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Taste Test: Low-Sodium Stocks and Broths

Taste Test: Low-Sodium Stocks and Broths

Our food editors and Test Kitchen professionals held blind tastings of various low-sodium stocks and broths. See which brands came out on top.

With salt levels low, the chicken and vegetable flavors in ready-made stocks or broths are even more important to healthy cooking. Stocks and broths seem simple, but ingredient labels reveal lots of sodium and frequent use of protein additives and vague flavorings. With various free-range, organic, and all-natural claims, it’s tough to know which is best for your soup, risotto, or stew. We tasted nine chicken, six beef, and five vegetable stocks and broths. Some were too watery. In others, one vegetable or another overpowered the base flavor. A few had oddly vivid colors. None of the beef broths thrilled us: We’ll keep tasting. Meanwhile, these are favorite chicken and vegetable choices.

OUR TOP PICK―Chicken: Swanson's Less-Sodium, Fat-Free Chicken Broth
Price: $3 (32-ounce carton) or $1 (14-ounce can)
Testers said: In the blind test, raters gave high marks for pleasant roast chicken flavor and aroma. We agreed it would perform well in chicken noodle soups, simple pan sauces, as cooking liquid for couscous or rice, or gravy for roasted meats. Full disclosure: This is our Test Kitchen’s go-to option for recipe testing.

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OUR TOP PICK―Vegetable: Swanson's Certified Organic Vegetarian Vegetable Broth
Price: $3 (32-ounce carton)
Testers said: Most tasters liked the richness and butteriness of this broth, with its balance of celery, onion, and carrot back notes. Try it in a veggie coulis puree, a gratin, a vegetable soup, a pilaf, hearty root vegetable braise, or ratatouille.

VERY GOOD―Chicken: Emeril's All-Natural Chicken Stock
Price: $3.50 (32-ounce carton)
Testers said: The less-pronounced chicken essence here was balanced with plenty of aromatics. Many raters noted a pleasant saltiness. (Though not labeled low-sodium, the sodium count is similar to that of Swanson’s low-sodium chicken broth.) Use in savory bread casseroles or stuffings, for risottos, and as a braising liquid for beef or pork.

VERY GOOD―Vegetable: Emeril's All-Natural Organic Vegetable Stock
Price: $4 (32-ounce carton)
Testers said: Tasters noted this one had a neutral veggie flavor with a slightly sweet aftertaste, and many thought it would be a good stock or broth choice. If you like, bolster the flavor by simmering with herbs or celery, or use as is for rehydrating dried mushrooms, as the base of a simple vegetable soup, in stir-fry sauces, or for spicy Southeast Asian tofu or vegetable soups.

From the Test Kitchen: 5 Tips for Using Stocks and Broths

  1. Simple additions, stellar results. Simmer stock or broth with a bay leaf, whole spices, or dried crushed herbs that fit your recipe's flavor profile to boost taste.
  2. Double the flavor. Add vegetables and poultry to the broth--both will benefit. For example, if a recipe calls for shredded cooked chicken, cook the poultry in chicken broth. You'll strengthen the broth's flavor, and you'll also lightly season the poultry while it cooks.
  3. Think outside the box (or can). Prepare grains like rice or grits, or short pastas (orzo or acini di pepe), in broth.
  4. Refrigerate reserves. Opened cartons of stocks or broths can be refrigerated for 2 weeks. Transfer canned leftovers to an airtight container, and refrigerate for up to 2 weeks.
  5. Freeze for later. Freeze leftovers in ice-cube trays, and transfer to zip-top plastic bags when frozen. The cubes can be tossed with hot pasta or used to season a pan sauce.

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How We Test

Method: We held blind tastings of each of the stock and broth categories―chicken, vegetable, and beef―on three separate days. A panel of food editors and chefs rated the warmed broths.

Nutritional guidelines: Purchased stocks and broths can harbor lots of sodium. While not every brand will label its product as low-sodium or 1⁄3-less-sodium, we evaluated those within a similar range of ­sodium per cup. For example, the chicken broths we ­included had a range of 490
to 670 milligrams ­sodium per cup.


Top choices in chicken broths

What’s more “vanilla” than chicken broth? And yet, our experts found that not all taste alike. Not all come in the usual liquid form, either. The best in our tests is Knorr Homestyle Chicken Stock, a concentrated gel that you can use as a rub, add to dishes, or dissolve in hot water to create a broth. It’s also a CR Best Buy. It has strong chicken flavor and no off-tastes.

Most of the broths have moderate chicken flavor have some onion, carrot, and celery flavor and taste salty. Among the very good ones, Swanson Chicken Stock and Kitchen Basics taste a little like roasted chicken, Kirkland Signature and College Inn Fat Free & Lower Sodium taste less salty than most, and Trader Joe’s is slightly sour.

Lower-rated broths have issues: Knorr Chicken ­Flavored Bouillon and Better Than Bouillon taste quite salty, and Pacific has an off-taste we couldn’t identify. And there’s a soapy note in Swanson Broth (the company cites its “distinctive flavor,” not to be confused with Swanson Stock’s “robust flavor”).

Per cup, broths are very low in calories (5 to 20) and fat (zero to 1 gram), but sodium can be a concern, so we’ve listed it in the Ratings. Some tested broths have at least a third of the recommended daily limit of sodium for most people, 2,300 milligrams.

Bottom line. Knorr Homestyle Stock is very good overall and costs just 25 cents per cup of broth. Don’t buy by brand: Knorr Chicken Flavored Bouillon was just good overall, and one Swanson product was very good overall while the other was only good overall.


Related Articles

Full Circle Organic Vegetable Broth

Include this broth in a blindfold tasting of salted water just for fun. It’s highly unlikely any taster would detect even a hint of vegetables — or anything else besides salt and cardboard. 10 calories, 610 mg sodium, 1 g sugar. $2.49 for a quart at Lucky. (No stars)

Engine 2 Organic Low Sodium Vegetable Stock

Exactly why anyone would pay nearly $3 to add the flavor of water to a dish is a mystery. The ingredient list includes carrots and carrot juice, celery, tomatoes and onions, but in the end, the flavor is missing entirely. 5 calories, 35 mg sodium. $2.99 for a quart at Whole Foods. (No stars)


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Potato Gnocchi Recipe

For a dish like Classic Matzo Ball Soup, where chicken broth is the star, it’s worth the time to make the broth from scratch. But sometimes, life calls for store-bought broth, so we keep cases of canned and boxed chicken broth in the test-kitchen pantry. It takes up a lot of space, though, so we wondered how less-bulky broth concentrates taste.

To find out, we blind-tasted three popular brands of chicken concentrate, or base (diluted with water to broth strength according to package directions), and compared them for taste and price. Here are the results:

Better Than Bouillon Chicken Base
This paste provides good chicken flavor but is quite salty be sure to taste your food before adding more salt, or buy the lower-sodium version.

An 8-oz. jar yields 38 cups of broth. At approximately $5.99, that comes to only 16¢ a cup (compared to an average of 75¢ a cup for canned broth).

Swanson Flavor Boost 100% Natural Concentrated Chicken Broth
These little liquid packets contain rich, meaty, comforting flavor and the least sodium.

The concentrate is equivalent to a reduced broth and can be used not only to make broth but can also be added as is to a sauce or tossed with pasta or vegetables for extra flavor. At approximately $4.09 for a box of 8 packets (each produces 1 cup of broth), you pay 51¢ per cup of broth.

Knorr Home-Style Chicken Stock
These tubs of concentrated stock are full of vegetable flavors (and salt) but are not particularly “chickeny.” For $3.99, you get four 1-oz. tubs. Each tub produces 3-1/2 cups of broth, so you pay about 29¢ per cup.

The Bottom Line
Half of our tasters preferred the Better Than Bouillon and the other half the Swanson Flavor Boost. None chose the Knorr. When it comes to convenience, boxed or canned broth still holds an edge, but considering their decent flavor as well as their cost and shelf space savings, we think these products make a good pantry addition.


How We Tested

You&aposre usually going to season any soup or dish made with broth𠅊nd salt accentuates flavors. To judge these fairly, we calculated the amount of added salt each broth would need per cup in order to bring each contender to the same level of salinity. Other than adding the right amount of salt to balance the playing field, we made no additions to the broths before bringing them to a simmer.

The warm broths were sampled by a team of Epicurious editors and staff and all samples were tasted blindly in random order with no distinction made between manufacturer-designated stocks, broths, or bone broths during tasting.


122 comments

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  19. September 14, 2012 - 12:13 pm Katie

What do people do with the veggies afterward? Are they usable?

All of the nutritional value of the veggies are in the broth. I would put the left-over veggies in a compost.


Taste Test: Low-Sodium Stocks and Broths - Recipes

Wow, thanks very much for this post! I really had given thinking I could ever have anything remotely resembling soy sauce. Even this coconut amino is probably too high for me, but I think it could be doable. I love reading information like this!! :)
Desi

Desi, thanks for your comments. I understand your concern completely. You might consider trying what I do with low sodium soy sauce. I always look for recipes that only call for 1/4 cup soy sauce or less. Then, I never use more than two tablespoons, no matter what the recipe calls for.

If the soy sauce is for a dipping sauce, I dilute it -- 2 parts low sodium soy sauce to 1 part water & 1 part unseasoned rice vinegar. (Example: 2 tsp. soy sauce mixed with one tsp. water & 1 tsp. rice vinegar.) Then I add a couple of drops of hot chili oil and some toasted sesame oil, maybe even some crushed garlic & ginger. By the time I'm done, I've got a pretty tasty dipping sauce with a lot less sodium than straight soy sauce, even low sodium soy sauce.

Thank you! I will try these suggestions. :)
Desi

Shambo, you are such a font of knowledge! Love this post (as usual!)

I'm one who favors Bragg, simply because it's all-natural and so tasty, but you're totally right. It contains far more sodium than low sodium soy sauce. I substitute faux soy whenever I can, but if I need a dish to be vegan or vegetarian, the faux stuff is out (b/c of the beef bouillon).

This product sounds like the best of both worlds!! Tasty AND lower in sodium - woot! I hadn't heard of coconut aminos and am SO glad you brought it to our attention. Will look at my next trip to Whole Foods. Thank you, my friend!

Christy, if my memory serves me (and that's a big "if"), I finally bought the Coconut Aminos at Whole Foods. I've also seen it at my local grocery story, Raley's, and at our local natural foods store/coop. Good luck in finding it. Maybe one of the low sodium online sources will begin carrying too.

I follow a strict Paleo diet, so avoid any soy products. I use a lot of Coconut Aminos and find it a great substitute. I use it exactly as I would use Soy Sauce.

Paleo, thanks for your testimonial. I agree with you that the coconut aminos is a wonderful substitute for traditional soy sauce. It's always exciting when you can find a product that really works.

I water down my Braggs with spring water as it seemed too salty to me.

Have you tried Chinatown Soy Sauce? It has only 145mg per one tablespoon. So far the reviews say the taste is great: http://healthyheartmarket.com/chinatownsoysauce.aspx

Thanks for bringing up the Chinatown Soy Sauce. I've been using it exclusively for about a year now. It's really, really low in sodium content. Makes fixing Chinese-style dishes so much easier.


Best Chicken: Bare Bones Chicken Bone Broth

Bare Bones isn’t just a name, it’s a representation of this company’s commitment to creating slow-simmered bone broth without any added flavorings, preservatives, antibiotics, growth stimulants, or hormones.

The Bare Bones Chicken Bone Broth is made from simple ingredients: organic chicken bones, organic vegetables, and a handful of organic herbs and spices that have been simmered for at least 20 hours. The end result is a smooth, satisfying broth with a deep chicken flavor. It makes a great base for soup but is also delicious for sipping.

As a company, Bare Bones is also committed to helping reduce waste, so it sources its bones from sustainable ranches and organic farms where they would normally go to waste and uses a sustainable (and microwave-safe) pouch to hold all of its broths.

Each serving provides 10 grams of protein, 1 gram of carbohydrates, 0.5 grams of fat, and 60 calories.


Invested in stocks

Whether a Jewish-inspired chicken soup with matzo balls, a ginger-heavy Thai soup or Vietnamese pho, all good soups start with an essential ingredient, and that is stock.

Stock &mdash the product of simmering vegetables and bones together in water with a few aromatics (bay leaf, peppercorns) to create a richly hued and flavorful liquid &mdash is ground zero for many savory recipes.

"Stock is one of the age-old superfoods that, when left unadulterated by chemicals and 'natural' flavorings, will continue to heal us forever," says Albany-based registered dietitian Laura Ligos, known for her blog "The Sassy Dietitian."

The term "stock" is sometimes interchanged with "broth," though technically the two are not the same. Broth is a liquid that had meat cooked in it, and usually is seasoned with salt. Stock usually involves the cooking of bones in liquid to extract their gelatin and hearty flavor. Stock tends to be free of salt, making it a good base layer for soups, stews, risottos and gravies.

Defining the difference is splitting hairs &mdash even commercially available stocks and broths are basically the same product. Just be sure to look for a low-sodium version. (Cook's Illustrated magazine lists Swanson chicken stock as a taste-test winner for store-bought stocks, broths and bouillon, which is a concentrated version of stock.)

"There really is something to be said for 'Chicken Soup for the Soul.' Homemade broth has been part of your mother's healing kit for years. If a broth or stock is made correctly and not filled with 'natural' flavorings, MSG and chemicals, it can be rich in antioxidants as well as collagen," Ligos says.

The concept of "bone broth" as a medicinal miracle floods the pages of Pinterest and social media, but the theory behind it is not revolutionary.

Collagen is the foundation of our joints and skin and plays a vital role in the workings of our digestive tract, says Ligos. And stock made from the bones of healthy animals can boost the proper functioning of our bodies. "If you want to look young forever, add some homemade broth or stock into your routine and watch your skin glow."

She also says that sipping stock or broth can heal a bad case of food poisoning or a sports injury.

6 pounds chicken bones, backs, and necks

2 large carrots, cleaned cut into chunks

2 large celery ribs, cut into chunks

1 clove garlic, smashed (skin-on is OK)

1 large yellow onion, quartered

4 whole clove berries

3 to 4 fresh parsley sprigs

Place the bones in a large stock pot or Dutch oven and cover with about 12 cups of water. Cover the pot and bring to a boil for 1 minute. Reduce the heat to low and simmer the bones for one hour, skimming any gray foam that comes to the surface. Add the remaining ingredients and add enough water to cover all ingredients by 1 inch, if necessary. Simmer for another 45 minutes.

Remove the pot from the heat and use a large slotted spoon to remove larger ingredients. Once cool enough to handle, pour the stock through a fine strainer or cheesecloth. Pour the stock into desired containers. Stock can be kept in the fridge for 3 days, in the freezer for 3 months, or processed with a pressure canner and kept in a cool, dry place for up to a year.

Note: For a very clear stock, you can blanch the bones first. For a richer, deeper stock, roast the bones first with a light coating of olive oil (450 degrees for 30 minutes). It's a matter of preference. This recipe also works for beef, veal and pork bones. Roast the vegetables if desired, adding all liquid into the stock pot.

But stock also can be a way to use up kitchen scraps, such as cleaned ends of celery ribs or leeks, the root end of onions and peels from carrots. (Compost what's left after you strain the stock.)

Chefs use animal bones as an inexpensive flavor infuser, sometimes roasted first to boost taste.

"Roasting bones contributes darker color and richer flavor to the stock," says Rob Handel, executive chef for Heather Ridge Farm in Preston Hollow. "Sometimes, I roast them just lightly rubbed with oil, usually for poultry or pork. With lamb or beef, I'll often rub them with a little tomato paste to help them caramelize. I also add onion skins for dark stocks, as they're an excellent natural way to boost the rich brown color."

Handel uses the bones from animals raised on the farm, but says some farms will leave bones at the slaughterhouse or processor to be sold for stock to chefs and wholesalers.

While making stock from scratch is slightly more expensive that buying commercially available bouillon or stocks, "(the commercial stuff's) quality is so lacking that it's not something we've ever considered doing. Even in the case of stocks that have decent flavor, they lack the body that the gelatin from the bones contributes. For me, the stock is all about gelatin," says Handel. He will add chicken feet or pork trotters &mdash two commonly overlooked animal products &mdash to help boost gelatin.

"I love stocks! Both the making and the application for creative uses," says Mark Graham, chef and consultant for MDG Cuisine Catering (operating in the Capital Region and nationally).

Veal stocks, used as a base for sauces for poultry, meat or game, "start with a rich foundation and sexy viscosity," he says. "The beauty in extraction can be poetic. I like to make simple chicken and veal stock and store in my freezer for sauce and soup base at home."

Ligos likes using a pressure cooker or slow cooker at home for stock, but a basic pot with a lid will do the trick. Stock can be pressure-canned for shelf stability, or frozen in pre-measured quantities (be sure to leave a bit of headspace for expansion in your container or zip-top bag). Use it in place of water for basting roasts and braising meat, sauteing vegetables, or in soups, sauces and grain preparation (like rice, barley, farro, quinoa or for pasta dishes like couscous and orzo). Or simply grab a mug and start sipping &mdash there's no time like winter to indulge in a warming cup of good tasting and good-for-you homemade stock and broth.