Why You'll Always Find a Can of Cream of Mushroom Soup in My Pantry

It’s there for emergencies, but also to remind me where I came from.

Can of Campbell's Cream of Mushroom Soup

Simply Recipes / Campbell's

Have you ever opened a can of cream of mushroom soup with the intention to make and eat soup? Perhaps this is the better question: has anyone? I’d guess most American consumers consider condensed cream of mushroom soup as an ingredient, not a meal. It is the makings of a meal. Specifically, casseroles. 

Canned Cream of Mushroom Soup Represents Endless Possibilities

When my parents were first married, my mom pressed homemade tortillas and preserved homegrown tomatoes. Years later as a working parent, she found solace in Bisquick and a 9 x 13-inch pan. She bought cans of cream soup by the dozen when they were on sale. It could be cream of mushroom, or chicken, or celery; in terms of casseroles, they are interchangeable—another quality adding to their stress reduction value. 

Her pantry held towers of condensed cream of mushroom soup for the rotating cast of casseroles that she made in that excruciating sliver of time between the end of the workday and when dinner hits the family table. Eventually, it became my chore to make those casseroles. We loved them then. I still have a soft spot for them now. 

While going through old family files, my mom found a list of dinner recipes she had me write out when I was about eleven. It’s on plain notebook paper with “Mom’s Ideas for Dinner” scrawled across the top. One of the recipes, bearing the clunky name “My Grandma’s Chicken Casserole,” was clearly a big favorite. It’s the sort of salty, pale assemblage that appeals to timid palates: chicken breasts, a stick of butter, a package of Pepperidge Farm seasoned stuffing, and a can of cream of mushroom soup, all crowned with grated Swiss cheese. 

List of recipe ideas

Simply Recipes / Sara Bir

The recipe came from The Betsey Mills Club Cookbook, a spiral-bound community cookbook published in 1985 in my hometown of Marietta, Ohio. Its 70 pages of main dish recipes contain no less than 18 that call for at least one can of condensed soup. Here’s a highlight reel.

  • Tuna Tetrazzini
  • Sherried Parmesan Chicken
  • Chicken Spectacular
  • Creamy Broccoli Chicken Bake
  • Chicken Mexican Casserole
  • Baked Tuna Chow Mein
  • Elegant Turkey Stroganoff
  • Eggs Portuguese

That’s not the way I cook now at all, but if the opportunity presented itself, I would eat any of those in a heartbeat. Here on Simply Recipes, we have similar, canless analogs of many of the casserole recipes in the The Betsey Mills Club Cookbook. Only one calls for a can of condensed cream of mushroom soup: Classic Tuna Noodle Casserole

We bill many of our casserole recipes as being “from scratch;”; we even have a recipe for homemade cream of chicken soup. Which hopefully does not come off as smug. The last thing I’d want is for anyone to think I’m trying to pass off my canless casserole as more noble than the over-acheiver’s version. The can of cream of mushroom I keep around now is dual in purpose. It’s there for emergencies, but also to remind me where I came from.

Cream of Mushroom Soup Is Really Just Store-Bought Bechamel

As far as its role in the anatomy of a hearty American mid-century casserole, condensed cream of mushroom soup is essentially mushroom-flavored bechamel in a can. Bechamel is one of the mother sauces of classical French cuisine, and at its core it’s nothing more than milk cooked with a paste of butter and flour until it’s thick and creamy. Three ingredients, not counting salt. Add mushrooms and pepper and you’re up to five. 

Bechamel is easy to make. It also requires the use of a saucepan and whisk, both of which get a slight gluey coating as the bechamel that inevitably clings to the rim of the pan and the ribs of the whisk cools down. There are nights when washing a pot and whisk gooped up with coagulated white sauce are deal breakers. We’ve all been there. 

For the exchange of convenience, that ingredient listing of five for homemade bechamel with mushrooms goes up to 13 when you reach for the can. At least that’s what’s in Campbell’s Condensed Cream of Mushroom, the definitive example of the genre. There’s a solid argument that homemade sauce is far more wholesome, but what’s the point of getting stuck in an aspirational vacuum? Sometimes we just need to get a meal on the table. 

I am a Midwesterner who grew up in the 1980s, and Cream of X Casseroles are my birthright (X representing the variable of chicken, celery, or mushroom). For a time this represented a spiritual hollowness to me, but I’ve come around. I don’t even have to make them or show up at a church potluck to appreciate them, because casseroles march on strong, existing in an overlapping zone of cultures and beliefs that we don’t hear about much in today’s America. Casseroles keep it real. 

There’s another tuna noodle recipe here on Simply Recipes, one made from scratch. I created our take on canless tuna noodle, and I must admit, it’s good. If you add the optional miso to the mushroom-laced bechamel, it’s really good. How satisfying that we offer one of each: tuna noodle sans can, tuna noodle dependent on the can. Whether present, past, or future, it’s a worthwhile goal to welcome all casseroles at the table.