Bisque is a type of rich, thick, creamy soup that has been pureed so that it has an even texture. Traditionally, it includes seafood, wine or cognac, and cream, along with a mixture of spices. Bisque is related to consomme, which is another rich soup produced through a long cooking process that concentrates flavors for intensity. As the name suggests, the soup has its origins in France, although the dish is prepared all over the world with a wide variety of ingredients.
The origins of the word bisque in relation to soup are debated. Some food historians believe that it refers to the fact that the soup is cooked twice, while others suspect that it is related to the Bay of Biscay. Cuisine from Biscay often includes spicy ingredients similar to those used in bisque, and another type of soup, called Biscay, involves the use of heavily spiced game birds in a recipe very similar to that used for bisque.
Traditional bisque begins with sauteing seafood in a heavy pan. If crustaceans are being used, the shells are left on. Next, a broth is made in the pan by combining wine and soup stock with aromatic spices, and the seafood is simmered until it is cooked through. The entire mixture is pureed, including the shells of the crustaceans. After being pureed, cream is added and the soup is cooked and allowed to thicken even more before being served, usually sprinkled with parsley and freshly cracked pepper.
Bisque is also a close relative of chowder, another creamy seafood soup. However, chowder and stew have thick chunks of ingredients in the rich creamy base, instead of the uniform creamy texture. It is served at fancy events because of the even texture, complex flavor, and beautiful color. Chowder is usually considered a dish of lower class, and therefore rarely appears at formal dinners. The word "bisque" is also used to refer to any sort of creamy, pureed soup, and thus menus often feature tomato and squash bisques.
Lobster bisque, in particular, is a popular form of the soup all over the world. The long cooking process brings out layers of flavor, and cooks are encouraged to use the same dish throughout the process so that no flavor is lost. While many cooks remove the shells of the lobster to eliminate the risk of a small piece of shell causing injury, traditionalists believe that soup is not a bisque unless it contains the finely pureed shells, which serve to thicken the soup.