Finding a low-sodium vegetable broth worth using is more difficult than it sounds.
Published Jan. 1, 2015.
Many home cooks opt for low-sodium broth for health reasons. The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines low-sodium foods as containing no more than 140 milligrams of sodium per 1-cup serving. We selected nine vegetable broths that qualified, with sodium levels ranging from 65 milligrams to 140 milligrams per cup. While some were specifically labeled low sodium, others were called “no salt added” or “unsalted”; both terms mean that no salt was added during processing. (Some of these products can contain quite a bit of naturally occurring sodium, so it’s always a good idea to double-check the nutrition label.) After several initial testing rounds where we chose a single contestant from each brand that makes more than one low-sodium offering, we had five finalists, including two products sold as “vegetarian no-chicken” broths (meatless broths intended to mimic chicken broth). We tasted each broth plain, in vegetable soup, and in Parmesan risotto, rating each on flavor, saltiness, any off-flavors, and overall appeal.
Most of the broths were very unpopular with tasters, earning comparisons to “rotting compost,” “bitter onion tea,” and “sour, boiled tennis shoes.” Salt is a flavor enhancer and can help mask naturally bitter flavors that can be prominent when concentrated in vegetable broths, but these low-sodium broths lacked that advantage. In fact, we could recommend only one—and our favorite was actually one of the broths that mimic chicken broth. Wary tasters found it “surprisingly good” in soup and risotto. With 130 milligrams of sodium per cup, it hovered near the high end of the allowable range for a low-sodium product.
Notably, both our winner and the only other low-sodium broth we can recommend (albeit with reservations) were the only broths that contain yeast extract. Derived from the cells of fresh yeast, this substance is full of glutamates and nucleotides, which boost savory umami flavor. It’s also a particularly important ingredient for manufacturers of low-sodium products: It enhances the perception of saltiness without any increase in actual salt. Besides yeast extract, our winner also contained ingredients that lent complexity and balance: mace, as well as garlic, chicory, and cane juice. We found that this broth also had a more unctuous body, similar to what you’d associate with a rich chicken or beef stock, which comes from the addition of palm oil and cornstarch.
Convenient, compact, and shelf-stable, our winner is worth keeping in the pantry for the times you need a low-sodium option.
The mission of America’s Test Kitchen Reviews is to find the best equipment and ingredients for the home cook through rigorous, hands-on testing.
Lisa is an executive editor for ATK Reviews, cohost of Gear Heads on YouTube, and gadget expert on TV's America's Test Kitchen.