Soup stocks and broths are the foundation of many delicious soups, stews, and sauces. They add depth of flavor, richness, and complexity to dishes, and are a great way to use up leftover vegetables, bones, and other ingredients that might otherwise go to waste. In this article — part of my How to Make Great Soup series — we’ll explore the differences between stocks and broths, and how to make great stock at home for the most amazing soup.
As a soup aficionado, you know that soup is a comforting and nourishing meal that can be enjoyed year-round in its various forms. One of the keys to making great soup is using a high-quality, flavorful stock as the base.
In soup-making, sometimes plain water is the perfect liquid to use for a soup recipe, but most of the time, soup benefits from a well-made stock, providing depth and complexity to the final dish. Here I’ll review the importance of using a good stock in making soup and offer tips on how to make your own stock at home.
Whether you’re a beginner cook or a seasoned soup chef, learning to make your own stock is a useful skill that will elevate your soup-making game. So, let’s dive in and discover the secrets of great soup stocks and broths.
What is the difference between stock, broth, and instant bouillon?
Stock is a liquid made by simmering bones, vegetables, and seasonings for an extended period of time. The simmering process extracts flavor, nutrients, and collagen from the bones, which gives the stock a rich, full-bodied taste and a thick, gel-like consistency when chilled. Stocks are typically used as a base for soups, stews, and sauces, and can also be used to braise meats and vegetables.
There are two main types of stocks: brown and white:
Brown stocks are made with roasted bones — most often beef or veal bones, or a mix with poultry bones — and vegetables which gives them a deeper, more complex flavor and a darker color. They’re typically used in hearty dishes such as beef stew or French onion soup.
White stocks, on the other hand, are made with raw poultry bones and vegetables, which gives them a lighter color and a more delicate flavor. They are typically used in lighter dishes such as chicken noodle soup or fish chowder.
These two subdivisions are usually reserved for homemade soup stocks, as you’re not likely to find packaging at the grocery store labeled “brown stock.” Likewise, soup recipes you’ll find here or elsewhere online do not make that distinction.
Generally speaking, however, commercial bone broth is often a brown stock, while other stocks are white.
Broth, on the other hand, is a liquid made by simmering meat, vegetables, and seasonings for a shorter period of time than stock. The simmering process extracts flavor and nutrients from the ingredients, but not as much collagen as stock. Broths are typically used as a base for soups, stews, and sauces, and can also be used to braise meats and vegetables.
Like stocks, broths can be made from a variety of ingredients, including chicken, turkey, beef, pork, fish, and vegetables.
Stocks and broths can usually be used interchangeably, so for simplicity’s sake, I’ll be referring to all liquid stocks and broths as “soup stock,” so that sentences don’t become bulky.
Bouillon literally means broth in French, but in the U.S. it’s used as the umbrella term for instant forms of stock, such as compressed cubes, powders, granules, and pastes that are dissolved in water.
In my mom’s cooking heyday, the only pre-made option for stock was the bouillon cube. They’re still available today, but pastes are more popular, such as the Better Than Bouillon brand, and are also used as flavor enhancers in a variety of dishes beyond soup.
What are the pros and cons of making homemade stock vs. using store-bought stock?
I’ll be very honest here: as a frequent soup-maker, I don’t always have time to make soup stock for every batch of soup I cook. Each soup recipe requires a lot of stock — 4 to 6 cups — and it’s just not possible for me to keep up with that kind of demand! Ironic, I know, but true.
So, while I’m definitely Team Homemade Soup Stock, I also live in this world and know the reality of time limitations. Before we get into the deets of homemade stocks, here’s a quick look at some of the pros and cons that I have about making stock from scratch vs. using store-bought stock.
But, first, let me be clear about this: I’m always pro soup, lol. So if store-bought stock is what it takes to get it done, I’m all for the store-bought stock!
Flavor: Homemade stock is often more flavorful than store-bought because you have control over the composition and can use fresh ingredients and your favorite vegetables and seasonings.
Quality: Homemade stock is generally made with only fresh ingredients and is free from the preservatives and other additives that are often included in store-bought soup stocks. Additionally, when you make your own soup broth or stock, you can use bones from grass-fed or organic meats, which can provide a richer and more nutritious stock.
Cost-effective: Making your own soup stock can be more cost-effective than buying store-bought stocks because it allows you to use up leftover ingredients, such as vegetable scraps and bones, that you might otherwise throw away. (Note: price is also a con!)
Nutrition: Homemade soup stock is almost always healthier than store-bought, especially in terms of sodium load. No matter how much salt you add to your homemade broth, it’s a good bet that it’s still far less than what commercial brands pump into their concoctions. It’s also likely that you’ll use far more vegetables and other healthy ingredients to infuse your stock with healthy goodness.
Time-consuming: Making homemade stock can be time-consuming, as even the fastest method is still an hour or more, including vegetable prep.
Requires planning: This is one factor that always trips me up. I might wake up one morning with a craving for chicken soup, but have no stock on hand or even ingredients to make it. So, advanced planning is one reason why I lean unapologetically on store-bought soup stock.
Storage: Homemade stock takes up space in the pantry (if canned) or freezer. Refrigerated stock needs to be used within a few days.
Expensive: Depending on the state of the economy and the time of year, buying the raw ingredients for homemade soup stock can be fairly frugal … or really expensive. The cost-effective pros mentioned above kick in when you’re already buying ingredients that can go into stocks: e.g., a whole chicken (save the bones for soup stock), a head of celery where you need only a few ribs for a recipe, and can use the rest of the head for the stock, etc. But if you have to buy everything outright all at once, it adds up.
Types of soup stock:
There are several different types of soup stock, each with its own unique flavor and use.
Chicken stock: Made from simmering chicken meat, skin, and bones, plus vegetables and herbs, chicken stock is a versatile and flavorful stock that can be used in many different types of soups. In fact, it’s my go-to because although wonderfully savory, it’s more neutral in flavor: beef stock is robust and vegetable stock often leans sweet.
Vegetable stock: Made from simmering a variety of vegetables, such as carrots, celery, onion, and garlic, vegetable stock is a flavorful and versatile stock that can be used in a variety of soups and stews.
Bone broth: Made from simmering bones, often from chicken, beef, or pork, bone broth is a rich and nutritious stock that is high in collagen, minerals, and other nutrients. It is often consumed as a drink or can be used in soups, stews, and other dishes.
Beef stock: Made from simmering beef bones and, vegetables and herbs, beef stock is a rich and flavorful stock that is often used in hearty soups and stews, especially deeply flavored soups like French onion.
Seafood stock: Made from simmering fish bones, vegetables, and herbs, fish stock is a light and delicate stock that is often used in seafood soups and chowders. Stock can also be made from shellfish, such as shrimp, simply by simmering the shells. It’s delicious!
Mushroom stock: While not always easily found in stores, mushroom stock is a richly flavored, almost meaty, concoction that adds an extra level of umami punch, especially to meat and/or grains soups. I almost always have a jar of Better Than Boullion Mushroom paste on hand for an extra kick of flavor.
Consommé: A type of clear soup, consommé is made by clarifying a meat or fish stock into a clear, well-strained broth. It is typically served as an appetizer.
Aside from proteins, what other ingredients are used for making soup stock?
When making soup stock, some common vegetables, herbs, and seasonings that are often used include:
- Onions: Onions add a rich and savory flavor to the stock and are a staple in most stocks.
- Carrots: Carrots add a natural sweetness and earthy flavor to the stock, and also provide a boost of Vitamin A and other nutrients.
- Celery: Celery adds a subtle sweetness and a slightly astringent note to the stock, and it’s a staple for most stocks.
- Garlic: Garlic adds a pungent and robust flavor to the stock, it is also known for its health benefits.
- Leeks: Leeks add a delicate sweetness and a subtle onion-like flavor to the stock.
- Tomatoes: Tomatoes add a slight acidity and sweetness to the stock, they are often used in stocks for soups that have a tomato base.
- Parsley: Parsley is a great herb to use in the stock as it adds a fresh, green flavor and a boost of Vitamin C and other nutrients.
- Bay leaves: Bay leaves add a subtle, woodsy and fragrant flavor to the stock, it is commonly used in stocks for soups that have a meat base.
- Fennel: Fennel adds a subtle licorice flavor and sweetness to the stock, and is often used in fish stocks.
- Mushrooms: mushrooms add a rich, earthy flavor to the stock and are often used in vegetarian stocks.
- Ginger: Ginger is a lovely, zesty addition to Asian-inspired soups. Its citrusy-spicy flavor contributes a welcome brightness to stock.
- Peppercorns: Black, white, red, and/or green whole peppercorns are great additions to soup stock.
- Parsley: Stems of fresh parsley add an indescribable, verdant freshness to a stock and are especially recommended for chicken and vegetable stocks.
Pro Tip: If you have room in your freezer, store a large container or a gallon zipper bag and add vegetables scraps to the bag as you cook (e.g, the quarter of an onion you couldn’t use, or the green flags from leeks, or leftover chicken bones). When the bag is full, it’s time to make some stock!
This is just a starting list. You can add any vegetable that you love, especially from the family of aromatics. Other options include bell or chile peppers, parsnips, lemongrass, cilantro, rosemary, thyme — anything with loads of flavor.
To Salt or Not to Salt
It’s so easy to get caught up in the quest to make awesome soup stock that we forget that we’re not actually making soup at this point.
In other words, soup stock doesn’t have to taste like it came from a 5-star restaurant; it’s simply the base in which your actual soup will be made.
I say this controversial thing — soup stock isn’t soup after all — because it’s time to talk about salt.
Salt is, of course, an important seasoning element in soup, but it’s also a complex consideration when we’re talking about soup stock: How much salt should we add to our stocks?
The honest but probably unsatisfying answer is that it’s completely up to you whether you add salt to your soup stock to finish rounding out its flavor, or leave it aside for your future soup to handle.
But here are some things to think about, in no particular order:
- A salty soup stock does provide a shortcut when cooking your soup. You’ll spend less time tweaking the seasonings in your soup because it’s already there in the stock.
- For many people, there are health considerations to keep in mind: If you use a salty stock, you’re stuck with a salty soup. If the intent is serving it to people on a sodium-restricted diet, you’ve limited your options for creating a healthy meal for them.
- You can always add more salt to something, but you can’t remove it after the fact. (Remember, hacks for tamping down the saltiness of a soup doesn’t actually remove any of the sodium content.)
- A little salt helps the vegetables in the stock break down a bit, releasing more flavor. This is especially true if you sauté your vegetables first.
- A completely sodium-free soup stock is unappealing to some cooks, as many people are used to the typical highly salted retail soup stocks sold at the grocery, and homemade stock can taste weak in comparison.
- A completely sodium-free soup stock is an opportunity to expand your seasonings repertoire and explore herbs, spices, umami, and acids (such as vinegars) to flavor soups and create healthier, more intriguing results.
Personally, I salt my stocks as little as possible, both because I have blood pressure issues here in late middle-age, and also I prefer, when I have the option, to salt my soups a little at a time, rather than rely on a salt bomb of a stock.
But the choice is completely up to you. The beautiful thing about homemade soup stock is that it can be anything from a mild blank slate for your soups to a flavor-saturated base customized specifically for your favorite recipes.
Methods for Cooking Soup Stock
There are a few common ways to cook soup stock, including:
Simmering: This is the most traditional method of making soup stock. To make stock by simmering, you will need to combine your ingredients (such as bones, vegetables, and herbs) in a large pot and bring them to a simmer (i.e., gentle bubbling). Cook the soup stock for several hours, typically 3 to 4 hours for chicken stock, 6 to 8 hours for beef or pork stock, and 1 to 2 hours for fish stock.
Simmering is the most accessible method for most cooks, as it requires only minimal equipment: a sturdy soup pot. Plus, as a soup-cooking aficionado, I thoroughly enjoy the tactile process of occasionally lifting the lid and giving everything a stir. I also rather enjoy the house-filling scent of delicious soup stock cooking on the stove!
Pressure cooking: Pressure cooking is a faster method of making soup stock, and can cut cooking time by half or more. To make stock by pressure cooking, combine your ingredients plus water in the unit, seal the lid and bring it to pressure over high heat for an hour or so.
An Instant Pot (affiliate link) is a popular brand of pressure cooker: it’s safe and easy to use for everyone, including beginners. In my opinion, a pressure cooker is necessary for making bone broth. On the stovetop, bone broth must cook for 24 hours or more to sufficiently break down bones, but in a pressure cooker, it takes just 3 to 4 hours (plus time for the unit to pressurize before cooking and depressurize after cooking).
Slow cooking: Slow cooking is another way to make soup stock. To make stock in a slow cooker, combine your ingredients plus water in the unit’s removable bowl and cook them covered on low heat for 8 to 12 hours. This method is easy and it allows you to leave the stock simmering while you’re away from home.
Each method has its own unique pros and cons, but generally, the simmering method is the most traditional way, and it gives the best flavor, but it takes longer. On the other hand, the pressure cooking and Instant Pot method are faster and more convenient. Slow cooking is a method that allows you to make the stock when you are away from home.
Basic steps for making soup stock
Just like soup itself, there are endless ways to make soup stock, but here are the basic steps for making homemade soup stock in a big pot on the stovetop:
Gather ingredients: Collect ingredients such as bones (chicken, beef, pork, fish), cleaned vegetables (onions, carrots, celery, garlic, leeks), herbs (parsley, bay leaves) and any other ingredients you want to use for flavor (such as mushrooms, tomato paste, peppercorns, salt).
Roast the bones (if using meat bones): If you’re using meat bones, blanch them first in boiling water, then roast them in a 425ºF oven for about 30 minutes. This will help the bones release their gelatin and add more flavor and body to the stock.
Sauté vegetables: Sauté the vegetables in a little oil until they are slightly browned. While not required, the caramelization of the vegetables will be more flavorful.
Add water and other ingredients: Add enough water to cover the bones and vegetables and bring it to a boil. Add herbs and spices.
Simmer: Reduce the heat to low or medium to maintain a simmer and let cook for several hours, typically 3 to 4 hours for chicken stock, 6 to 8 hours for beef or pork stock, and 1 to 2 hours for fish stock.
Strain: Skim off any fat or foam that’s settled on the surface. Remove the bones, vegetables, and herbs from the stock using a colander or fine-mesh strainer. The liquid left is your homemade stock.
Store: Let the stock cool to room temperature and then transfer it to airtight containers and store it in the refrigerator for up to 5 days or in the freezer for up to 6 months.
Pro tip: You can save freezer space by pre-measuring and pouring the cooled stock into large zipper bags and freezing them flat on their sides (place them on a small sheet pan in the freezer). After they’re frozen, they can be stored lying flat or standing up like books against other objects in the freezer.
A few recipes
As I was pouring through my site to refresh my memory on what I’ve published to this blog, I was really surprised to see that I only have a few homemade stock recipes here. I know that I have loads of photographs of stocks-in-progress, but I guess they just never made it to the site. Sounds like me, lol.
But the soup stock recipes I do have are unique and interesting and worth a browse. Especially the smoked corn stock. I tell ya, that is one special summer treat, and makes the best corn chowder ever known to humankind.
- Instant Pot Smoked Corn Stock
- Slow Cooker Turkey Stock
- Slow Cooker Roasted Vegetable Broth
- Shrimp Stock
If you’re new to homemade soup stocks, I hope you’ll give them a try. It’s an easy and rewarding cooking project that enhances any soup, stew, or chili!