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The Best Beef Broth
Commercial beef broths contain almost no beef. So what exactly are these products adding to your recipes?
Published Jan. 1, 2016. Appears in Cook's Illustrated September/October 2010, Cook's Country TV Season 14: Chicken Soup and Cheesy Bread
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What You Need To Know
It’s hard to beat the convenience of store-bought broth. Truth be told, we turn to it often when making soups, stews, and gravies. Our winning commercial chicken broth is a pretty good stand-in for the real thing, but we’ve had less luck finding a decent beef broth. Part of the reason is that we expect more of beef broth. We typically rely on chicken broth to bolster the savory backbone of a recipe. But when we turn to beef broth, we want it to literally beef up the flavor of a dish.
A slew of new products have hit the beef broth market since our last tasting, and not just the mainly liquid contenders we’ve seen in the past. Hopeful that a better, truly beefy broth had come along, we rounded up 10 options from top-selling brands—including liquids as well as pastes, powders, and cubes that must be reconstituted with hot water—that contained at least 450 milligrams of sodium per serving (in previous broth tastings, we’ve found that products with less sodium taste underseasoned). We sampled these broths simply warmed, simmered in a beef and vegetable stew, and reduced in gravy.
Unfortunately, we were once again largely unimpressed with all the products we tasted. None delivered anything close to true beef flavor. At best, the broths contributed a savory taste, while the worst were either bland, overwhelmingly salty, or plagued by “bitter,” “charred,” or “burnt” off-notes. In the end, we had just one product to recommend. Though lacking in actual beefy taste, it delivered “fuller” flavor than any of the other products.
Where’s the Beef?
There’s an obvious explanation for the absence of beefy flavor in commercial broth products: They lack beef. To meet U.S. Department of Agriculture standards, liquid products labeled “beef stock” or “beef broth” (the government doesn’t distinguish between the two) need only contain 135 parts moisture to 1 part protein (which may be derived from meat or bones). The regulations that guide the pastes, powders, and cubes in our lineup are similarly paltry or don’t exist at all. A look at the nutrition labels confirms how little meat goes into them: Five of the 10 products have 1 gram or less of protein per cup, including our new winner. Meanwhile, our homemade beef broth, made with 6 pounds of meat and 2 pounds of bones per 2 quarts of water, has more than 4 grams of protein per cup.
Ultimately, however, the amount of protein in a broth had little to do with its ranking. In fact, though the liquid broths had more protein than products requiring reconstitution, in general they performed less well, exhibiting blandness or off-notes.
We learned one reason for their lackluster flavor: Most liquid broths (a...
Everything We Tested
Though lacking in actual beefy taste, a goodly amount of salt and multiple powerful flavor enhancers delivered “fuller flavor than other samples.” The paste is economical, stores easily, and dissolves quickly in hot water.
Recommended with reservations
With little actual beef and four different forms of hydrolyzed vegetable protein, monosodium glutamate, and yeast extract, these bouillon cubes delivered savory flavor that was more “mushroomy” than beefy.
Although soup and gravy tasted “meaty,” the flavors were generically “savory” instead of distinctly beefy.
This broth didn’t have the off-flavors that we found in other products. But compared to more heavily seasoned broths, our top-rated liquid broth didn’t just lack real beef flavor—it also tasted “watery” and “flat.”
Yeast extract gave this stock a boost of savory flavor, but tasters found the soup and gravy “bitter” and “charred.”
While some tasters found this broth “roasty,” many also picked up on “burnt,” “slightly bitter” flavors reminiscent of “charred onions.”
Despite its high protein count, this broth was marred by “weird,” “tinny” flavors that were also “bitter” and “metallic.” This is most likely due to the inclusion of potassium chloride, which is known to add such off-flavors.
Six ingredients—including salt—precede the mention of beef, so it’s no wonder that this Jell-O–like concentrate had one of the highest perceived salt levels in gravy. We also had a practical complaint: Each tub of concentrate (one package contains four tubs) yields 3 1/2 cups of broth, an amount that doesn’t match up with most recipes.
Tasters were turned off by this broth’s “murky” green-yellow color and its unappealingly vegetal flavor.
Tasters were unequivocal: This powdery concentrate made stew and gravy “taste more of salt than anything else.” It’s no surprise, given that each serving contains a whopping 950 milligrams.
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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.
Kate is a deputy editor for ATK Reviews. She's a culinary school graduate and former line cook and cheesemonger.