What’s the Difference Between Bisque and Soup?

Bisque versus soup… Oh, that age-old battle. Both are liquid meals, right, so how different can they be?

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Well, the answer to that is that they are different. What’s more, they are both delicious, even if the thought of food mushed into liquid form doesn’t sound particularly pleasant… 

Soup and bisque, are both wonderful food products that share many similarities. The history of each of them is vibrant and interesting.

Soup is thought to go back to before plates and dishes were even invented (more on that later, we promise!). 

You may not even be aware that bisque and soup are different. For this, we don’t blame you! They are very similar. You could say that soup walked so that bisque could run, in a way.

In this article, we are going to put the battle to rest once and for all and tell you about the similarities and differences between them.

To do this we want to explore both of them separately at first, giving them each their own section in our article to look at the history and evolution of both of them.

We will then be comparing and contrasting them at the end so you can see their differences and similarities side by side. 

So if you have always wondered what the difference between bisque and soup is, or if you are, indeed, one of those who never realized before that they were different, then this is the article for you. 

What is soup?

That seems like a really strange question, doesn’t it? What is soup, indeed?

Sure, we all know that it is a liquid made from pureed vegetables and other ingredients that is heard up and served as an appetizer or as a hearty lunch. 

But do we know much else about it? Like, where it comes from? Or, who made it? Or, why has it become popular?

The answer is probably no. luckily for you, that’s where we come in. We are going to tell you all about the history of soup and why it’s even a thing.

I mean, liquified vegetables that are heated up shouldn’t work but it does. And it does so gloriously. So buckle up, because we’re in for a soup-er fun history lesson!

Soup is thought to date as far back as 20,000 BC. Yep, that’s right BC. We cannot even fathom the number of years that have gone by since then.

Believe it or not, soup was a thing before dishes were even a thing! How is that possible, right? However, it is not exactly soup as we know it.

The people of 20,000 BC used animal hides and containers made from bark, reeds, and other long grass to form watertight holders for their food.

The soup was likely to have been served like this. They would heat water over hot rocks with acorns and other food that they found to be consumed altogether.

The discovery of fire advanced this even further, and when the first clay vessels (like the pots of today) made an appearance, this opened up the options for our ancestors even further.

Archaeologists have found pots all over the world with signs of scorch marks in them that imply that they were used for heating soup on a fire. 

Soup features as a staple food in almost every historic era. Of course, the earliest time soup was thought to have been eaten is in 20,000 BC as we have already stated.

However, we do not know very much more than that from this era. Hundreds and thousands of years later are where our more secure soup knowledge lies.

Soup as we know it today has been eaten by all of our closest ancestors. The soup that was eaten by our cave people ancestors transformed into what we would now call gruel. This was a thick liquid made from cereal that had been ground into a paste.

It could be heated or served cold and it provided our ancestors with the majority of their food intake. Of course, food was scarce for centuries and this offered a simple way of retaining energy.

Gruel was also called broth or pottage. The word soup is thought to derive from the word ‘sop’. ‘Sop’ refers to the bread that gruel was often served with that would ‘sop’ up any leftover gruel.

A good way to look at gruel is by thinking of it as oatmeal or porridge, as this is what it more closely resembled, rather than the thinner soups of today with vegetables.

It was commonly eaten in the Middle Ages, particularly by the poorer people of society. Richer people were more likely to have eaten vegetables and meats that had been made into a sort of soup or broth. 

It is the soup that is thought to have heralded the first restaurants. In the 16th century, in France, people could be served soup in a building. The soup was marketed as a way of helping exhaustion and to get the energy people needed.

Before the first specialized soup restaurant opened, they were sold on the street by vendors. Having this specialized place to sit and eat soup is thought to have been one of the earliest examples of restaurant eating that we know today.

The soups that would be served here were bouillon and broths, a little more similar to what we know today. That being said, gruel was still widely eaten in this era. 

There has never been a right or wrong way to make soup. Unlike foods such as bread and cakes, there are not many integral ingredients other than a form of liquid, most commonly water.

As long as there is some sort of liquid, anything can form the contents of soup.

As we can see from the history and evolution of soup, from the acorns to the cereal gruel, to the vegetables and meats, and even up to the ramen sops we see today, you can make absolutely anything into a soup!  Potato is one of my favorites.

Through the ages, it very much depended on what was available at the time. Our cave-dwelling ancestors did not have much choice of what they could put in a soup, likewise in the Middle Ages, it expended on what was being grown locally. 

As time went on and new foods were introduced to different countries such as vegetables and grains from other lands, the contents of soup could change too. 

Soup has transformed into many things. We have already mentioned ramen, of course. All over the world, people have their own kinds of soup.

You can have bone broth based soups, cream based soups, cold soups, hot soups, and even some soups that are specific to different countries.

The list is truly endless. They are, as we have discussed, a common feature in restaurants as an appetizer or starter now.

As well as this they can provide a hearty lunch when served with bread such as wholemeal or cornbread.

However, we are going to be focussing on one type of soup in particular. You may have guessed it by now, but if you haven’t don’t worry because it’s about to get super obvious -- it’s bisque.

That’s right, bisque is just another form of soup! 

Bisque - The history and evolution

Now that we have explored what a soup is, and identified the fact that bisque is a type of soup, we can explore it in more detail.

First, just like we have done with the soup, we are going to explore the history of bisque as a dish in its own right.

Bisque is typically the name given to a thick cream based soup that has been made with seafood. More specifically, bisque is typically made from shellfish. A bisque is typically made like this:

Crustaceans such as lobster, shrimp, crab, and crayfish get cooked twice. Once in their shells, after which you take the meat out of the shells and leave the shells to one side. Then a soup base is made by sautéing vegetables such as celery, onion, and carrot in butter, to which sherry, brandy, or white wine is added. 

Next roux is added, along with some cream. This helps to thicken it and give it the recognizable creaminess that bisque is known for. The shells are then readded along with herbs and spices such as pepper and bay leaf. These are then left to simmer.

When the soup has thickened, the shells are often taken out and then the meat is readded to serve.

Some recipes call for rice to be added to thicken the bisque even further. Before serving, the rice is typically either sieved out, leaving the starch or pureed. Historically, rice was not used. Instead, a paste was made to thicken the soup by crushing the shells of the shellfish used.

Whilst bisque has been historically associated with seafood, the name has also been used for other soups that involve pureeing vegetables and combining them with a creamy roux.

They can often be found with meat and fish in them, too. They are typically smooth in texture, as opposed to a stew or chowder which tend to have bigger chunks of vegetables in them.

The cream is the standout ingredient in a bisque. It is what sets it apart from other soups, even cream based soups such as cream of mushroom.

The cream is added at the beginning of the recipe as it is such an integral part. It is also added in a larger volume than other soup recipes that tend to add it at the end instead.

The addition of the cream right at the start of the recipe is helpful to ensure that the bisque reduces slowly. It also helps it to get thicker as it cooks, smoothing it out as it does so. 

The name bisque has had many interpretations. Some people have thought that it derives from an area known as the Bay of Biscay. This is between France and Spain and is a coastal area known for its abundance of shellfish and crustaceans that they produce.

Certainly, this theory makes sense as bisque is a dish of French origin. However, it seems the most likely reason for the name bisque is a reference to the fact that the shellfish used are twice cooked.

To expand, in French, ‘bis’ means ‘twice’, or ‘again’. ‘Cuites’ means ‘cooked’. It is, therefore, more likely that the name is in reference to this. 

In America, it is no secret that the best shellfish can be found on the Atlantic Coast. This has meant that bisques have been very popular in this area of America, especially New York and New England.

Bisques were a staple meal for those in these areas. They were such a staple that shellfish became thought of as a poor person’s meal.

Shellfish was available in abundance and eaten more than once through the week. It could be caught on the beach rather than a family having to spend money on it as it was so accessible.

As lobster began to increase in popularity, the bisque was beginning to be made with that, too. In the late 19th century, chef’s discovered that it was far tastier to eat a lobster that had been cooked alive rather than dead.

This was the catalyst for Lobster Thermidor along with the increased interest in lobster bisque. Bisque de Homard, as it became known, was a common inclusion on many restaurant menus, especially by French chefs.

The lobster was still fairly common to come across, as were all shellfish well after the Great Depression.

Gradually though, shellfish populations have begun to diminish and they are far harder to come by now.

Lobster is particularly expensive to purchase now, making shellfish bisque a little more of a luxury than it once was.

What’s the difference? 

When thinking about soups vs bisques, the main question always seems to be "what’s the difference?".

Let us start by saying that even though they have some major differences, a bisque is actually a type of soup. Soup is the name given to a whole bunch of soup-like dishes.

For example, chowder is a soup, a stew is a soup, miso is a soup, and of course, bisque is a soup. All of these are different, in terms of the flavors and even the way they are made.

However, they still have aspects of them that identify them as soup. Think of soup as the main category, and bisque as a subcategory of soup. 

First, let’s get their similarities clear. Both soup on a larger scale and bisques are liquified dishes made by combining different liquids with pureed, whole, chopped, diced, and/or grated foods.

In general, bisques are usually pureed. Soups can be pureed or have any of the other forms of meat and vegetables in them, as mentioned above.

As well as this, both of them are eaten in similar ways. They can both serve as a hearty lunch or larger snack, especially when served with bread, crackers, cornbread, and other carby foods.

However, they can both also be eaten as starters or appetizers, and even as a side accompaniment to a larger meal. Both bisque and soup also have roots in France. 

Of course, soup dates back to 20,000 BC, in theory. However, soup, as we know it today, is thought to have become popular in France at the very first types of restaurants.

Likewise, bisque is a dish that is thought to be of French origin. It seems the French really know their food! 

As for the differences between both bisque and soup, these are far more pronounced. You may well be thinking "how different can the two be?" and we totally get it. I mean, didn’t we just say that a bisque is basically a soup?!

That’s the thing though, whilst a bisque is certainly a relative of soup, it does not make them the same. You aren’t exactly like your relatives, right?

Even two twins have some differences! Same with soups - sure they have similarities, but it is their differences that make them, well, different. It is these differences that determine that a bisque is not a chowder or a stew, but a bisque.

For one, bisques as we know are heavily cream based. Sure you can get cream soups such as cream of tomato and mushroom cream of mushroom. However, the cream does not usually play a huge part in the making of the soup and is typically added in at the end.

In a bisque, the cream is one of the very first integral ingredients. Without cream, a thickening agent would need to be used. Cream thickens all on its own, especially when left to cook slowly as it is in a bisque. 

Another difference between the two is that traditionally, a bisque was made with seafood. More specifically, it is a shellfish soup.

Of course, nowadays there are many different types of bisques as it is a name that is given more generally to any soup that is very heavily cream based on pureed vegetables or meat.

However, as we say, it was originally made solely with shellfish such as crayfish, crab, and lobster. This often involved making a paste from the ground up shells of these animals too, although nowadays this is not often used.

Soup, on the other hand, does not have specific ingredients such as cream of shellfish. In fact, all soup needs is a thin liquid (usually water, stock, or a broth) and whatever ingredients you wish to add to it.

Soup can indeed feature cream, however, this is usually poured in towards the end of the cooking process. This is because, in general, the liquid of a soup is much thinner than that of a bisque.

Adding cream early would make the whole soup thick which is not the desired outcome for a soup whose main feature is typically the thin liquid. 

As we have said, soup can generally have any ingredients you could dream of. It is common for a soup to contain vegetables, for example, carrots, onions, potatoes, and leeks. They may also feature meat or fish, for example, chicken or braising beef.

As well as this it is common to add noodles and small pasta shapes to soup to thicken it up and make it into more of a substantial meal. There are no rules around it and it does not have to meet specific criteria in order to be classified as a soup.

The liquid, as we have stated, can be simply water. However, it is more common to find the soup is made with vegetable stock, meat stock, or a bone broth. 

Frequently Asked Questions

What defines a bisque?

Bisque is a traditional French meal, best described as being a thick and creamy soup. It is made with shellfish and is then thickened by a paste that is made from their shells, along with being heavily seasoned for a strong and distinctive flavor. 

It is one of the most popular types of seafood soups, and although it is traditionally made from shellfish, it can also be made with lobster, langoustine, shrimp, crab, or crayfish. 

However, nowadays, bisque has expanded and grown to include even more variations, such as all-vegetable options like tomato bisque. This is because the main defining feature of a brisque is no longer the seafood ingredients used, but rather the distinctive and unique thick and creamy texture of the soup itself. 

A lot of modern non-seafood bisque options use other alternatives to thicken the soup, such as using rice, as the starch left behind very effectively adds a creamy thickness to the overall end result. 

A bisque that is well done should have a smooth and luxurious feel. So despite it being very thick and creamy, it should be extremely well-blended, so that it is 100% smooth. 

Essentially, bisque is a type of soup, originating from France. It is smooth, thick, and creamy, traditionally made with seafood. The most similar type of soup would be chowder, but chowder contains chunks of meat and vegetables, while bisque is completely smooth every single time. 

What is the difference between tomato soup and bisque?

Tomato soup is a soup (duh) made primarily with tomatoes. Bisque, on the other hand, is a French type of soup, traditionally made with seafood, that is thick, creamy, and smooth. 

However, nowadays there are many other types of bisque, including tomato bisque. 

So, is tomato soup and tomato bisque the same? Both are soups made primarily out of tomatoes, right? So on paper, they kind of sound like the exact same thing. 

But while they are both soups, they aren’t both bisques. And yes, tomato bisque is different from tomato soup, despite also being a soup. 

The main difference is the same as the main difference between any normal soup and bisque soup. 

Tomato soup is usually made with just vegetable or chicken stock, and it’s a lot more liquid. Tomato bisque, on the other hand, is made with the addition of cream or whole milk, as that is what makes it thicker and creamier so that it can showcase the defining traits of a bisque. 

So essentially, the main difference between a tomato soup and bisque, in this case, tomato bisque, is the ingredients added into the mix, which affect the thickness of the soup. Tomato bisque is the creamier version of a normal tomato soup, and it will be a lot thicker. 

There might also be a slight difference in the seasoning, as bisque tends to be heavily seasoned and the same will go for tomato bisque. So as a general rule, the tomato bisque will have a stronger overall flavor than normal tomato soup. 

What is the difference between a cream soup and a bisque?

Cream soup is a type of soup that uses cream in order to thicken up the consistency. It will look a lot like bisque in the sense that they are both defined by being thick and creamy. However, bisque doesn’t necessarily have to use cream (although it sometimes does), in order to be thick and be considered a bisque, so it is different. 

They are different types of soups, but their defining trait can sometimes overlap, hence why they are easy to compare. 

What kind of soup is bisque? 

Bisque is a type of soup, originating from France, traditionally made with seafood. It is defined as being thick and creamy, with a completely smooth texture. 

Final Verdict 

We hope you can see now that bisque and soup are not the same things. Whilst bisque is a type of soup, it varies greatly in the ingredients used. 

Sure, without the invention of soup, bisque may not be a thing. However, it is important that you know the differences between them, especially when it comes to ordering in restaurants or making either of them.

What we know for sure is that both bisque and soup are delicious in their own right and we are craving a huge bowl of both of them!

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Cassie brings decades of experience to the Kitchen Community. She is a noted chef and avid gardener. Her new book "Healthy Eating Through the Garden" will be released shortly. When not writing or speaking about food and gardens Cassie can be found puttering around farmer's markets and greenhouses looking for the next great idea.
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