By now, you’ve probably picked up on the fact that I’m very much a make-your-own-ingredients sort of cook. It’s not hard to notice that one of my very favorite homemade ingredients to have on hand is chicken stock – it’s extremely versatile and oh-so-flavorful. A lot of cooks, though, haven’t been properly introduced to the joys and benefits of real chicken stock and so they continue to take a shortcut or two, buying insipid broth in aseptic packaging, not fully realizing what they’re missing. So, in this entry, I’m going to try to rectify that.
We’ll start with a simple eyeball test. The broth, which for full disclosure purposes was Swanson’s reduced-sodium chicken broth, is an unappetizing pale, pale yellow color, paler than even the most watered-down lager. It’s so pale, in fact, that when photographed with real stock, it’s difficult to make the broth the focal point of the photo because your eye is naturally drawn to the more interesting color. This broth it is, of course, a liquid at room temperature, and when refrigerated, it stays completely liquid, which makes you wonder exactly how much “stock” there is, given that it’s the first ingredient listed.
The homemade stock, on the other hand, is a yummy rich dark golden brown. If we’re going to stick with the beer comparisons, it brings to mind something like Fat Tire or Shiner Bock. Again, it’s a liquid at room temperature, but when refrigerated it turns gelatinous, thanks to the gelatin that leeched out of the chicken bones during cooking.
Clearly, looks aren’t everything, so we’ll move on to a taste test. The broth has a faint chicken flavor with a chemical-y taste that set off my salt-sensitive palate. It does not taste as watery as one would expect based on its color, thanks to the massive amounts of salt, but its flavor is one-dimensional.
However, when you taste the homemade stock, it has a pronounced and robust chicken flavor. You can definitely tell that there were plenty of herbs and chicken-friendly aromatics in the pot with the chicken, but they don’t take center stage, they simply compliment the flavor. There is no trace of salt or other flavor-enhancing chemicals because there aren’t any.
You may be wondering how each stacks up in the cost department. Prices for the commercial broth and for stock ingredients vary wildly from place to place, so I’m going to talk in generalities. When you buy broth, you are paying for the labor of making the product, for the packaging, and for the (not insignificant) cost of transporting something that is mostly water and is therefore dense and heavy. We’ll estimate that you pay about three bucks, give or take, for a quart of chicken stock.
On the other hand, for stock I buy whole chickens. These are cheaper than whole cut-up birds and are even a pittance when compared with boneless skinless chicken breasts. I save what I don’t eat and put it in the freezer for a future stock-making day. Many of the ingredients are kitchen scraps: I save carrot tops, celery leaves, onion skins, and extra herbs or veggies that I know I won’t use before they go downhill. Again, everything goes in the freezer for stock-making day. So I have to buy very, very little for actual stock: maybe a leek or bit of parsley. My yields are typically huge: upwards of eight quarts, essentially for about a buck fifty after I bought a leek and some parsley.
Next, we’ll compare ingredients.
Broth: chicken stock, contains less than 2% of: salt, favoring, dextrose, autolyzed yeast extract, celery juice concentrate, carrot juice concentrate, onion juice concentrate.
Stock: filtered water, two raw chicken carcasses, one roasted chicken carcass, carrots, celery (with leaves), leeks, onions (with skin), shallots (with skin), garlic (with skin), parsley, thyme, rosemary, sage, whole peppercorns
Note: my recipe varies batch by batch, so this is was I included this last time I made it. Ingredients are obviously not listed by strictly by weight as they would be on a commercial food label. If you’re wondering what the chicken carcass is, it’s a whole chicken with the edible bits – breast meat and legs – removed, plus fond from roasted chickens.
Now, let’s talk. Moving down the Swanson’s ingredient list: after the dubious “chicken stock,” it’s no surprise that salt is the first ingredient. I’d like more information on what that “flavoring” is, too. It’s probably artificial. I don’t know what dextrose is, but it sounds like a type of sugar and it’s certainly not food. Ah, autolyzed yeast extract: this is where I get really mad! The front of the package boldly proclaims “No MSG!” but here’s the rub: autolyzed yeast extract contains MSG. How they can get away with that is beyond me, and it makes me really mad. Finally, we come to vegetable juice concentrate. Sure, mirepoix is great for flavoring, but a) why not use the whole food, and b) doesn’t it scare you that they use more “flavor enhancers” than actual real flavor ingredients?
If I labeled my stock the same way they did, I would have one ingredient: chicken stock. Even though my ingredient list is much longer, notice that all of the ingredients are whole foods. My point is that we don’t know what is in the “chicken stock” that is the first ingredient on their list. My guess is that it was approximately two chicken bones in four gallons of water, because for a company like that, chicken bones are going to be expensive to use en masse.
If a comparison of the ingredient list hasn’t sent you running for the hills, let’s look at how they actually perform in the kitchen. I have found out the hard way that using commercial broth as a basis for soups is a recipe for disaster. D-I-S-A-S-T-E-R. I’m so not even kidding here. There is so much salt that it’s all you can taste, and if the liquid reduces at all, the broth is rendered completely inedible. A bit of reducing is naturally going to happen during the simmer that soups require, so you can quickly see where this is heading. Just don’t do it. On the other hand, homemade stock makes a perfect base for soups. Its rich flavor generally complements soup ingredients, adding interest to even the most basic vegetable soup.
However, homemade stock is not perfect in every situation. Even when diluted, the gelatin in stock interferes with grain dishes, so it’s a no-go in things like rice or quinoa. But you can’t use commercial broth here either, because guess what happens when cooking grains? The liquid reduces, so… yeah, that’s a deal-breaker.
I will grudgingly admit that commercial broth is not horrible in every single situation and, in a pinch, I have been known to use it before. If it’s just a small ingredient in a recipe and there are a lot (a lot) of other liquids that allow the terrifyingly huge amounts of sodium to diffuse and dilute, it can be done. I don’t recommend it, but in situations like you’ve just moved into a house and haven’t made a pot of stock yet, or you’re staying with a loved one who needs to be nursed back to health and they don’t have any of the real stuff on hand, it can come in handy as a last resort.
Now for an unbiased look at the two, side by side. I did my very best to represent the two contestants as they really are: I set the light meter by the white plate instead of the subject (the broth or stock), used the exact same exposure, shot them scant minutes apart to ensure uniform lighting, and when editing, used the exact same settings to fix contrast. In my mind, the choice is clear – or, more fittingly, opaque.
So, to sum up, look at it this way: store-bought chicken broth is like Pamela Anderson: a cheap blond bombshell enhanced with chemicals and additives – so processed that you can’t even tell that a living creature was the basis for the product before you.