For me, cooking at home means using a ton of chicken broth and chicken stock (yes there are technically differences between broth and stock but mostly the terms are used interchangeably in recipes). It comes in handy in all kinds of recipes, and basically makes everything taste better (assuming you’re not vegetarian).
At $1 per cup the cost can add up, so I perked up when America’s Test Kitchen ran a Chicken Broth Taste Test. They tested various brands by drinking them straight-up, used in a plain risotto, and reduced in a gravy. The PBS cooking show America’s Test Kitchen (ATK) – which also publishes with Cook’s Illustrated magazine – can be thought of as the Consumer Reports for cooking in that they do not accept any advertising and are entirely subscriber-supported. I learned a lot of things I didn’t know about chicken stock:
- It’s okay to buy chicken broth. Yes, every single food “expert” will tell you that homemade stock is best and it’s so stupid easy you should do it yourself. But did you know that ATK themselves use boxed chicken stock for most of their own cooking? Since their last chicken broth test in 2005, they have used Swanson Certified Organic Free Range Chicken Broth on a daily basis. So don’t fret about it. Apparently it isn’t that stupid easy. Making my own chicken stock all the time is one of those things I’ll save for early retirement. (I admit homemade does taste better.)
- Most chicken broth is “a science project of flavor enhancers and salt”. Not necessarily something you’d like to hear, but apparently adding nucleotides and glutamates do indeed make things taste more umami and meatier. Many of these additives are considered “natural flavors” because they are made from extracted from things like yeast or soy protein. Also, too much salt may not be good for you but having too little means any broth will taste bland.
- Brands can change their formulas. As mentioned before, the 2005 taste test winner was the Swanson Certified Organic Free Range Chicken Broth. However, that product was recently reformulated with a new recipe and was no longer recommended in this 2014 test.
- It’s okay to buy chicken stock concentrate. Most chicken broth in stores is made by the same behind-the-scenes company (International Dehydrated Foods) in the form of a concentrate. Water is then added before final packaging by retail brands. Of course, that makes it heavier and bigger, so it costs more to ship and thus raises the store price. Therefore, a concentrate isn’t necessarily a more processed or more artificial product.
In the end, there were only two fully recommended products after performing the taste test.
The Better Than Bouillon Chicken Base (jar) is their Best Buy as it costs 85% less at $0.16 a cup vs. $1.06 a cup for the Swanson. In addition, the concentrate will last for two years stored in the refrigerator. When you need it, just add water to reconstitute. It has things like disodium inosinate and guanylate which probably interact with the naturally occurring MSG inside the hydrolized soy protein. Curiously, the label specifically states that no MSG is added.
The Swanson Chicken Stock (box carton) is the overall winner regardless of price, and it does not indicate any added glutamates on its ingredient list for those that don’t like that sort of thing. The issue for me is that my regular grocery store doesn’t sell Swanson Chicken Stock, only the cheaper and more popular Swanson Natural Goodness Chicken Broth (which was still rated relatively good but not as good as the stock).
ATK Founder Kimball said the worst one was Pacific Organic Free Range Chicken Broth, which tasted like “possum” or “roadkill”. Ew. I have personally been buying the Costco Kirkland Signature Chicken Broth, which I don’t believe was tested. But I’ve seen the Better than Bouillon at the store, so next time I will try it out. Sounds like a good thing to have as a backup.
(Note: All of this info is available via ATK’s freely-available text and video content at the time of publishing. If you register for free on their website (e-mail required), you’ll get more details on their review rankings and other tested products. There is also a paid subscription level with even more access.)
Also see: Best Value in Chef’s Knives?