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January/February 2016

Beef Broth

Commercial beef broths contain almost no beef. So what exactly are these products adding to your recipes?

How We Tested

It’s hard to beat the convenience of store-bought broth. Truth be told, we turn to it often when making soups, stews, and gravies. Our winning commercial chicken broth is a pretty good stand-in for the real thing, but we’ve had less luck finding a decent beef broth. Part of the reason is that we expect more of beef broth. We typically rely on chicken broth to bolster the savory backbone of a recipe. But when we turn to beef broth, we want it to literally beef up the flavor of a dish.

A slew of new products have hit the beef broth market since our last tasting, and not just the mainly liquid contenders we’ve seen in the past. Hopeful that a better, truly beefy broth had come along, we rounded up 10 options from top-selling brands—including liquids as well as pastes, powders, and cubes that must be reconstituted with hot water—that contained at least 450 milligrams of sodium per serving (in previous broth tastings, we’ve found that products with less sodium taste underseasoned). We sampled these broths simply warmed, simmered in a beef and vegetable stew, and reduced in gravy.

Unfortunately, we were once again largely unimpressed with all the products we tasted. None delivered anything close to true beef flavor. At best, the broths contributed a savory taste, while the worst were either bland, overwhelmingly salty, or plagued by “bitter,” “charred,” or “burnt” off-notes. In the end, we had just one product to recommend. Though lacking in actual beefy taste, it delivered “fuller” flavor than any of the other products.

Where’s the Beef?

There’s an obvious explanation for the absence of beefy flavor in commercial broth products: They lack beef. To meet U.S. Department of Agriculture standards, liquid products labeled “beef stock” or “beef broth” (the government doesn’t distinguish between the two) need only contain 135 parts moisture to 1 part protein (which may be derived from meat or bones). The regulations that guide the pastes, powders, and cubes in our lineup are similarly paltry or don’t exist at all. A look at the nutrition labels confirms how little meat goes into them: Five of the 10 products have 1 gram or less of protein per cup, including our new winner. Meanwhile, our homemade beef broth, made with 6 pounds of meat and 2 pounds of bones per 2 quarts of water, has more than 4 grams of protein per cup.

Ultimately, however, the amount of protein in a broth had little to do with its ranking. In fact, though the liquid broths had more protein than products requiring reconstitution, in general they performed less well, exhibiting blandness or off-notes.

We learned one reason for their lackluster flavor: Most liquid broths (as well as some products requiring reconstitution) start with the same source—weak generic stock supplied by a handful of specialty stock producers. Stephanie Lynch, vice president of technology and sales at International Dehydrated Foods, one of the companies that create these stock bases, told us that they simmer water and bones—not actual meat—in large pressurized vats to create a broth base with deliberately mild flavor that can provide a blank slate for a variety of uses. The broth is dehydrated for cheaper shipping and sold to broth manufacturers, who can build on it with other flavors.

Flavor Makers

The problem is, in lieu of adding actual meat to their products, broth manufacturers mainly use chemistry to amp up flavor. According to Michael Noble, corporate chef at Ariake USA (a large commercial stock producer based in Virginia), it’s common for major broth manufacturers to hire flavor chemists to help them choose from a vast assortment of highly concentrated flavorings that can contribute a range of very specific tastes to a product. When such flavorings are distilled or extracted from natural sources, they appear as “natural flavorings” or “natural flavor” on an ingredient list; synthetically produced flavorings must be identified as “artificial.” These flavorings can help make a product taste distinct from others and yield consistent results from batch to batch. But their use can also backfire. In the products we tasted from Swanson and Imagine, for example, tasters picked up on “charred” and “burnt” notes. Though neither company would elaborate on the source of the flavors in their products, it seems likely that the off-notes we noticed came from concentrated “natural flavorings” intended to mimic the flavor of cooked beef.

The broth with the highest protein content by far at 7 grams per cup—College Inn—failed for an entirely different reason. Tasters detected bitter, metallic notes that almost certainly came from the inclusion of potassium chloride, the main ingredient in many salt substitutes. (With 750 grams of sodium per serving, it already had one of the highest sodium levels in the lineup.)

No matter what the form—liquid or dehydrated— what really benefited these products was the presence of yeast extract, a substance that’s loaded with glutamates and nucleotides. Glutamates are savory on their own, and nucleotides work in synergy with them to amplify their flavor. Together these compounds can boost a broth’s savory, meaty-tasting flavors twentyfold. All 10 broths include yeast extract, but our winner (and the second-place broth) also contains hydrolyzed soy protein, another powerful source of flavor potentiators that might have given it an edge over the others. Our new winner, Better Than Bouillon Roasted Beef Base, trumped our previous favorite from Rachael Ray, which simply wasn’t beefy enough to compete with our winner’s ultrasavory punch.

We’re still hopeful that someday broth manufacturers will put more actual beef in their products. In the meantime, our winner is an economical choice that stores easily, costs just 16 cents per cup, and does a good job of boosting savory depth in soups and stews.

Methodology

We tasted 10 top-selling national supermarket beef broths plain (served warm), reduced in gravy, and in beef stew. Results of the plain, gravy, and soup tastings were averaged, and products appear below in order of preference. Nutritional data for a 1-cup serving of broth is taken from product labels.

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The Results

Note: Cook's Country continuously updates our equipment reviews and taste tests. The written content below is the most up-to-date information available and may not match what appears in the video segment.

Winner
Recommended

Better Than Bouillon Roasted Beef Base

$6.99 for 8 oz ($0.02 per reconstituted fl oz)*

Better Than Bouillon Roasted Beef Base

Though lacking in actual beefy taste, a goodly amount of salt and multiple powerful flavor enhancers delivered “fuller flavor than other samples.” The paste is economical, stores easily, and dissolves quickly in hot water.

More Details
$6.99 for 8 oz ($0.02 per reconstituted fl oz)*
Recommended with Reservations

Wyler's Reduced Sodium Beef Flavor Cubes

$2.00 for 2 oz ($0.02 per reconstituted fl oz)*

Wyler's Reduced Sodium Beef Flavor Cubes

With little actual beef and four different forms of hydrolyzed vegetable protein, monosodium glutamate, and yeast extract, these bouillon cubes delivered savory flavor that was more “mushroomy” than beefy.

More Details
$2.00 for 2 oz ($0.02 per reconstituted fl oz)*

Kitchen Accomplice Reduced Sodium Beef Style Broth Concentrate

$4.99 for 12 oz ($0.02 per reconstituted fl oz)*

Kitchen Accomplice Reduced Sodium Beef Style Broth Concentrate

Although soup and gravy tasted “meaty,” the flavors were generically “savory” instead of distinctly beefy.

More Details
$4.99 for 12 oz ($0.02 per reconstituted fl oz)*

Rachael Ray Stock-in-a-Box All-Natural Beef- Flavored Stock (made by Colavita)

$3.49 for 32 oz ($0.11 per fl oz)*

Rachael Ray Stock-in-a-Box All-Natural Beef- Flavored Stock (made by Colavita)

This broth didn’t have the off-flavors that we found in other products. But compared to more heavily seasoned broths, our top-rated liquid broth didn’t just lack real beef flavor—it also tasted “watery” and “flat.”

More Details
$3.49 for 32 oz ($0.11 per fl oz)*

Swanson Cooking Stock, Beef

$2.99 for 32 oz ($0.09 per fl oz)*

Swanson Cooking Stock, Beef

Yeast extract gave this stock a boost of savory flavor, but tasters found the soup and gravy “bitter” and “charred.”

More Details
$2.99 for 32 oz ($0.09 per fl oz)*

Imagine Organic Beef Flavored Cooking Stock

$5.29 for 32 oz ($0.17 per fl oz)*

Imagine Organic Beef Flavored Cooking Stock

While some tasters found this broth “roasty,” many also picked up on “burnt,” “slightly bitter” flavors reminiscent of “charred onions.”

More Details
$5.29 for 32 oz ($0.17 per fl oz)*
Not Recommended

College Inn Bold Stock Tender Beef Flavor

$2.99 for 17.6 oz ($0.17 per fl oz)*

College Inn Bold Stock Tender Beef Flavor

Despite its high protein count, this broth was marred by “weird,” “tinny” flavors that were also “bitter” and “metallic.” This is most likely due to the inclusion of potassium chloride, which is known to add such off-flavors.

More Details
$2.99 for 17.6 oz ($0.17 per fl oz)*

Knorr Homestyle Beef Stock

$3.99 for 4.66 oz ($0.04 per reconstituted fl oz)*

Knorr Homestyle Beef Stock

Six ingredients—including salt—precede the mention of beef, so it’s no wonder that this Jell-O–like concentrate had one of the highest perceived salt levels in gravy. We also had a practical complaint: Each tub of concentrate (one package contains four tubs) yields 3 1/2 cups of broth, an amount that doesn’t match up with most recipes.

More Details
$3.99 for 4.66 oz ($0.04 per reconstituted fl oz)*

Pacific Organic Beef Broth

$3.99 for 32 oz ($0.12 per fl oz)*

Pacific Organic Beef Broth

Tasters were turned off by this broth’s “murky” green-yellow color and its unappealingly vegetal flavor.

More Details
$3.99 for 32 oz ($0.12 per fl oz)*

Orrington Farms Beef Broth Base & Seasoning

$2.79 for 12 oz ($0.01 per reconstituted fl oz)*

Orrington Farms Beef Broth Base & Seasoning

Tasters were unequivocal: This powdery concentrate made stew and gravy “taste more of salt than anything else.” It’s no surprise, given that each serving contains a whopping 950 milligrams.

More Details
$2.79 for 12 oz ($0.01 per reconstituted fl oz)*
Done in 281 ms! 61.385 KiB - 7.5% = 56.776 KiB