Alton Brown's Secret Ingredient For Tomato Soup Is A Game-Changer

A steaming bowl of tomato soup can bring great comfort to a cold day, as well as be a relatively easy meal to make. It's also a dish that can benefit from several uncomplicated additions, whether that's sour cream to make a creamy, thick soup or shredded parmesan cheese for some salty richness.

While these are certainly delicious ways to enhance a fairly simple dish, Alton Brown uses a secret ingredient to give his tomato soup some extra life — anchovies. Anchovies are small fish that are typically filleted and packed in oil and are bursting with salty, savory flavor — perfect for upgrading your soup with an umami boost.

If you're worried that adding anchovies is going to affect the soup's texture, think again. All you have to do is add a fillet to your stock when simmering your aromatics. The anchovies tend to dissolve into the mixture, meaning you won't find flakes in your soup. Better yet, you don't need many of them, either. Alton Brown suggests using just one fillet for an entire pot of soup, although you could use more and adjust to your taste.

Why anchovy fillet is such a great addition to tomato soup

If you're worried that an anchovy fillet will add a fishy flavor to your tomato soup, don't panic. Although they're a type of fish, oil-packed anchovies have more of a salty, umami flavor than a seawater one. They have a meaty taste that makes your soup more complex. The reason anchovies taste this way is thanks to the high number of glutamates found in them. Glutamate is an amino acid that gives anchovies (and other foods) an umami taste.

Those rich, earthy, meaty flavors tend to work particularly well with foods that are salty, acidic, and briny. Tomatoes are an acidic food and, as such, benefit from the addition of anchovies. The result is a soup that's balanced and hearty, and that has a bit more depth. At the same time, the aromatics in the soup, such as basil and bay leaf, can also pair well with the earthy notes in the anchovies. 

Other umami bombs to add to your soup

If you don't have anchovies on hand, there are a couple of alternatives you can use to add an umami boost to your soup. One easy option is to add a few drops of fish sauce, which also adds a slightly funky flavor to your soup. Or, you can use Worcestershire sauce, which actually contains anchovies and thus has a similar flavor profile.

Another way to upgrade your tomato soup is to add soy sauce. Like anchovies, soy sauce and other fermented soy products will add a salty and earthy element to your dish. Other soy products you can use include miso paste or umeboshi, which are often available in Asian food stores.

Finally, another option could be to use a different tinned fish, such as sardines or mackerel. Like anchovies, you can get these filleted and ready to pop into your tomato soup for a similar flavor addition. Next time you make tomato soup, give one of these umami ingredients a chance and see how it upgrades a classic.