fagioli would be a star. Diced tofu with avocado in a coconut broth-based soup is also a great idea.

2. Vegetables

Do you have some leftover roasted vegetables from last night’s dinner? Adding them to a thick soup is a great way to boost flavor and use up a few ingredients at the same time.

You can also look to your freezer for soup-ready vegetables. Frozen vegetables thaw and warm in the same pan as soup heats. Frozen peas and carrots add heft to minestrone soup. You can boost the veg load of a basic chicken noodle soup with some frozen carrots, onions, or corn. There’s also no shame in adding more vegetables to vegetable and barley soup.

Lastly, if you plan to buy vegetables to add to your soup, look toward the leafy greens. Many greens turn silky and soft in soup as it heats up. Stir baby spinach mix into chicken noodle. Chop up kale or chard, and add it to vegetable beef soup or Italian-style wedding soup.

3. Dairy and Dairy-Free Alternatives

A splash of cream in canned chowder, broccoli cheese soup, or even tomato soup is a revelation. It adds body and a luscious mouthfeel, and a little goes a long way because it’s so rich.

Broth-based soups, however, may not benefit from the addition of cream, so look for dairy-free alternatives that can still boost the richness of a canned soup. Pureed vegetables, like steamed cauliflower, can be stirred into soup for some body and richness. A tablespoon of coconut milk in soups like butternut squash bisque or sweet potato chowder will add a hint of sweetness while making each spoonful feel decadent.

4. Cheese

You don’t have to twist our arms to add cheese to just about any dish—canned soup is no exception. You can make basic canned tortilla soup much more interesting with a sprinkle of pepper jack cheese. A bit of feta cheese with your tomato bisque is unexpected but quite delicious. The same is true for Gruyere on a chicken-corn chowder or a bit of crumbled goat cheese on roasted red pepper soup.

WATCH: How to Make the Ultimate Grilled Cheese Sandwich

5. Herbs

While canned soups sit on grocery store shelves, they lose a bit of zip and zest. You can add that back with something you can grow in your backyard: fresh herbs. A handful of chopped basil on tomato soup adds a pleasant finishing touch, but you might also pine for parsley on chicken-and-pasta soup. Thyme or rosemary would be great on a bean soup or lentil soup. And sage is good for simmering in brothy soups because it imparts flavor quickly but doesn’t overpower.

6. Seasonings and Spices

Your soup is probably already salted, and adding more won’t do much to boost the overall flavor (and it definitely won’t do any favors for your blood pressure). Instead, look for seasonings that enhance the existing flavor, helping the soup taste fresher, without piling on more sodium.  Cumin, red pepper flakes, garlic powder, and smoked paprika are each unique and stand out in canned soups.

Consider a “theme” you want to create with your soup before picking out herbs. Many soups are great bases for whatever you want to add. For example, you can turn chicken noodle soup into a Thai-inspired soup by adding a spoonful of coconut milk, fish sauce, dried cilantro, and a bit of spicy sriracha. Beef and potato stew gets a southwest shake-up with cumin, red pepper, corn, cheese, and tortilla pieces.

7. Grains and Beans

Some broth-based soups lack the heft to be a full meal, but you can up the filling factor by adding in cooked whole grains or beans. Grain options like pre-cooked brown rice, quinoa, and farro won’t turn mushy when heated up in soup, but they’ll make the bowl filling and satisfying.. Beans and legumes like cannellini beans, kidney beans, and lentils, can be poured into a pan and warmed up as the soup simmers. Cook a bit extra of grains or beans when you know you’re planning a canned soup meal so you’ll have the ingredients on hand. If you’re a meal prepper, make a big batch for the week ahead and save a cup for your soup.

8. Bread

DIY some croutons for any soup by spraying bread pieces with cooking oil and tossing with herbs, garlic salt, and pepper. Then brown them in the oven until crispy.

If you only have soft loaf bread, don’t worry. You can make grilled cheese croutons. Use any cheese you like or prefer with the soup. Cook the grilled cheese and let cool slightly before cutting it into bite-sized pieces for the top of the soup.

No bread? No problem. Crunchy toppings aren’t hard to come by in many kitchens. Look for foods like tortilla chips, pretzels, and even popcorn. These may not be as classic as bread, but they provide a bit of bite and a lot of fun.

9. Condiments and Garnishes

The bin full of random condiments and toppings in your fridge is a treasure trove for your soup-topping needs. If you can imagine it, you can make it.

A glug of quality olive oil in split pea soup or tomato bisque adds richness and grassy freshness. You can use sour cream or yogurt for the same type of richness with a bit of tang.

If you have jarred pesto, stir that into soups for a bright, herby finish. Repeat with harissa or tapenade for a super easy boost to basic soup.

Salad toppers also work beautifully with soups: Chopped nuts, seeds, and dehydrated fruit can be used with canned soups, too. 

Last but not least, don’t hesitate to pour on the heat: hot sauces, chili sauces, and sriracha all bring a load of flavor with their hot-and-spicy finish. If you like heat but can’t do fiery peppers, look for slightly milder options like chipotle or green pepper sauce.

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