Published September 1, 2010. From Cook's Illustrated.
For years we’ve tried to find rich, complex broth that truly tastes like beef—not just salt or vegetables. When we finally did, the ingredients surprised us.
Our first experience sampling beef broths in 1998 left a foul taste in our mouths, and from then on we avoided it whenever possible. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) requires a ratio of 135 parts water to only 1 part beef in broth or stock (the government doesn’t distinguish between the two), and it was clear these products literally lacked beef. Then when we revisited the topic eight years later, there was progress; two brands that we sampled actually had beefy savor. But as we researched where this amped-up beefiness was coming from, it turned out it wasn’t from a cow. It was from a lab. Advances in food chemistry had yielded big improvements, making the newer broths more palatable. Since then the USDA requirements haven’t changed, but food chemistry has continued moving forward. Ever hopeful that we’ll find an even closer stand-in for the real, homemade deal, we decided to take another look. We sampled 13 brands (six stocks, five broths, and two reconstituted bases), with the top eight contenders graduating from the plain tasting to rounds in which we used them in French onion soup and gravy.
After crunching the numbers from this latest tasting, it was clear that most of the broths still tasted dreadful—“like the foam and crud you might skim off a pot of stock,” according to one taster—but that two manufacturers had raised the bar considerably. In fact, the newcomers were the best we’d ever tasted, and they trounced our previous winners from 2006. In particular, batches of onion soup made with the two new winners both received votes as the beefiest of the bunch, with “rich,” “savory,” “roast-y, clean, well-developed meat flavor” and “thick, gelatin-like” body.
We were certainly relieved to have better options on the market. But what exactly was the source of this new beefed-up flavor? We scanned the labels of these top broths, figuring that we’d see a lot of overlap, given that they were nose-to-nose in the final rankings, separated by just three-tenths of a point. To our surprise, one brand listed nearly 20 ingredients—many of them processed additives—while the other listed less than half that. According to the labels, the former stock also boasted a total of 7 grams of protein per serving, while the latter had just 3. How could two broths with quite different protein counts still share such a similarly beefy flavor—and accomplish it in seemingly very different ways?
The answer, we found out, all depends on how you define “protein.”
We looked again at the long label of one of our new favorites. Its top ingredient was beef stock—which, with 135 parts water to 1 part meat (known in the industry as the “moisture-protein ratio,” or “MPR”), we knew didn’t account for much flavor. In fact, that equation translates to less than 1 ounce of beef for each gallon of water. When we make beef stock, we load up the pot with the equivalent of 12 pounds of meat per gallon of water.
But the next item on the list seemed far more promising: beef extract. We learned that this term, also regulated by the USDA, refers to a mixture made from boiling consecutive batches of meat in the same cooking liquid until it boasts 75 percent “solids” to 25 percent “moisture.” It was anyone’s guess how much of this potent brew was actually included in the stock (and the company wouldn’t tell us), but this one additive alone could account for most of the broth’s total protein count and a lot of its flavor. We put aside any disappointment that the meat typically used to make beef extract is itself highly processed: corned beef or corned beef byproducts.
Two more processed beef derivatives on the label caught our attention: beef powder (defined by the USDA as “dried pulverized beef tissue”) and beef fat (a “beef byproduct”). Though the powder in particular sounded pretty far removed from a cow, it turns out both additives can have a significant impact on meaty flavor. Each contains two naturally occurring flavor-amplifying compounds: glutamates (the most common form of which is monosodium glutamate, or MSG) and nucleotides. Neither glutamates nor nucleotides exhibit much taste on their own, but together they can boost savory, “umami-like” flavors by twentyfold.
But glutamates aren’t just found in meat. Other foods, from Parmesan cheese to mushrooms, are also rich in these umami-boosting compounds. This broth contained two such ingredients: tomato paste and yeast extract. Yeast extract especially is packed with glutamates and nucleotides. In broth it functions like salt but without straight-up salty flavor, and is such a powerful flavor “potentiator” it could be no coincidence that the manufacturers of our five highest-ranked broths all seasoned their products with it. Through the use of processed beef products and glutamate-rich additives, this company had clearly figured out a low-cost formula for creating amped-up beefy flavor. But with so little real meat as its starting point, it still needed the help of other substances like corn syrup solids, soy lecithin, and gum arabic to create the body that in a homemade stock comes from the breakdown of meat’s collagen. Was this factory-engineered flavor and consistency really the best we could do?
The Natural Choice
Our other favorite broth was one of the more expensive broths in our lineup. It had the same beefy profile as the other winner—in fact, some tasters even lauded its flavor as “steak-y”—but a much shorter roster of ingredients. In this case, the biggest clue to its taste was at the very top of the ingredient list: “concentrated beef stock.” Skeptical at first that this term was anything more than just an appealing-sounding description, we went back to the USDA and discovered a crucial piece of information: To be labeled “concentrated,” beef stock must have a moisture-protein ratio of approximately 67 to 1—roughly double the concentration of regular stock. And just as in regular stock, that protein must come from raw, unprocessed meat. That meant that the primary ingredient in this broth started with twice as much fresh, uncooked meat as that in the other broths. Even better, this broth contained no processed additives except for yeast extract yet still managed to taste really beefy.
As we’ve said in previous broth tastings, what’s on store shelves is far from perfect. The USDA requires only a bare minimum of raw, unprocessed meat, so most companies have no incentive to literally beef up their broth. However, these two are the closest approximation of the real thing we’ve found; both will ramp up meaty flavor in any soup, gravy, or stew. But since the one broth manages to do so almost exclusively with the same natural ingredients you’d put in your own stockpot, given the choice, that’s what we’ll be buying to stock our own pantry.