I speak often of my excellence as a soup-maker, and for good reason: I'm a delusional braggart. I also make a lot of soup, some of it good, some of it not, and most of it suffering from a classic and confounding soup-stew identity crisis.
The only fully smooth soups I make are lentil-based, because whole lentils are creepy; every other wet meal born on my stovetop features a varying percentage of solid matter, sometimes enough to qualify as stew (unless it contains hot pepper and beans other than garbanzo, in which case I call it chili). For years I've wasted precious energy trying to establish a comprehensive spoon-food taxonomy, energy that would have been better spent simmering and pureeing and remembering to fish out bay leaves.
Well, no more. It's high time I put an end to the infernal soup-stew debate once and for all by declaring that for the rest of my life, or at least for the rest of this article, the words "soup" and "stew" will be used capriciously and interchangeably. Since we're dealing with beef-based products today, I will err heavily on the side of stew, because "beef soup" sounds repulsive.
My original mission was to see if the genre's standard bearer, Dinty Moore Beef Stew, is as good as I remembered it being from my teenhood. But I needed something other than my memories to compare it to, and I rarely cook with beef myself, so the most reasonable option was to find it some shelf-stable competition. This proved slightly more complicated than I'd anticipated, because it turns out that the grocery store is filthy with cans that are almost, but not quite, based on the Dinty Moore model.
Both Progresso and Campbell's Chunky make several soups featuring slightly varied combinations of beef, vegetables, and adjectives. I picked the two that most closely approximated the venerable Dinty Moore formula of beef, carrots, and potatoes: Progresso Rich and Hearty Steak and Roasted Russet Potatoes and Campbell's Chunky Beef with Country Vegetables.
The three stews were of vastly different thicknesses. The Dinty Moore had so little liquid that it splorted out of the can with an unsavory dog-food noise. Progresso was at the other end of the spectrum, with so much broth that it was possible (though unlikely) to scoop up a solid-free spoonful. If I believed in calling anything beef soup, I would call the Progresso beef soup. Campbell's Chunky most closely toed the imaginary line separating stew and soup.
($2.15 for 15 ounces; 200 calories, 10 grams of fat, 10 grams of protein, and 990 milligrams of sodium per 1-cup serving)
The sentimental favorite from Hormel was almost brothless straight out of the can, but once heated on the stovetop a light but sufficient dose of liquid emerged. The broth is starkly salty, with undertones of beef, tomato water, and carrot. The egregiously mushy carrot rounds themselves are almost devoid of flavor. Fortunately, potato chunks outnumber carrots by about three to one; the potatoes are firm by any definition and flavorful as canned potatoes go. Toothsome taters are all well and good, but in the end it brings me no pleasure to report that the Dinty Moore beef was terrible. Large, irregular hunks of grainy, bland, crumbly beef resembled shoddily designed Salisbury steak and left me hating my tongue and doubting my past.
Progresso Rich and Hearty Steak and Roasted Russet Potatoes
($2.50 for 18.5 ounces; 130 calories, 2 grams of fat, 8 grams of protein, and 690 milligrams of sodium per 1-cup serving)
The broth tasted pleasantly of canned gravy, with light onion and garlic powder complementing the beef stock, but the texture was a bit too slick for comfort. The diced carrots were even worse than Dinty Moore's, and the unpeeled potatoes were acceptable but also inferior to the competition; they had a firm but false texture that invoked reconstituted potato flakes. The small pieces of smoky, jerky-tasting beef were few and far between, and they were marred by a crumbly texture reminiscent of soy-based ground beef substitute.
Campbell's Chunky Beef with Country Vegetables
($3 for 18.8 ounces; 120 calories, 3 grams of fat, 7 grams of protein, and 860 milligrams of sodium per 1-cup serving)
This had the best broth by far, with some borderline fresh notes of tomato and celery amid the beef. Chunky was also the only stew in the lineup to make a decent go of the carrots. They're not laughably squishy (though far from firm) and they retain a bit of their original flavor, which is good since this is the only entrant to boast more carrots than potatoes. The potatoes felt good but tasted like nothing at all. Chunky was the only one to deviate by from the beef-potato-carrot plan, with the inclusion of predictably terrible peas and a few stray bits of inconsequential celery.
Bold veggie gambits aside, Campbell's Chunky Beef with Country Vegetables was my favorite because of its superior beef, tiny quater-inch cubes that exhibited the welcome flavor and texture of real, honest-to-goodness steak.