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 America's Test Kitchen TV Season 14: Hearty Spanish and Italian Soups, Revamped
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” ...
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