As someone who cooks daily and relishes laboring in the kitchen, this recent deluge of ready-made skillet, slow-cooker, and oven sauces on supermarket shelves feel a bit like cheating. But then again, convenience is a big draw—many of these sauces promise dinner in under 20 minutes. And who among us haven’t dumped a can of cream of mushroom for an easy weeknight casserole?
The cooking skill level required for Campbell’s skillet sauces is the ability to slice raw chicken breast, tear open a plastic packet, and operate a frying pan without setting your house on fire. It doesn’t even require seasoning the meat with salt and pepper—every extraneous step (and some basic) has been eliminated. The question, then, is what’s the effort-to-yield ratio? Do you get out what little you put in?
We tested four of Campbell’s skillet sauces that uses chicken (we didn’t try Thai curry or creamy pesto). We didn’t deviate from the scant instructions, which unfortunately, also meant we had to use chicken breast, the most flavorless of proteins.
Sweet & Sour Chicken
Tasting notes: If you’re seeking standard sweet-and-sour sauce, this is an acceptable interpretation of the neon Chinese takeout goop, in a color slightly more recognizable in nature. It’s not overtly sweet nor sour, and the flavor achieves a good balance with the lightest of spice kicks on the backend. As mentioned above, skinless chicken breast really is the wrong protein for this. The sauce might be better suited for battered and deep-fried chicken or pork.
Creamy Parmesan Chicken
Tasting notes: At this risk of sounding douchey, I’ve tasted enough parmesan (well, Parmigiano Reggiano) to know that the real stuff has a distinct nutty cheese flavor. This sauce aims for that, but instead, has more of that processed dust cheese tang. It’s fairly plain, like a mature version of Kraft Mac & Cheese, and yet, I wouldn’t mind eating a whole bowl of this with egg noodles—with some slight alterations. I’d generously grind fresh black pepper, and maybe snip some chives.
Tasting notes: Not too bad! You can actually taste the booziness of fortified wine, although one tester said the flavor’s closer to Captain Morgan spiced rum. But in the context of a savory mushroom-flecked sauce, it pairs quite well against the beefiness. Again, chicken breast is wrong for this; I’d sear skin-on chicken thighs (boneless if possible) in olive oil until the skin verges on crunchy, pan-fry on the other side for another five minutes, then dump this sauce on. I’d buy this again.
Tasting notes: Unlike the sweet-and-sour sauce above, this is just a bad version of Chinese takeout sauce. There’s not one dominant flavor, and the closest analog after much in-mouth pondering is a cross between orange sauce and teriyaki. I’m not picking up on much sesame either. Our least favorite of the bunch.