Just about every broth in the supermarket amounts to a science project of flavor enhancers and salt. Does that have to be a bad thing?
How We Tested
Chicken broth isn’t sexy like black truffles or trendy like pork belly, but in the test kitchen we rarely go a day without using it. As the backbone of much of our savory cooking, it appears in—at last count—586 of our recipes. That’s more than 10 times the appearance of beef broth and 24 times that of vegetable broth. We use it as a base for soups and stews; for simmering pilafs and risottos; and to moisten braises, pan sauces, and gravies.
Of course, we use homemade stock when possible, but truth be told, it’s not that often. Most of the time, we rely on our favorite commercial alternative, which for several years has been Swanson Certified Organic Free Range Chicken Broth. In our last tasting in 2005, its “chicken-y,” “straightforward” qualities separated this product from more than a dozen others we tried, the worst of which reminded tasters of “chemicals” and “cardboard.”
But like other processed foods, chicken broths are frequently revamped to keep in step with technology, so we decided it was time to take another look. When we surveyed supermarket shelves this go-round, we found them teeming with even more options than before—including more alternatives to canned or boxed liquid broths. Between the granulated powders, cubes, concentrates, and liquids—not to mention a headache-inducing array of sodium levels—we found more than 50 different chicken broth products.
To pare down this unwieldy number, we looked at salt levels. Our first move was to eliminate any broths with more than 700 milligrams of sodium per serving. Why? Because in previous taste tests we’ve found that broths containing more than this amount become too salty when reduced in a sauce or a gravy. We also avoided anything with less than 400 milligrams for two reasons: Since salt is a flavor enhancer, a judicious amount is required to bring out chicken taste. We also learned in our previous tasting that broths with less salt than this are entirely bland. Finally, we narrowed our focus to widely available national brands; nothing boutique or hard to find would do for such an everyday workhorse.
That left us with 10 broths: eight liquids (including our previous favorite) and two concentrates that are reconstituted with water. We set about tasting the finalists warmed plain, in a simple risotto, and reduced in an all-purpose gravy. Our goal: to find the richest, most chicken-y stand-in for homemade stock.
Given the results of our last tasting, we weren’t surprised when several of the samples tasted awful. In fact, five flunked every test. Some of these had chicken flavor so wan that it was practically nonexistent; others were “beefy” or “vegetal” or had bizarre off-flavors recalling “Robitussin” or “dirty socks.” Most of the remaining samples tasted promising out of the box but then exhibited flaws when cooked. A couple turned candy-sweet when reduced in gravy; the flavor of others disappeared entirely in the starchy risotto rice. Out of the 10 samples, there were only two that stood apart: One was a traditional boxed liquid, and the other was one of the two concentrates in the lineup. While tasters praised the boxed stock's "meaty flavor," they were even more impressed by the remarkably “clean,” “savory” taste of the concentrate.
We have to admit that we weren’t expecting a concentrate to perform so well. We went into the tasting thinking that a concentrate could never be quite as good as a liquid broth since it seemed more processed—and thus farther from homemade. Interestingly, we did a little digging and it turns out that nearly all supermarket chicken broths start out as concentrates; not only that, but most of them are made by the same company. According to Roger Dake, director of research and development for International Dehydrated Foods (IDF), most of the liquid broths in our lineup were made to order by IDF, which prepares them according to a brand’s specifications. The broths are left concentrated because this makes them lighter and thus cheaper to ship. At the food production sites, the concentrates are reconstituted to their final liquid form, flavored with the other ingredients shown on the label, packaged for retail, and shipped out for sale.
Given this, our awarding highest marks to a concentrate wasn’t all that remarkable. But there was something we weren’t expecting: The difference in protein between our two favorites. While the boxed liquid had a relatively high 4 grams of protein per cup, the concentrate got by with just 1. We weren’t surprised that there was a wide range of protein among the products. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has a minimal standard that it requires for beef broth—at least 1 part meat to 135 parts water (roughly 1 ounce of meat to a gallon of water)—but there is no such standard for chicken broth or “stock” at all. What’s more, we knew that more protein wasn’t actually a guarantee of bigger chicken flavor because the broth with the highest amount of protein per cup (5 grams) was panned for its “sour,” “vegetal” flavor. What we couldn’t figure out, though, was how our favorite concentrate obtained its rich, chicken-y flavor with such a measly amount of protein.
Thinking Outside the Box
Savoriness is often associated with glutamates, forms of an amino acid that enhance a food’s meaty, umami flavor. Glutamates are already found in chicken (and in particularly high concentration in many other foods including anchovies, Parmesan cheese, and tomato paste), but many companies add more in the form of yeast extract or hydrolyzed soy protein, so we made glutamates our next point of investigation. We packed up the broths and shipped them to an independent laboratory to be analyzed. The data helped confirm why our winner tasted good—it had the highest level of glutamates in the lineup. But it didn’t shed any light on why we liked the concentrate, which ranked among the lowest by far.
Even more puzzled, we looked closer at the products’ ingredient lists and noticed that the concentrate adds nucleotides called disodium inosinate and disodium guanylate to its product. Like glutamates, these compounds are flavor enhancers that occur naturally in certain foods including meat, seafood, and dried mushrooms. Now things started to make sense. A while back, we learned that when nucleotides and glutamates are combined, they can dramatically increase savory flavors. By including both types of compounds, it was able to create the savory qualities we associate with good chicken flavor—even without much protein.
We were intrigued by the concentrate and decided to stretch its legs in the kitchen by incorporating it into more recipes. Then we hit a snag: Some dishes—particularly those that called for more than a quart of chicken broth, like soups, or those that were considerably reduced, like pan sauces— occasionally turned overly salty with the concentrate in the mix.
That saltiness was in part explained by the fact that the concentrate added more sodium than any of the other brands we sampled (680 milligrams per serving), just pushing at our upper limit. But we couldn’t understand why the concentrate tasted nicely seasoned in some tests but too salty in others, until we took into account that the nutrition numbers for any product are allowed to vary by as much as 20 percent on either side of the stated value. Just to see what kind of range we might find, we rounded up 10 jars from 10 different batches (as determined by batch numbers on the labels) and sent them to the lab to analyze their sodium contents. Sure enough, the numbers were all over the map—from 380 to 770 milligrams per cup—which explained why our taste test results were, too. The greater than 20 percent swing made a considerable difference in a product that was already teetering on the edge of too salty.
Home to Roost
Our favorite concentrate's tendency toward saltiness made us hesitate about stocking it in the test kitchen, but it did have other merits. At just 16 cents per cup, it was the cheapest by far—more than seven times cheaper than the priciest liquid broth ($1.15 per cup). Why the huge price gap? You aren’t paying to transport all the water: Most cartons of liquid broth weigh 2 pounds and yield 4 cups, but an 8-ounce jar of concentrate yields 38 cups. That much liquid broth would weigh nearly 20 pounds.
Another plus: Once opened, the concentrate will last for two years stored in the refrigerator. Liquid broths keep for no more than two weeks once opened. Even better, you can reconstitute only as much as you need—several cups for making soup or stew or just a few tablespoons for making a pan sauce. Having thrown away plenty of partially used cartons of broth, we really appreciate that option.
Reconstituting also allowed us to adjust the concentration of the broth. The package label prescribes 1 teaspoon of concentrate per cup of water. (The label also directs users to increase the ratio of concentrate to water when making more than 1 quart of broth, though at press time the company told us it was reviewing these instructions.) Scaling back to 3/4 teaspoon per cup brought the saltiness in check without noticeably diluting the broth’s flavor.
Those perks made the concentrate an appealing option, but we ultimately felt that we couldn’t award it the top spot if it meant we had to ignore the package instructions. Instead, our boxed, liquid winning stock will be our stand-in for homemade. But given its great flavor, long shelf life, and price, we’re naming the concentrate our Best Buy. While we’d still like to see more actual meat in factory-made chicken broth, this product is proof positive that smart food science can go a long way toward engineering a better commercial broth.
After choosing from a list of top sellers compiled by IRi, a Chicago-based market research firm, and narrowing our results by sodium levels, our team had 21 Cook’s Illustrated staff members taste 10 widely available chicken broths in three blind tastings: plain, in a simple risotto, and in gravy. The broths were rated on flavor, saltiness, and off-flavors, as well as on overall appeal. Nutrition information was taken from product labels and is expressed with a serving size of 1 cup. Scores were averaged and the products appear in order of preference. (Note: We also tasted Better Than Bouillon’s reduced-sodium version and determined that we didn’t like this less-available product at all. Besides having less sodium, its formulation was markedly different.)