The best Olive Garden's Zuppa Toscana copycat recipe

It's been said that Olive Garden's Zuppa Toscana is one of the most popular soups on the menu, and we can't agree more. It's creamy and rich, with the perfect combination of spicy Italian sausage and bold garlic flavors that make it stand out. This creamy soup has a velvety smooth texture, but it's light enough that you don't feel weighed down after eating it. And then there are those potatoes and kale, both tender and soft enough to practically melt in your mouth. It's the kind of soup you can eat on a warm summer afternoon just as easily as a cold winter day; it's that good.

It might not be the most authentic Italian dish on Olive Garden's menu, but it tastes so good, we'll forgive them. It also turns out that this tasty soup only contains a handful of ingredients and can be made at home in as little as an hour. But will it taste as good as Olive Garden's version? With the addition of one secret ingredient, we think so!

You'll need these ingredients to make Olive Garden's Zuppa Toscana

Olive Garden doesn't publish their ingredients, so we only had a few nuggets of information to work with as we put together our ingredients list. We identified a few of the ingredients from their website's description of the soup: "Spicy Italian sausage, fresh kale and russet potatoes in a creamy broth." Then we found out the soup is gluten-free from the company's allergen information, so we knew we wouldn't have to worry about making a roux to thicken up the soup.

From there, the rest of the ingredients were a guessing game. It definitely had flavor from onions and garlic, but we didn't see any carrot or celery pieces floating around, so those were out. We also knew that the soup wasn't made with plain water; it had too much flavor for that. So, we put together our list to include bacon, sausage, potatoes, garlic, onion, crushed red pepper flakes, salt and pepper, chicken broth, kale, heavy cream, and a splash of apple cider vinegar (that last ingredient is the secret, which we'll talk about in a bit).

The full list of ingredients and step-by-step instructions are available at the end of this article.

Does Olive Garden's Zuppa Toscana contain bacon?

This was a tricky question to answer. Every copycat Zuppa Toscana recipe we came across had bacon on the ingredients list, but Olive Garden doesn't mention it on their website. We were pretty set on using it in the recipe — surely there was a reason that everyone included it — but we wanted to be sure that it was authentic, first. So we picked up a bowl of this tasty soup and used our senses to try to figure it out.

We couldn't exactly see any bacon floating around in the soup, but its presence was absolutely evident in the flavor. The creamy broth was rich and flavorful, and it had a subtle smoky presence that signaled the inclusion of bacon. It was also sweet and ever-so-slightly maple-flavored, which would come from the bacon, too. We were pretty certain after the taste test that bacon was used in the soup, so we added a few slices to the ingredients list. After all, bacon makes everything taste better, so what did we have to lose by adding it?

What type of kale is best for Olive Garden Zuppa Toscana?

Kale is one of the essential components of this soup. You could certainly swap in another green (like spinach or chard), but if you really want to make authentic Zuppa Toscana, you'll have to learn to love this bitter green. You might be surprised to find that, once you cook superfood kale in all that tasty broth and cream, it becomes tender and delicious. You may even fall in love with it after making this recipe.

There are several types of kale, and all of them will work just fine for this recipe. Green curly kale is the most common choice, and we're pretty sure from our taste test that this is the type that Olive Garden uses when they make this soup. That said, Tuscan kale (also known as Lacinato or Dino kale) is more tender and cooks more quickly. It would be a good option for anyone new to the flavor of hearty greens. Baby kale is a fantastic option, too, because it doesn't need to be chopped, although you also don't have to cook it as long. 

When developing this recipe, we used a Red Russian kale, which has purple stems and green leaves. It was the only option at the grocery store the day we went shopping, so we went for it. It tasted delicious and we couldn't detect a major difference between our soup and Olive Garden's, so we feel confident that you can use any type of kale you like best.

Start by browning the meat for your copycat Olive Garden Zuppa Toscana in a Dutch oven

Okay, we've spent enough time debating the ingredients list; it's time to get cooking! The first step in making Olive Garden Zuppa Toscana is browning the meat. We used a Dutch oven. If you were to throw all the ingredients into the pot and simmer them, the meat would cook through just fine. But, it would lack the necessary depth of flavor. You see, by cooking the meat first, you create something called the Maillard reaction: a chemical reaction that not only browns the food but also adds a rich flavor and aroma. It's the difference between creating a good soup and a great soup.

Begin by browning the bacon pieces until they turn golden brown and crispy. When it's fully cooked, transfer the bacon to a fine mesh strainer. Next up, remove the sausage casings to expose the ground sausage. You could keep them in the casings and cook half-moon slices of sausage, but your soup won't have the same texture as authentic Olive Garden Zuppa Toscana. After you brown the sausage, add it to the strainer along with the bacon.

To keep the soup from having a greasy finish, we added a secret step here: Rinse the cooked sausage and bacon with cold water. This removes any excess grease from the meat, ensuring that you won't have an unappealing oil slick on the top of your creamy soup.

Cook the onions for you copycat Olive Garden Zuppa Toscana until they're nice and soft

Next up, we continued to build layers of flavor by caramelizing the onions. We use yellow onions because they have a deep flavor that's a mixture of sweet and pungent. You could also use white onions (which are slightly less flavorful), but we wouldn't recommend using red onions. The flavor would be fine with red onions, but the color won't look quite right.

Again, you could just toss the onions in with the potatoes when you add the chicken broth, but you would miss out on an opportunity to add nuanced flavor to your soup. Remove all but one tablespoon of the bacon and sausage drippings and add the onions to the pot. Cook them over medium-high heat for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the onions become soft and lightly browned. Then, add the garlic and red pepper flakes and cook for a minute, until the mixture becomes fragrant.

Add the broth and potatoes to your copycat Olive Garden Zuppa Toscana

At this point, you've built the base for the soup: Browning the bacon and sausage added depth to the meat, as well as creating the flavorful oil in which to cook the onions. The onions became caramelized and sweet, and cooking the garlic for a minute removed its pungent edge. From here, it's time to simmer the broth and potatoes to create the bulk of the soup.

It's important to increase the heat to high once you add these ingredients. You want to bring the soup to a boil so the liquid is hot enough to cook the potatoes through. But, you don't want to boil the soup for more than a minute; this violent bubbling can cause the broth to evaporate, leaving you with fewer servings of soup than you intend. Instead, reduce the heat to medium and bring the liquid to a simmer, where the bubbles gently and lazily make their way to the surface. When the potatoes are cooked through (you can pierce them with a fork to find out), you're ready to move on to the next step.

Olive Garden Zuppa Toscana specifically calls for russet potatoes

You might be wondering if you can use any old potato for this recipe, but Olive Garden specifically calls for russet potatoes. There is a big difference between the different types of potatoes, mainly because some of them are classified as "starchy" and others fit into the "waxy" category. 

You want to use russet potatoes for this recipe because they're very starchy. These types of potatoes release (you guessed it) starch as they cook. Those excess starches leach out into the cooking liquid, thickening up the soup without the need for flour or cornstarch. That keeps Olive Garden Zuppa Toscana gluten-free. As a bonus, starchy potatoes also absorb flavors more readily than waxy potatoes, so they taste more flavorful in the soup.

If you can't find russet potatoes, look for Idaho or baking potatoes (which are also starchy varieties). You can also use an all-purpose potato, like a Yukon Gold, but the soup won't quite turn out the same.

Finish Olive Garden Zuppa Toscana soup by adding kale, cream, and the cooked meats

We're ready for the final steps: Once the potatoes are cooked through, it's time to add the last few ingredients. Toss the chopped kale into the pot and pour in the heavy cream. Although its a small amount of cream as compared to the stock, you'll notice the soup's color will significantly lighten as soon as you pour it in. You can also add the cooked bacon and sausage back to the pot at this point to give them time to warm through. 

It may take a minute or two for the soup to resume its simmer, but you don't need to increase the heat. The soup will recover and return to its previously bubbly state. Continue to simmer the soup for about five minutes, until the kale is tender and the meat is heated through. If you decided to use baby kale for this recipe, it should only take a minute or two to see it wilt. Once the kale is ready to go, give the broth a taste and season it with a pinch of salt and pepper.

Can you use regular milk instead of cream in Olive Garden's Zuppa Toscana?

You might be tempted to use regular milk or even alternative milk instead of the heavy cream. It's true that heavy cream has nearly twice the calories as regular milk and significantly more fat, so swapping it out might seem like a good way to make a low-calorie, low-fat version of Olive Garden Zuppa Toscana. Unfortunately, without the heavy cream, your soup won't turn out anywhere close to the original version.

Heavy cream may contain a lot of fat — 28 grams per half cup — but it also is responsible for giving this soup its rich flavor and velvety texture. If you used milk instead, it would barely lighten up the color of the soup, and it certainly wouldn't add much to the flavor. Keep in mind that we're only using 3/4 cup of heavy cream for a 6-serving soup, which means you'll only consume two tablespoons of heavy cream per serving. When you look at it that way, it's not too bad! 

The final ingredient is critical to making Olive Garden Zuppa Toscana taste right

The last ingredient in this soup is our secret ingredient: apple cider vinegar. You know, the vinegar with health benefits that may include weight-loss and improving blood-sugar levels. We're not adding it to the soup to make it more nutritious, though; as little as one teaspoon of vinegar can do wonders to the flavor of the soup.

A small amount of an acidic ingredient (like lemon juice or vinegar) can brighten up the other flavors in a dish like soup. As it simmers, some of the ingredients can develop dull edges, losing the flavorful luster they had when they were raw. Add a splash of vinegar, though, and those flavors will magically come to life. Let the soup sit overnight in the refrigerator to let the flavors meld, and you'll be even more impressed. 

If you don't have any apple cider vinegar on hand, white wine vinegar will work just fine. You could also use lemon juice, although it will add a stronger, more citrus-forward flavor to the soup.

How close was our copycat Olive Garden Zuppa Toscana to the original?

When we tried the soup right after we made it on the first day, it was pretty close to the original version. It was creamy, rich, and full of meaty goodness. The kale was soft and lacked any semblance of the characteristic bitterness it contains when it's raw. What our version was missing was depth of flavor — even though we worked so hard to develop it at every stage! So, we cooled it down and popped it in the refrigerator for an overnight rest.

That did the trick: When we reheated the soup the next day, it was perfect. The flavor of the caramelized onions, browned sausage and bacon, and kale had infused the cream with a melody of flavors in each bite. The overnight rest also gave the starchy potatoes time to thicken up the soup, creating the perfect mixture of textures. All in all, we were thrilled with this recipe. It tastes just like the original, and we didn't even have to make the drive to get it. What's not to love? 

Copycat Olive Garden Zuppa Toscana recipe and directions

Prep time: 20 minutes 

Cook time: 40 minutes

Makes: 6 servings

Ingredients

  • 1/4 pound bacon, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
  • 1 pound sweet Italian sausage, casings removed
  • 1 large yellow onion, diced
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/8 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes 
  • 6 cups chicken broth
  • 2 pounds russet potatoes, unpeeled, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
  • 6 cups curly kale, stems removed and roughly chopped
  • 3/4 cup heavy cream
  • 1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Directions:

  1. In a large Dutch oven, cook the bacon pieces over medium-high heat. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the bacon is browned and begins to turn crispy, about 5 minutes. Transfer the bacon to a fine mesh strainer.
  2. Add the sausage to the Dutch oven, using a spoon to break the meat up into small pieces. Cook until the sausage is no longer pink, about 5 minutes. Transfer the cooked sausage to the mesh strainer that's holding the bacon.
  3. Rinse the sausage and bacon a few times with cold water, shaking the strainer as you go to remove any excess grease. Set the cooked meats aside. 
  4. Remove all but one tablespoon of the sausage drippings and add the onion to the Dutch oven. Cook over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, until the onions are soft and lightly browned, about 10 minutes.
  5. Add the garlic and red pepper flakes to the pot and cook for one minute, until fragrant.
  6. Add the chicken broth and potatoes to the pan and increase the heat to high. Bring the soup to a boil before reducing the heat to medium. Simmer the soup until the potatoes are cooked through, about 15 minutes.
  7. Add the kale, heavy cream, and cooked meats back to the pot. Simmer for an additional 5 minutes, until the kale is tender and the meats are heated through.
  8. Stir in the apple cider vinegar and season the soup with salt and pepper, to taste. 
  9. Serve immediately or let the soup sit overnight in the refrigerator to let the flavors meld.