Stocks and Broths — Is there really a difference?

A staple in our pantries is some sort of stock, usually chicken, but there is also beef, seafood and vegetarian. If you are a bit more ambitious, that stock may be in your freezer rather than your pantry as you made it yourself (Hurray for you!) Or, is what you have broth rather than stock? Or, are they the same thing? That is the subject of this Cooking Tip. Let’s demystify these terms although I will warn you that manufacturers often use these different terms willy nilly.

After perusing definitions found in culinary reference sources, I would summarize the difference as follows.

  • Stock – This is a flavorful liquid made from simmering bones and aromatics with little or no seasoning. As discussed below, stocks are usually simmered anywhere between 30 minutes and 24 hours. It is meant to be used for making sauces, soups, gravies, etc. It is at that stage that seasoning is used, as needed in the final dish.
  • Broth – This is also a flavorful liquid but is made from simmering meat (may also have a few bones) and aromatics. Broths are usually seasoned and have a more pronounced flavor as they are based on meat rather than bones. Because of the lack of bones, there is an absence of gelatin resulting in much less body than stocks. Broths are usually simmered a much shorter time than stocks, under 2 hours. They are intended to be served as is and are, therefore, seasoned to taste.

These definitions obviously work for a meat-based stock/broth. With a vegetarian version, there is less of a distinction other than the seasoning and the end purpose – consuming on its own or as an ingredient in another dish.

Stocks may also be classified as white or brown – depending on whether or not the bones/aromatics are roasted before making the stock.

  • White stock is made from raw or blanched bones and aromatics.
  • Brown stock calls for roasting the ingredients, which results in darker flavor and color of the stock.

Another discussion is around whether you make/freeze homemade stock or use store-bought. As I write this, I am making a chicken stock from all the bones I have accumulated from holiday cooking and even before that. However, I try to always have store-bought in my pantry because when I run out of homemade, it is not something I can quickly make. Having a good quality store-bought stock in your pantry is a good idea.

If you want to try to make homemade stock, it is not difficult. It just takes some time, some babysitting the mixture and remembering a few key items. First, put your bones in a stock pot and cover with cool water by no more than 2 inches. Slowly bring it up to a very mild simmer. The faster it comes to a boil and the more vigorous it boils, the more impurities are brought out, which can be deleterious both to flavor and clarity. The water should be at a bare simmer. The French call it “frémir”, which means “to tremble”. There should just be an occasional bubble bursting to the surface – no more. Adjust your heat to keep it at this level.

A second key is that you should periodically skim any fat or impurities off the top of the mixture. This will help in achieving a clear liquid.

Most stock recipes have you add a mirepoix (if you do not recall what that is, see this Tip I wrote earlier.) This should be added only in the last hour of cooking.

Continue to simmer for the appropriate amount of time, tasting as you go. Stock can be made from any type of bone: chicken, beef, fish. It can even be shrimp shells. The method mainly differs in how long it is simmered. I was taught the following in culinary school although you may find slight variations from other sources.

  • Vegetable & Seafood stock – 30 minutes-1 hour
  • Chicken stock – 4-6 hours
  • Duck stock – 6-8 hours
  • Lamb/Pork stock – 8-12 hours
  • Beef/Veal stock – 18-24 hours

When finished, be sure to strain thoroughly either through a chinois or a cheesecloth-lined colander. For food safety reasons, cool quickly to under 40°F. Apportion into small containers and freeze for future use.

For those good store-bought stocks, I perused numerous tasting tests. Some, unfortunately, were from quite a few years ago. As companies do change their recipes, some of the older taste tests may not still be valid. As with anything, different testers rated differently. So, I will try to summarize for you as best I can.

Before I do that, though, I want to make you aware of one concern with many store-bought stocks. They tend to very high in sodium. As I mentioned above, home-made stocks are generally not seasoned to allow you to get the seasoning just right in the finished dish. If you are using a store-bought stock, you need to be very careful about adding any salt as it starts out with a significant amount just in the stock.

There are reduced sodium stocks readily available. I encourage you to taste them to see if that might suit your purposes just fine. Overall, I have seen the sodium content for 8 ounces vary from a low of 20 mg to a high of 860 mg. That is a difference that will certainly affect your final dish.

One other caveat on the ratings. They only test well-known national brands. They do not test store brands, including Costco or Sam’s Club. Those are ones you may want to taste test on your own.

Among the highest rated store-bought stocks are:

  • Swanson’s Stocks – both regular and less sodium varieties
  • Progresso Reduced Sodium Chicken Broth
  • Trader Joe’s Organic Low-Sodium Chicken Broth
  • Kitchen Basics Natural Chicken Stock

Among those rated as “OK in a pinch” are:

  • Imagine Free-Range Low Sodium Chicken Broth

Some were rated as very mediocre at best:

  • Simply Balanced Low-Sodium Chicken Broth
  • Whole Foods 365 Organic Chicken Broth

A couple were consistently rated poor:

  • Pacific Organic Free Range Low Sodium Chicken Broth
  • College Inn Chicken Broth

I suspect all of us have some stock in our kitchen but I wonder how many of you have homemade stock. Let me know if you do. Whether it is home-made or store-bought, it is an essential item. Use it not only to make soups but also to add more flavor to your sauces. You may also want to cook your rice/grains in stock rather than water – or a mixture of both. Have fun with your stocks – or broths!