The best Panera Broccoli Cheddar Soup copycat recipe

Nothing warms you up from the inside out like a bowl of soup. A big bowl of stew or chili is perfect to beat the chill on a cold winter day, but there's another type of soup that's there for you any time of the year. Creamy, cheesy soups are comfort food defined; they're rich and flavorful and feel like a warm, comforting embrace when you're having a bad day. Panera Bread's Broccoli Cheddar Soup happens to check all the boxes, and it's become something of a guilty pleasure for us.

There are so many things to love about Panera — we're especially stoked to learn that their soups are made with 100 percent clean ingredients and no artificial preservatives. But they're not as fresh as you'd think. Sure, they taste creamy and delicious, but former employees have revealed the soups come in as frozen "giant bricks." So we figured we'd take the opportunity to see if we can make our favorite Panera soup at home with a copycat recipe. How did we fare? All in all, we'd say it's pretty spot-on! 

Follow along to figure out how you can skip the lines at Panera Bread and make this favorite soup yourself. 

Pick up the ingredients for copycat Panera Broccoli Cheddar Soup

Looking at Panera Bread's detailed ingredients list for Broccoli Cheddar Soup is totally intimidating. There are easily over 20 items, and some of them sound odd or exotic. Yeast extract? Potato flour? Something called pasteurized processed cheddar cheese "food?" Never fear; if you want to make the soup at home, you can forget about more than half of these ingredients and keep things simple. We made ours with butter, flour, half-and-half, chicken stock, onion, carrots, broccoli, cheddar cheese, nutmeg, salt, and pepper. The exact measurements, along with the step-by-step instructions, are included at the end of this article.

If you're watching your calories, you can swap in milk for half-and-half, but the soup won't turn out nearly as thick and creamy. We also recommend using homemade chicken stock to create the richest, most flavorful soup. It can be made in advance and stored in the freezer, or you can use pressure canning to keep it on the pantry shelves. But, since we know that most of us don't actually have time to make stock from scratch, you could also pick up a high-quality box at the grocery store (Trader Joe's actually has a pretty good one).

Can you make a gluten-free version of copycat Panera Broccoli Cheddar Soup?

Most creamy soups and cheesy dips contain flour, which makes them off-limits for anyone following a gluten-free diet. So, can you just skip the flour and hope for the best? We wouldn't recommend it. Scientific American describes how thick, creamy sauces (like cheese sauce) are created by suspending particles in fluid. The best way to create that suspension is to thicken the liquid. Since flour is a starch, it can absorb liquid and expand, creating the perfect environment to suspend our cheese. Without it, the soup might be oily or separated.

That said, there are a few different ways to thicken a sauce without flour. The first involves cornstarch: You'll need about a tablespoon for every cup of liquid in the recipe. To incorporate the cornstarch without creating lumps, mix it with equal parts water to create a slurry first. Then, whisk the paste into the soup at the very end of the cook time and simmer for a few minutes until the soup is clear. Another option is to use a cup of instant mashed potato flakes, although they will add a potato-y flavor to your copycat Panera Broccoli Cheddar soup.

Panera's Broccoli Cheddar Soup is not vegetarian

Most people are surprised to learn that Panera's Broccoli Cheddar Soup is not vegetarian. It might not contain chunks of meat, but don't be fooled. One of the ingredients is chicken base, which is basically a super-concentrated chicken stock. Panera lists the ingredients of this base as including chicken meat, juices, and fat, along with salt, yeast extract, sugar, potato flour, flavoring, and a few spices.

Now, we're making the soup at home, so we definitely don't feel obliged to go out into the world and find something called chicken base. We'd much rather use homemade chicken stock (or a high-quality store-bought version). If you like, you could skip the chicken altogether and swap-in your favorite vegetable broth to keep things veggie-friendly. We will caution you that most vegetable broths are not as rich, and they tend to lack the savory, umami-rich flavors of meat broths. You may want to compensate by adding a splash of soy sauce to the soup, or try to use a broth made with mushrooms.

Start by chopping the vegetables for your copycat Panera Broccoli Cheddar Soup

OK, we're finally ready to get started! This soup is really straightforward to make, and it requires minimal knife skills. The only ingredients that require knife work are the onions, carrots, and broccoli. Dice the onions into small, 1/4-inch cubes and set them aside in a small bowl. The carrots can be sliced by hand into thin julienne matchsticks, but we think it's easier to use a julienne peeler. It creates perfectly sized pieces every time.

Finally, get to work chopping the broccoli florets off the stem. You'll want to cut the broccoli into small, bite-sized pieces, especially if you don't plan to puree the soup later. The best way to chop broccoli is to remove the leaves and separate the head from the stem. Don't throw it away; the stem is sweet and tender when prepared correctly. Peel off the fibrous skin and dice the inner stem into tiny, 1/4-inch cubes. Then, release the florets working from the outside in, slicing through the small inner stems. If you end up with too large pieces, feel free to slice them into halves or quarters. 

Cook the onions until they're golden brown and soft

If we're being totally honest, we were tempted to skip this step. It seems silly to cook onions in butter, only to remove them from the pan and add them back to the soup with the rest of the vegetables later. But, we also know that making great soups and sauces is about creating layers of flavor, and caramelized onions are sweet and wonderful. So, we went ahead and did it, and it made a huge difference in the finished product.

Grab a pot that's large enough to hold 8 cups of liquid (you won't be making quite that much soup, but it's always nice to have a little breathing room). Add a tablespoon of butter and let it melt over medium-high heat. Then, add the onions and let them cook until they're golden brown and softened. You can stir them from time to time, but you don't want to agitate them too much. Contact with the hot pan is what gives them their caramelized edges, so they won't taste as sweet if they're over stirred.

Create a roux to thicken your copycat Panera Broccoli Cheddar Soup

Remember how we mentioned that Panera Broccoli Cheddar Soup isn't gluten-free? Here's the gluten. Roux is a fancy word for equal parts flour and butter. It's the basis of many of the French mother sauces, including bechamel, velouté, and espagnole. If you're going the cornstarch slurry route, you can skip this step, but it's the best way to ensure your soup will turn out thick and creamy. 

The key to making a good roux is twofold: First, melt the butter over medium heat. If it gets a little bubbly and browned, that's okay, but you'll want to toss it out and start over if you accidentally burn it. Next, it's all about the stirring. We like using a rubber spatula because it makes it easy to get into the corners of the pan, but you could use a wire whisk, too. Stirring constantly as you add the flour ensures there are no dry lumps of flour in the finished product. It's also a good way to keep the thick paste from burning! When the taste of flour is fully cooked out — the roux smells nutty and doesn't taste like flour, if you dare to let a tiny spoonful cool enough to try it — it's ready.

Slowly add your liquid and simmer until thickened

Now that your roux is done, it's time to add the liquid ingredients and simmer them together until they're nice and thick. It's always a good idea to start by adding the chicken stock, first. Boiling milk can cause it to curdle, so adding the stock first will temper the pan and ensure you won't have any problems later. Be sure to stir constantly as you add the liquid to make sure you don't end up with any roux lumps in your soup.

You might be tempted to add the rest of the ingredients right here and now, but it's important to let the liquid interact with the roux for about 20 minutes first. You'll bring the soup to the point where it's just boiling — where bubbles are rapidly rising to the soup's surface — and immediately reduce it down to a simmer, which looks like an occasional bubble here and there. Plated explains that simmering allows the food to cook gently, letting flavors blend together without compromising the dish's structure. If you added the veggies in this step (or boiled the liquid to try to speed up the process), the soup wouldn't turn out full-bodied and thick.

Add the broccoli and cook until it's soft and delicious

After about 20 minutes, you should notice the soup has obtained a shimmery quality to its surface. It should also be noticeably thicker than it was when you first added the liquid. That means it's time to add the vegetables. Go ahead and add those tasty, caramelized onions back to the pot, along with your bite-sized broccoli, and julienned carrots. The carrots won't take long to cook because they're so tiny, and the onions are already cooked so you won't have any problems there. So, it's really just about cooking the broccoli for the perfect amount of time.

Luckily, simmering broccoli in thickened cream is one of the best ways to make broccoli taste absolutely delicious. Raw broccoli contains acids and compounds that make it taste bitter, but simmering it in liquid releases those bitter qualities. If you overcook it, though, it will turn brown and unappetizing. It's easy to overcook broccoli when you're boiling, roasting, or steaming, but it would take a very long time to do at our low simmering temperatures. After about 20 minutes in the simmering liquid, the broccoli will turn bright green and will be tender when pierced with a fork. Our soup is nearly finished — there are only a few more steps left.

Grating sharp cheddar at home is the key to the best Panera Broccoli Cheddar Soup

You may have noticed that this copycat recipe isn't exactly a shocking, ingredient-revealing exposé. The ingredients are pretty simple and relatively straightforward, and you may already have most of them stocked up in your pantry or fridge as we speak. If there were a secret to Panera's Broccoli Cheddar soup, it would be this: choosing a high-quality, sharp cheddar cheese and grating it yourself at home.

If you want the soup to taste exactly like Panera's, you'll want to use sharp cheddar. Not mild or extra-sharp, but sharp cheddar from a reputable brand like Whole 365, Tillamook, or Cracker Barrel. You could certainly swap in another type of cheese to make this broccoli cheese soup your own — melting cheeses like gruyere, fontina, or provolone make great choices. But, whatever you do, do not use pre-shredded cheese. Grating it at home makes the soup creamier, and you might not like one of the ingredients they add to the store-bought stuff. (Spoiler alert: It's wood pulp.) 

Add the grated cheese one handful at a time

Here we are, the moment of truth: It's time to make this soup super cheesy. If you added flour in the second step to make a roux, this cheese-adding part will be pretty painless. You'll want to go slower if you're making a gluten-free Panera Broccoli Cheddar Soup, or you'll run the risk of "breaking" the soup (where the oil and fats separate from the rest of the sauce). This can also happen if you swapped in regular milk for half-and-half.

The best way to make sure your soup turns out as creamy as possible is to remove the soup from the heat. Everything is cooked at this point, so there's no reason to keep simmering away. It also helps if the grated cheese is already at room temperature because it will have a head start towards reaching its melting temperature. Then, add the grated cheese one handful at a time, gently whisking with each addition. Once the cheese is fully melted and you no longer see strands floating around in the soup, add the next handful. This careful procedure ensures that the cheese melts seamlessly into the soup, creating a warming, creamy concoction.

Puree half of your copycat Panera Broccoli Cheddar soup to make it smooth

Some people like smooth soups, and others like them chunky, so you have some options when it comes to this step. We thought our Panera Broccoli Cheddar soup was pretty darn close to the original, but it was missing something. It wasn't quite as thick as the restaurant's soup, and ours had a different mouthfeel, too. We pureed the whole soup in a Vitamix high-powered blender, but that left us missing those little bites of broccoli we find at Panera.

When we pureed half of the soup and whisked it back in with the chunky half, it was perfect. The soup had a creamy body and tasted of broccoli in every bite, but it still had those melt-in-your-mouth tender bites of whole broccoli florets. So, we'll leave it up to you in this step. If you want your soup to taste exactly like Panera's, puree half of it. If matching the original soup isn't your primary objective, feel free to puree as much or as little of it as you like.

How close did we get to Panera's Broccoli Cheddar Soup?

We were pretty blown away by the comparison here. Once we discovered the benefits of pureeing half of the soup, our version of Panera Broccoli Cheddar Soup was exactly like the original. It tasted creamy and rich, and the broccoli was cooked to perfection. The caramelized onions added just a touch of sweetness, while the sharp cheddar was bold and assertive. If you were to whip up a batch of this soup for a group of die-hard Panera Bread fans, they might ask you if you grabbed take-out.

For a truly authentic Panera experience, serve this soup in a bread bowl. Panera uses a sourdough boule, but you can pick up any bread that's crusty on the outside and chewy on the inside. You don't have to serve the soup inside a bowl made of bread, either. A side of crusty sliced baguette or a soft Italian loaf work well, especially if you save a piece to sop up the last bites of soup. This cheesy soup is so good, you're going to want to eat every last bite!

Panera Broccoli Cheddar Soup copycat recipe and directions

Prep time: 10 minutes 

Cook time: 40 minutes

Makes: 4 servings

Ingredients

  • 1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon butter, divided
  • 1 medium yellow onion, diced small
  • 1/4 cup flour
  • 2 cups half-and-half*
  • 2 cups chicken stock
  • 1/2 pound fresh broccoli, about 3 cups chopped
  • 1 cup carrot, julienned
  • 8 ounces grated sharp cheddar cheese, about 2 cups
  • 1/4 teaspoon grated nutmeg
  • Kosher salt and black pepper, to taste

*If you can't find half-and-half, you can use 1 cup heavy whipping cream and 1 cup whole milk

Directions:

  1. In a large (2-quart) pot, melt 1 tablespoon of the butter over medium-high heat. Add the chopped onions and cook for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the onions are golden brown and softened. Remove the onions from the pot and set aside.
  2. Return the pot to the stovetop, wiping it out if there is any onion residue. Add the remaining 1/4 cup of butter. Cook over medium heat until the butter is bubbly and melted, about 2 minutes.
  3. Add the flour and cook, stirring constantly, until the roux is frothy and no longer smells of raw flour, about 3 to 5 minutes.
  4. Slowly whisk in the chicken stock and half-and-half. Bring the mixture to a simmer and cook for 20 minutes, until the liquid has thickened slightly.
  5. Return the onions to the pot, along with the broccoli and carrots. Simmer on medium-low heat for 20 to 25 minutes, until the broccoli is bright green and tender.
  6. Remove the pot from the heat and add the grated cheese one handful at a time, whisking to incorporate the first addition before adding more. 
  7. When all the cheese is melted, add the nutmeg and season with salt and pepper to taste. 
  8. Add half of the soup to a high-powered blender and puree until smooth, if desired. Return the pureed portion back to the pot and stir to combine.
  9. Serve the soup with a side of sliced baguette or in a bread bowl. Garnish each bowl with additional cheddar cheese.