Store-Bought Chicken Stocks, Reviewed: Which Are the Best?
"If you could make a clear broth out of sour cream-and-onion Pringles, this is what it would taste like. I might lick the powder off my fingers, but I would not cook with this."
Mark Bittman wants you to throw out your store-bought chicken stock. Michael Ruhlman, who writes that "You always have a good meal at hand when you have [homemade] stock in the freezer," agrees with him. And both say that a ten-minute vegetable simmer will trump anything that could come out of a can or a carton.
I would love to have a freezer full of chicken stock, and sometimes I do. But most of the time, firing up the stockpot is low on my list of priorities. Even when my schedule allows it, the weather may not. So what's a girl with a serious noodle soup habit to do?
Don't get me wrong; there's nothing like rich, homemade chicken stock, quivering with gelatin. But there's a flaw in the Bittman-Ruhlman chicken-broth agenda, and it's one that's shared by abstinence-only sex education: We're inevitably going to slip up, so we need to be informed of the alternatives.
Since the Establishment won't tell us what they are, I decided to find out for myself. I sampled every brand of chicken stock in my grocery store, using batches of the real stuff and the ten-minute wonder broth—is my skepticism apparent?—for comparison. My findings, after the jump.
Notes on Tasting
Stock and broth are not technically the same thing. Chicken stock should be made with mostly bones and scraps; its high gelatin content will give body to sauces. Chicken broth, on the other hand, should be made from chicken pieces with a high meat-to-bone ratio; its pronounced, meaty flavor is perfect for classic chicken soup. However, most manufacturers and many cookbooks ignore this distinction, so I've tested each product for use in both soups and sauces. Each contender was tasted warm, then reduced by half and tasted again.
Flavor: I'm looking for clean, aromatic flavor that doesn't need masking. I want a broth I can use, unadorned, in noodle or matzoh ball soup.
Salt content: For reasons that have nothing to do with my health, I want as little salt as possible in my chicken stock. This is less important if I am making a quick soup, but if I plan to reduce the stock to make a sauce, I need to be able to control the seasoning.
Body: The gelatin in homemade stock provides a rich mouthfeel that gets even richer as it reduces. This mouthfeel is the most elusive quality in store-bought stocks.
Homemade chicken broth: This is the good stuff. It wobbles when chilled, has layer upon layer of flavor, and calls for nothing more than a chicken, aromatic vegetables, and tap water. Nothing more, that is, unless you count the hidden, potentially most costly ingredient: four hours of my time and stove. Having said that, I made sopa de ajo with it, and it was spectacular.
College Inn Chicken Broth: Salt dominates to the exclusion of all other flavors, and a deceptively rich mouthfeel turns out to be the work of MSG. There's a faintly metallic aftertaste that only worsens on reducing. It's products like this one that incur the wrath of Bittman. Not recommended.
Emeril's Chicken Stock: Is this the best you can do, Mr. Lagasse? I tasted no evidence of the many aromatic vegetables listed in the ingredients. It's very salty, and has an odd, powdery mouthfeel, like disintegrated chicken. I would pass on this one.
Swanson's Chicken Broth: It's hard to believe that this was my mother's favorite broth when I was growing up. Tasting it now, with its aggressive saltiness and strong vegetable flavor, I'm reminded of celery salt—and craving a Bloody Mary. With no depth of flavor, it's nothing more than liquid seasoning.
Swanson's Chicken Cooking Stock: Also from Swanson's, this product is new on the market and far superior to the company's regular chicken broth. It has a pronounced, sweet flavor of carrot and onion, and the rich taste of well-roasted chicken bones. Too salty to reduce much, but a fine candidate for noodle soup, particularly with a splash of sherry or Chinese cooking wine.
Herb-ox Instant Chicken Bouillon and Seasoning: If you could make a clear broth out of sour cream-and-onion Pringles, this is what it would taste like. I might lick the powder off my fingers, but I would not cook with this.
Glace de Poulet Gold: This gelatinized hockey puck of chicken essence is dissolved in water to make 2 pints of stock. I'd expect more sweetness from the carrots and onions, but, otherwise, the flavor is rich and round, and really improves on reducing. The added gelatin gives a decent amount of body, making this a top contender for saucemaking. I'd be even more enthusiastic about this product if they omitted the salt; fortunately, the amount is not overwhelming.
Kitchen Basics Natural Chicken Stock: The least salty of all the brands I tried, this can withstand some moderate reducing. With clearly perceptible notes of black pepper, bay and thyme, it tastes clean, even respectable. I'd use this in a noodle soup.
Mark Bittman's quick vegetable simmer: Of canned broth, the Minimalist writes: "Simmer a carrot, a celery stalk and half an onion in a couple of cups of water for 10 minutes and you're better off." I followed his instructions to the letter, and ended up with a surprisingly fragrant, but utterly tasteless, vegetable tea. I might use it in a lentil soup; I might even deglaze my pan with it, in a pinch. But if I need noodle soup and I need it fast, it's no use to me at all.
If you keep the kind of kitchen where homemade chicken stock is always on hand, I both commend and envy you. But if you happen to slip up, here's what to use:
Best for quick soups: Swanson's Chicken Cooking Stock, Kitchen Basics Natural Chicken Stock
Best for sauces: Glace de Poulet Gold, Kitchen Basics Natural Chicken Stock