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Just about every broth in the supermarket amounts to a science project of flavor enhancers and salt. Does that have to be a bad thing?
Published July 1, 2013. Appears in Cook's Illustrated July/August 2013, America's Test Kitchen TV Season 14: Hearty Spanish and Italian Soups, Revamped
What You Need To Know
Chicken broth isn’t sexy like black truffles or trendy like pork belly, but in the test kitchen we rarely go a day without using it. As the backbone of much of our savory cooking, it appears in—at last count—586 of our recipes. That’s more than 10 times the appearance of beef broth and 24 times that of vegetable broth. We use it as a base for soups and stews; for simmering pilafs and risottos; and to moisten braises, pan sauces, and gravies.
Of course, we use homemade stock when possible, but truth be told, it’s not that often. Most of the time, we rely on our favorite commercial alternative, which for several years has been Swanson Certified Organic Free Range Chicken Broth. In our last tasting in 2005, its “chicken-y,” “straightforward” qualities separated this product from more than a dozen others we tried, the worst of which reminded tasters of “chemicals” and “cardboard.”
But like other processed foods, chicken broths are frequently revamped to keep in step with technology, so we decided it was time to take another look. When we surveyed supermarket shelves this go-round, we found them teeming with even more options than before—including more alternatives to canned or boxed liquid broths. Between the granulated powders, cubes, concentrates, and liquids—not to mention a headache-inducing array of sodium levels—we found more than 50 different chicken broth products.
To pare down this unwieldy number, we looked at salt levels. Our first move was to eliminate any broths with more than 700 milligrams of sodium per serving. Why? Because in previous taste tests we’ve found that broths containing more than this amount become too salty when reduced in a sauce or a gravy. We also avoided anything with less than 400 milligrams for two reasons: Since salt is a flavor enhancer, a judicious amount is required to bring out chicken taste. We also learned in our previous tasting that broths with less salt than this are entirely bland. Finally, we narrowed our focus to widely available national brands; nothing boutique or hard to find would do for such an everyday workhorse.
That left us with 10 broths: eight liquids (including our previous favorite) and two concentrates that are reconstituted with water. We set about tasting the finalists warmed plain, in a simple risotto, and reduced in an all-purpose gravy. Our goal: to find the richest, most chicken-y stand-in for homemade stock.
Given the results of our last tasting, we weren’t surprised when several of the samples tasted awful. In fact, five flunked every test. Some of these had chicken flavor so wan that it was practically nonexistent; others were “beefy” or “vegetal” ...
Everything We Tested
Unlike most of the other liquid broths in our lineup, this one achieved “rich,” “meaty” flavor, and did so the old-fashioned way—with a relatively high percentage of meat-based protein. The only problem: Some tasters thought it came across as “beefy” or even “mushroomy,” not chicken-y.
By adding nucleotides to its glutamate-rich base, this brand produced a remarkably “savory” broth, despite that it contains very little protein. It’s also by far the cheapest broth we tasted, and once opened it lasts for two years in the fridge. However, this product’s high sodium content pushed our upper limits for saltiness, so we had to dial back the company’s prescribed ratio of concentrate to water.
Recommended with reservations
This concentrate’s “meaty” depth is built on the same flavor-boosting combination of glutamates and nucleotides as Better Than Bouillon—and it fared quite well as straight broth. But 32 ingredients later, this concentrate fell short on actual chicken flavor. It was also sweet like “canned pumpkin” when reduced.
This broth was “not super-meaty”; it was like “sweet squash” when reduced in gravy. No surprise: It was average for salt and contains the most sugar per serving, carrot juice being the likely culprit.
Off-notes detracted from the otherwise “good chicken flavor” of this broth. Some of us called out a “sour” lemony taste, while others fingered “sweet,” “floral,” “gingery,” and even “minty” flavors that were out of place in chicken broth.
Even though it contains only natural ingredients, this broth tasted artificial—like “ramen” or “powdered seasoning packets,” tasters said. With less than 1 gram of protein, it’s likely that this product contains very little actual chicken.
This “weak” broth “could be dishwater,” according to one taster. “Chicken of any kind is a stretch,” wrote another. This makes sense considering that the broth has very little protein, which suggests that not much chicken was used in production. Instead, “vegetal” flavors came to the forefront. This product has the second lowest amount of sodium and low glutamate levels. At press time, we learned that the company was in the process of repackaging this product.
Beyond tasting “bitter,” “sour,” and “burnt,” this broth had strong “vegetal” flavors that spoke not of chicken but of mushrooms. We found that surprising given its high concentration of protein—until we noticed that it contained mushroom stock, which rendered the liquid “alarmingly” dark and tinted risotto the color of brown rice.
The reformulated version of our previous favorite just didn’t measure up. The manufacturer wouldn’t specify the changes, but the ingredient label indicated that there was less sodium. The product was also low on protein. As a result, we found it “mild but genuine” as straight broth, but its flavor disappeared during cooking, leaving food “seriously bland,” with “no meatiness whatsoever.” As one taster put it, “Fess up: This is water, right?”
This was some seriously funky broth. For one thing, its taste was “not chicken-y...or meaty at all.” Worse, “sour, vegetal” notes dominated, not to mention other “really odd” flavors.
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