Published May 1, 2008. From Cook's Illustrated.
It’s no surprise that veggie broths lack meat and bones, but why do so many rely on salt and "flavor potentiators" rather than vegetables? No wonder most brands are so bad.
Just 10 years ago, vegetable broth was hard to find in the supermarket. Now there are dozens of brands that come in cans and boxes, along with cubes, powders, and pastes. Without the advantage of meat, bones, or fat to boost their flavor, we wondered if any of these vegetable products could win us over. We saw broths that were opaque, others that were clear, and a few that had grit floating in the bottom of the tasting cups. Flavors ranged from bland to overpowering. Some were astonishingly salty or sweet, others oddly sour—and more than a few didn’t taste anything at all like vegetables. Some were downright terrible. Clearly, if you used them interchangeably in your recipes, the results would be radically different—and possibly even disastrous.
Twenty-one Cook's Illustrated staffers sampled 10 broths, chosen from the top-selling brands of ready-to-serve broth in the United States, according to Chicago-based market research firm Information Resources Inc. Each was tasted plain, cooked into Creamy Potato Soup and Parmesan Risotto, and tasted plain again but with salt corrected to the same level in all broths. We then averaged the results of the four tastings to determine the broths' rankings.
After noting the lack of similarity from brand to brand, we were not surprised to learn that there are no federal standards for how vegetable broth must be made. Vegetable broths tend to be made from the ugly ducklings of the produce world—vegetables that, while not spoiled, are unsuitable for sale as whole vegetables or vegetable parts. Some broths are not even made from fresh vegetables, but use dehydrated or powdered vegetable content instead. Worse, there’s no way to tell from the label whether a list of vegetable juices (carrot juice, beet juice, onion juice, etc.) came from fresh produce or were reconstituted from concentrates or powders—manufacturers are not required to reveal this. The same thing holds true for lists of what sound like whole vegetables but might really be vegetable extracts, concentrates, or powders.
Even more disturbing, some broths contain scant vegetable matter in any form, depending heavily on salts and sugars to stimulate the taste buds and a laundry list of enhancers known as “flavor potentiators.” These include monosodium glutamate (MSG), disodium inosinate, and disodium guanylate.
As we shopped for our lineup, we noted that some manufacturers were calling their products vegetable “stock” rather than broth. Traditionally, stock differs from broth because it is made with bones, which release rich gelatin during a long simmer on the stove, providing body to the resulting liquid. Since vegetables have no bones, and the products claimed to be vegetarian, we assumed this had to be marketing hype. We learned that manufacturers uses the term “broth” to refer to a quick-cooked liquid designed to capture fresh vegetable flavor, while “stock” refers to the more concentrated, seasoned result of a long, slow simmer. Our tasters had a distinct preference for the fresher taste of broths; our tasters noted sour, bitter, even “rotten” notes in each of the so-called stocks in our lineup.
When we looked at the labels of our broths post-tasting, we found that our preferences tended to align with those that contained vegetable content (whether derived from fresh whole vegetables, we couldn’t tell) present in a high enough concentration to be listed first on the ingredient list, ahead of salt and/or water. But a higher proportion of vegetable matter, on its own, was not a guarantor of good flavor. Just as important was the presence of both a slew of heavy-hitting flavor potentiators and salt—lots of it. In fact, moderate sodium content and the lack of flavor-enhancing additives helped land nearly all of the organic brands at the bottom of the rankings. These broths shared lackluster—even off-putting—flavors that tasters likened variously to “weak V8,” “musky socks,” and “brackish celery water.”
We’ve rarely had so many brands achieve such low scores in a tasting. Out of 10 brands, we can recommend just one. And how would this one decently flavored veggie broth stack up against chicken broth? To find out, we compared batches of Creamy Potato Soup and Parmesan Risotto made with each broth. Tasters were split down the middle as to which broth contributed better flavor. But taste aside, comparing the ingredient labels of the two broths disabused us once and for all of the notion that commercial vegetable broth might be the healthier alternative to commercial chicken broth. To achieve its equal footing, our vegetable broth not only contains chemical flavor potentiators, it is also loaded with nearly double the sodium of our favorite chicken broth.