Cheeseburger Soup (gluten-free, Velveeta-free)

You guys, this soup was such a pleasant surprise, although after making it, I can’t imagine how the original poster of the recipe managed to make it photogenic. The recipe caught my eye on Pinterest and I’d planned to make it for a Happy Hour night a few weeks ago, but then T got a flu bug and we cancelled so as not to share the buggy love, and then we had things going on for the next two weeks, and so here we are, three or four weeks later and I’ve got the meat already-browned in one bag in the freezer and the veggies all chopped up in another bag in the freezer, and I’d even frozen part of a bag of shredded cheese from Costco, so I pretty much just had to throw things together and put them on the stove.

Except, the big wrench, the big unknown, was that this soup calls for Velveeta and I sort of grimace every time I think about having my family (and friends, though some of them might not be bothered as much as I am) ingest that much processed cheese “food.” So, I set about trying to figure out how to get the same flavor and texture of a block of Velveeta without having the cheese turn into a weird gloppy mess in the soup. There’s actually a lot of science behind getting cheese to melt perfectly and smoothly in a sauce or soup. Think about how cheese melts when you add it to a bowl of chili, and then imagine that in a pot of soup – yuck!  If you’re curious, my two main sources were this post from America’s Test Kitchen about making American cheese and this post from Serious Eats about making nacho cheese sauce.

I ended up taking the Serious Eats route, mostly because I didn’t need the solidified hunk of cheese that the Test Kitchen’s route would produce and gelatin in soup sounds weird; I just needed an emulsified cheese mixture that wouldn’t separate and congeal when added to soup. An added factor was that I was planning to make the soup gluten free (a single recipe calls for 1/4 c flour to thicken it), so I figured that I could kill two birds with one stone in making the cheese sauce.

If you’re okay with Velveeta, skip all of this and go straight to the recipe. If you’re curious how I subbed it out for real cheese, read on. Also, note that this recipe was for a double-batch of the soup (which was completely inhaled by our crowd, by the way).  I started by heating a can of evaporated milk in a medium saucepan. I also added about 3/4 c cream, because I had it and needed to use it up; in the future, I’d probably use about 4 T butter, melting it right into the evaporated milk (note, you need some fat in this to keep the cheese from congealing, so don’t skimp; I’m currently subscribing to a nutritional school that says animal fats like butter are good for you, so load it on! Remember, at least it’s not Velveeta!). While this is heating, toss about 4 c shredded cheese (I used a Costco mix but I think the flavor would be better if I used a sharp cheddar) with 1/4 c cornstarch. When the milk is bubbly, mix the cheese into the pot, whisking until the cheese is all melted. Add about 1 c milk (again, using milk with some fat content will help keep the cheese from congealing), bring the post back to a boil over medium-low heat, whisk very regularly until the sauce is thick and smooth (with this much cornstarch, it will be grainy for a while). A little skin may form over the top if you don’t whisk regularly, but it will dissolve when you stir it back into the sauce. Make sure to stir the sauce off the bottom so it doesn’t burn. It took me about 20 minutes to get the sauce to a texture and consistency that I liked.

Shortly before serving, stir the cheese sauce into the soup and keep the soup at a low heat (I’m not sure, but I was afraid that high heat might “break” the sauce and make it separate).

I thought the soup needed a little bit of a tomato-y flavor, so I debated adding a can of tomatoes, but I ended up setting out a bottle of ketchup. Some people liked it with the ketchup; some people preferred it without. Give it a try, this is a surprisingly tasty combination!

Cheeseburger Soup
adapted from The Recipe Critic

1 lb ground beef (or elk!)
3/4 c chopped onion
3/4 c shredded or finely chopped carrots
3/4 c diced celery
1 t dried basil
1 t dried parsley flakes
3 c beef broth (I used “Better Than Bouillon,” which has great flavor and is MSG-free, unlike most beef broths)
4 c potatoes, peeled & diced
cheese sauce (see above for technique – for one recipe, I would use 1 can evaporated milk, 3 T butter, 2 T cornstarch, 2-3 c shredded cheddar cheese and maybe 1 c milk) or 2 c Velveeta, cubed
salt and black pepper to taste

Directions

Brown meat in a large pot. Add veggies, basil, parsley and beef broth. Bring to a soft boil and simmer until veggies are soft (anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours).

In the meantime, make your cheese sauce. Shortly before serving, gently stir the sauce into the rest of the soup and keep warm but not boiling.

Serve with ketchup.

(It was suggested that this would be great topped with bacon as well – not only does bacon make everything better, then you’d have the flavors of a bacon cheeseburger!)