Try as I might, I've never found a soup more beloved than Panera's broccoli cheese soup. With a Panera in nearly every shopping center, I find myself stopping in between errands with my young kids or meeting my mom and sister at Panera for weekday lunches, and the broccoli cheddar soup is one of my favorite orders. Served in a steamy bread bowl, this soup is a dependable classic that satisfies from the first bite all the way to devouring that bread bowl. Intent on enjoying this cult classic at home, we set out to make a decadent and creamy version at home that rivals the fast-casual classic.
Why Panera Broccoli Cheese Soup?
Panera Bread's soup has something of a cult following. There are numerous copycat recipes, discussions on Reddit boards, and at least one petition on change.org asking Panera Bread to stop using chicken stock in the soup. Why does a seemingly simple soup evoke such a following? The super-creamy, thick, and rich broth is comforting and filling, while the chunks of broccoli and carrots trick the mind into believing this decadence is moderately healthy. Serving it in a bread bowl with its crackly crust and tender inside certainly helps too. It's pure comfort. (And comfort always garners devotion.)
Better than Panera?
One major complaint people have about the soup is that it is not vegetarian because it is made with chicken stock. I've called for vegetable broth here, although you could certainly use chicken stock if the vegetarian factor isn't a priority for you. Vegetable stock will enhance the flavor of the broccoli and carrot, while chicken stock will give the cheddar base a more savory flavor.
Our broccoli cheese soup beats Panera on two other fronts: cost and calories.
- Four two-cup servings of Panera's soup will set you back about $24, while this recipe costs as little as $20 for four servings of the same size depending on the cheese and broccoli you purchase.
- Calorie-wise this soup goes head to head with Panera as written, but if you want to use milk instead half-and-half or substitute lower-fat cheese, that part of the nutrition puzzle is completely in your hands.
The Best Way to Cook Broccoli for Broccoli Cheese Soup
All broccoli being equal, you could roast or steam the broccoli florets before adding to the soup, but cooking the broccoli in the half-and-half and broth infuses the liquid with the broccoli's flavor. This keeps the soup decidedly broccoli- and cheese-flavored, rather than a creamy, cheesy soup with broccoli in it. As an added bonus, cooking the broccoli in the soup's base keeps this dish a one-pot recipe.
Want the soup faster? Use pre-cut fresh or frozen broccoli florets and the pre-shredded carrots from the produce section.
Puréeing the Soup
Puréeing the soup gives it its creamy texture without any additional thickeners. I like a smoother soup, but you can leave some small pieces of broccoli florets and carrots for texture to be true to the original soup. For larger chunks of broccoli florets, scoop out a few choice pieces of broccoli before puréeing and just toss them back in before adding the cheese.
Making a Broccoli Cheese Soup Bread Bowl
The bread bowl seems to be part of the appeal of the Panera Bread broccoli cheddar soup. You may have to scout a few grocery stores or bakeries to find a loaf of bread that is an appropriate size. The ideal size for the bread bowl is seven to eight inches in diameter. This should be a sufficient size to hold a serving, although loaf sizes vary. If you're searching for the right loaf by weight, a four-ounce loaf was on the small side, so look for six- to eight-ounce loaves for the best fit.
How To Make Better-than-Panera Broccoli Cheese Soup
Makes 8 servings
What You Need
(1/4 cup) unsalted butter
diced onion (from 1 medium onion)
diced celery (from 3 to 4 stalks)
low-sodium chicken or vegetable broth
julienned or shredded carrots (about 4 ounces)
dry mustard powder
freshly ground black pepper
freshly grated nutmeg
shredded sharp cheddar cheese (about 3 1/4 cups), plus more for serving
hot sauce, plus more for serving
personal-sized loaves sourdough bread (6 to 8 ounces each), for serving (optional)
3 1/2- to 4-quart Dutch oven
Measuring cups and spoons
Immersion or stand blender
Sauté the aromatics: Melt the butter in a 3 1/2- to 4-quart Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the onion, celery, and salt and sauté until softened and lightly browned around the edges, 8 to 10 minutes. Add the garlic and sauté for 1 minute more.
Make the roux and add the broth: Sprinkle the flour over the vegetables and cook, stirring constantly, for 2 minutes to cook the flour and remove any raw starch flavor. Slowly whisk in the half-and-half and broth, scraping up any browned bits from the bottom of the pot.
Cook the vegetables: Add the broccoli, carrots, mustard powder, pepper, and nutmeg. Stir to combine and submerge as many of the vegetables as possible. Cover and simmer, reducing the heat as needed, until the vegetables are tender, 20 to 30 minutes.
Prepare the bread bowls: Cut a 1/4-inch-thick slice from the top of your bread. Scoop out the bread from the center of the loaf, leaving 1/2 to 3/4 inch of bread around the edges and bottom. Reserve the top and interior of bread for another use, such as croutons or breadcrumbs. Set bread bowls aside.
Purée the soup: Remove the soup from the heat. Purée to desired consistency with an immersion blender. (Alternatively, purée the soup in batches in a stand blender.) For a texture similar to the original soup, remove some of the carrots and broccoli first, then stir back in with the cheese.
Add the cheese: Return the soup to low heat. Slowly whisk in the cheese, a handful at a time, allowing each addition of cheese to melt before adding the next.
Taste and season: Whisk in the hot sauce, then taste and season with additional salt or pepper as needed.
Serve: Ladle into the bread bowls and top with more shredded cheddar cheese and hot sauce.
Storage: Store leftover soup in the fridge for up to 3 days for best taste. Reheat gently over low heat to avoid scorching.