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Broth vs. Stock: What’s the Difference?

Broth or stock? They may seem similar, but each brings its unique twist to the table. Find out which one you should be using.

The culinary world is awash with terminology. Some terms are easy to get, while others might send even experienced cooks flicking through their reference books.

Whether you cook for a living or are just making dinner for the family, there’s always something new to learn. Basics like “bake” or “fry” might be second nature, but terms such as “deglaze” or “sear” can leave you puzzled.

Take, for instance, the terms “stock” and “broth”. Many use these terms interchangeably, but they are not the same. Understanding this distinction can mean the difference between a dish that truly stands out and one that simply doesn’t measure up.

What Is a Broth?

Broth is a flavorful liquid derived by simmering meat, vegetables, and aromatics in salted water.

In a home kitchen, people often make broth using leftover bones and meat scraps from other dishes or the remnants of a roast. A typical addition is mirepoix—a trio of carrots, celery, and onions. Often, fresh herbs are added for an aromatic boost.

This concoction is slow-cooked to draw out the rich flavors and aromas from the meat and veggies. Once done simmering, it’s strained and used as a base for sauces, gravies, soups, braises, and stews.

What Is a Stock?

Stock is made by slowly simmering meaty bones, vegetables, and aromatics in unsalted water. The prolonged cooking allows the flavors from the bones to infuse the liquid, resulting in a rich and flavorful base.

Sometimes, though not always, the bones and vegetables are roasted before simmering to give the stock a deeper flavor and a darker color.

The stock then serves as a backbone—forgive the pun—for various dishes, from sauces and gravies to soups, braises, and stews.

The Difference Between Broth And Stock

So, where does one draw the line between a broth and a stock?

The differences might be subtle, but they matter: Broth is made by simmering meat scraps and veggies in salted water, while stock is created by simmering meaty bones and veggies in unsalted water.

This means that broths tend to be saltier. Stocks, being less salty, offer more versatility in recipes, especially when combined with other ingredients that already have salt.

A broth is lighter and thinner because it’s primarily made from meat and simmered for a shorter time. In contrast, stock is simmered longer to extract gelatin and collagen from the bones, giving it a thicker consistency and richer body.

What About in the Grocery Store?

Unfortunately, in the grocery store, the line between broth and stock begins to blur… then fades away completely.

Commercial offerings, regardless of whether they’re labeled as “broth” or “stock”, tend to have a high sodium content. The waters muddy further when brands introduce “low-sodium” and “no-sodium” variants.

This ambiguity often leads consumers like you and me to conflate the two terms and use them interchangeably. Which raises the question: Does the choice between the two really matter? I’d argue that it does; here’s why.

As of the writing of this article, a quick glance at Walmart.com shows a prominent brand’s 32-oz carton of chicken stock containing 36% sodium, while a 32-oz carton of reduced-sodium chicken broth from the same brand registers at just 23%.

Choose judiciously: If you’re whipping up a quick soup and need a saltier foundation, grab the carton with higher sodium. But if you’re slow-cooking a braise or stew and want to fine-tune the taste, opt for the lower sodium option. Remember, adding salt is easy, but subtracting it? Impossible.

When shopping for ready-made broth or stock, always check the ingredients for preservatives, flavor enhancers, and other additives. Choose the ones with none—or at the very least fewer—of these ingredients.

Making Your Own Broth or Stock

Should you be making your own broth or stock? It’s an important question, and one that only you can answer.

If you have the time, the ingredients, and the use for a homemade broth or stock, then by all means, go for it. Making broth or stock from scratch allows you to control the ingredients and the flavor. You can adjust the salt, choose the bones or meat cuts, and add your preferred vegetables and herbs. This also means no preservatives, no additives, and a taste that’s tailored to your liking. It’s bound to make a difference in your cooking.

It’s not just about flavor, too. Making your own broth or stock can be economical, especially if you’re using leftovers or scraps that might otherwise be thrown away. Think of the chicken bones from a roast or the ends of vegetables.

However, note that homecooked broth or stock must be refrigerated and, unless frozen, will keep for 3-4 days in your fridge. Freezing is a great way to preserve the flavorful liquid for longer.

Bringing It All Together

While it’s easy to overlook the differences between broth and stock, understanding them can take your home cooking to another level.

Broth tends to be saltier, making it perfect for quick dishes that need a flavor kick. Stock, on the other hand, draws its essence from bones, resulting in a fuller, less salty base ideal for recipes requiring a body and thickness.

In the ever-confusing grocery aisle, remember that the key is often in the sodium content and ingredient list. But it’s not just about saltiness—it’s about understanding what goes into your food and making choices that align with your values.

Last but not least, as with many things in the kitchen, guidelines are just the starting point. The magic happens when you trust your palate, try out new things, and make the dish uniquely yours.

Know your author

Written by

Dim is a food writer, cookbook author, and the editor of Home Cook World. His first book, Cooking Methods & Techniques, was published in 2022. He is a certified food handler with Level 1 and Level 2 Certificates in Food Hygiene and Safety for Catering, and a trained cook with a Level 3 Professional Chef Diploma.