To me, unless I am sick (in which case "broth" means a bouillon cube dissolved in hot water) broth is either something amazing and rich with flavor that happens naturally when you are making soup out of delicious ingredients (my husband, who hates "broth," loves a caramelized onion soup with a passion), or else it is a prefabricated substance, often powdered or pasty, that you buy at the store and add to food for a little extra punch of salt, fat and herbs.
What I have been buying in recent years for that last purpose is a product called Better Than Bouillon. (No, this is not a sponsored post!) Better Than Bouillon is a concentrated paste that comes in a jar and is refrigerated after opening, and is available in various flavors (beef, chicken, vegetable, etc.). It is sold at the natural foods coop down the street, where they are serious purists, and also at the Safeway. The ingredient list, so far as I have investigated it, seems reasonably OK. So is this product, in fact, better than bouillon? How much better? And what is our best bet for adding salt, fat and herbs conveniently to a dish?
I began this research by going to my refrigerator and getting out my two jars of Better Than Bouillon (one beef, one vegetable), in order to refresh my memory of their ingredients. I was immediately struck by a problem. The beef BTB-- along with beef, salt, sugar, yeast extract, whey, potato flour, and corn oil,-- contained hydrolyzed soy protein (a flavor enhancer similar to MSG), corn syrup solids, "flavoring," caramel color, and xanthan gum (a thickener). None of these things did I remember being involved in my Better Than Bouillon. I picked up the other jar. Why was the ingredient list on the vegetable flavor so superior? Vegetables, salt, soy sauce, cane sugar, maltodextrin (a thickener), yeast extract, potato starch, onion powder, garlic powder, spices. No "soy protein," no corn syrup, no unspecified "flavors." And then I realized something I'd never noticed before. I read the fine print. Over the vegetable Better Than Bouillon label it read, in small letters, "Organic." Over the other, it read "Superior Touch." Whatever the fuck that means. Now I will actually be aware that these are two very different products.
How do they compare with a standard bouillon cube, for instance Wyler's? The Wyler's chicken bouillon cube ingredient list includes: "Salt, Sugar, Chicken, Potassium Chloride, Corn Syrup Solids, Corn Gluten Hydrolyzed, Onions Powder[sic], Maltodextrin, Chicken Fat, Monosodium Glutamate, Corn Starch Modified, Yeast Extract Autolyzed, Garlic Powder, Flavors Natural [what language do these people speak?], Chicken Broth, Taurine, Turmeric, Soybeans Oil [sic] Partially Hydrogenated, Dextrin, Citric Acid, Caramel Color, Soy Protein Hydrolyzed, Parsley Flakes Dehydrated, Disodium Inosinate, Disodium Guanylate, Soy Sauce Powder (Wheat Fermented, and, Soy ), Spices, BHA, BHT, Propyl Gallate, Preservative."
(By the way, the unusual grammar of the above list prompted me to look up where Wyler's bouillon cubes are made. They are made in... Chicago. The grammar remains unexplained.)
Jesus H. Christ. First of all, that's a lot of ingredients. Second, notice that in this case there is more salt than chicken; at least the first ingredient in the beef BTB was beef. All the same offenders are here (corn syrup solids, flavors and color, hydrolyzed soy protein), but then there is so much more! Potassium chloride (yet another contribution to a salty taste), hydrolyzed corn gluten (presumably similar to the soy protein), straight up MSG, dextrin, citric acid, disodium inosinate and disodium guanylate (more salty flavor enhancers), BHA, BHT and propyl gallate (all preservatives), and then-- as if three named preservatives weren't enough-- "Preservative."
So, yes. Even "Superior Touch" Better than Bouillon is better than bouillon. But in the future I will be sure to look for the organic label.
Obviously there are organic bouillon cubes, and the ingredients for these seem fine too (e.g., Edward & Sons Garden Veggie bouillon cubes contain "Sea Salt, Organic Expeller-Pressed Palm Oil, Yeast Extract, Onion, Organic Carrot, Lovage, Turmeric, Organic Celery, Maltodextrin, Parsley, Organic Mace Spice."
Another option, of course, would be to purchase liquid broth in a can or box. The ingredients for Swanson's chicken broth are "CHICKEN BROTH, SALT, MONOSODIUM GLUTAMATE, DEXTROSE,YEAST EXTRACT, CHICKEN FLAVOR, FLAVORING, CORN SYRUP SOLIDS, AUTOLYZED YEAST EXTRACT, CHICKEN FAT, HYDROLYZED SOY PROTEIN, CHICKEN BROTH POWDER." I am not sure what "chicken broth" as an ingredient of chicken broth would mean, exactly. Also note the MSG, corn syrup, flavorings, etc. It is better than a Wyler's bouillon cube, we'll give it that. And there is good organic liquid chicken broth. Pacific Foods' organic broth contains "Chicken Broth (Water, Chicken), Chicken Flavor, Cane Sugar, Yeast Extract, Onion Powder, Rosemary Extract." Good, they explained that "chicken broth" as an ingredient of chicken broth means water + chicken. Generally one doesn't include water on an ingredient list. Why not just say "chicken"? My guess is that the ratio of chicken to water is low enough that "chicken" would no longer appear first on these ingredient lists, and that "chicken broth" is a PR move preventing salt or sugar from being the primary ingredient. Moving on. I'm not sure what "chicken flavor" means in organic terms, but overall this broth seems wholesome enough.
But there are two very good reasons I don't choose these products over bouillon cubes or paste. First, I don't like the taste as much-- I find the broth bland and oily. And, second, why package and ship a product that is mostly water mixed with salt and flavorings, when one can easily reconstitute those flavorings at home, saving a lot of energy, packaging, and money?
Now, a real cook would make their own stock at home and freeze it for future uses. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this, provided you have space in your freezer to store large amounts of something that is, again, mostly water. (I personally have room, since I buy very few frozen foods.) However, many of us are not real cooks in this sense. We just don't have the foresight or the energy to boil stuff for hours in order to create a liquid seasoning that will lend only a mild flavor to future dishes, and offer no instant gratification of any kind.
Now, it seems to me there is an overlooked option. What is in organic bouillon, or Better Than Bouillon, again? Vegetables or meat, salt/soy sauce, sugar, oil, natural thickeners, yeast extract, and spices. Wait, always with the yeast extract. What is that about? Apparently, yeast extract is also a hidden source of glutamate flavor-enhancers, one that is allowed in organic products. Couldn't we just skip the thickeners and flavor-enhancers and add the salt, fat, and spices to our food directly? That is, why be so dependent on broth at all? How about, instead of adding some chicken or vegetable broth when we want our rice to have a bit of flavor, we add some salt, oil or butter, and herbs? Wouldn't that have essentially the same effect without all the additives?
There must have been a world before bouillon, and I bet it wasn't filled with French chefs making stock.