Make or Buy? Chicken Stock

Hooray for the return of soup season! There are still some warm days ahead before we really get into fall, for sure, but I'm already hankering for big pots of simmering soup on my stove. When it comes to the stock to make those soups, where do you stand? Make or buy?

For today's match-up, let's take a look at Swanson's Natural Goodness Chicken Broth as compared to homemade. Unless otherwise noted, all costs were taken from Peapod Online Grocery.

Swanson's Natural Goodness Chicken Broth from Peapod Online Grocery
Homemade Chicken Stock

COST COMPARISON:

Swanson's Natural Goodness Chicken Broth
TOTAL: $2.99 for 32 oz
PER 1 CUP SERVING: $0.75

Homemade Chicken Stock

Note: Although you do have to buy the chicken to get the bones, it doesn't seem quite fair to add the entire cost of the chicken into this calculation for the stock. Let's compromise and count the bones as a third of the cost of a 5-lb chicken.

Bones and carcass from one roasted chicken: $1.85
2 onions: $1.78
3-4 stalks of celery: $0.99
1-2 carrots: $0.50
2 bay leaves: $0.80
4-5 sprigs fresh thyme: $0.66
6-8 parsley stems: $0.50
Optional Extras - whole garlic cloves, fennel fronds, leek tops, whole pepper corns (Let's add a base of $1.50 here to cover whatever extras we'd add.): $1.50

TOTAL: $8.58 for (roughly) 4 quarts
PER 1 CUP SERVING: $0.54

I feel like this cost is a little skewed because one of the cool things about making your own chicken stock getting to use leftover vegetables and herbs that might otherwise be heading for the trash or composter. While homemade chicken stock isn't free, it's also not quite fair to only look at the cost of fresh ingredients.

CONVENIENCE

There's no way around it: making a batch of chicken stock just takes time. You can simmer it on the stove, put it the oven, or even use your slow-cooker, but it still takes several hours to fully extract those awesome flavors from the chicken bones and vegetables.

On the other hand, this is almost entirely hands-off time. After bringing the stock to a simmer, you just need to check it every so often and give the pot a stir. Most of the work actually comes after cooking. This is when you strain the stock, wait for it to cool, divide it into zip-lock bags or freezer containers, and stash them in the freezer.

You can thaw the stock before using it, but I usually just toss the frozen block right into the soup. It melts within a few minutes.

One thing to mention is the issue of freezer space, which may be a problem for you or it may not. My own freezer is often packed to the gills and it can be challenging to find space for containers of stock. Since one batch of stock usually makes quite a bit (which is otherwise a positive in terms of convenience), it takes up significant freezer real estate.

TASTINESS AND HEALTHFULNESS

Not all store-bought chicken stocks are created equally. Swanson's regularly gets top marks from sources like Cook's Illustrated. I also like the Trader Joe's brand of organic chicken stock and the Nature's Promise brand carried by many grocery stores.

Look at the labels. Most store-bought broths have straight-forward lists of expected ingredients (ie: chicken and either dried or pureed vegetables), but others can get into strange territory with their flavorings and additives.

I'm going to go out on a limb and say that homemade isn't always tastier. Sometimes homemade tastes wonderfully robust and with an excellent balance of flavors, but I find that it can also sometimes taste watery or less fully-flavored than I want. It can depend on how long you cooked the stock, the vegetables you used, the number of chicken carcasses you had on hand, or how much you've perfected your own stock-making method.

That said, even the most bland homemade stock is definitely on par with what's available at the grocery store! You'll never do worse when you make homemade, and with time, you'll likely do much better.

MAKE OR BUY?

Making stock requires that you have first cooked a chicken. In my house, we use more stock than we eat roasted chickens and this is a deterrent for having a ready supply of homemade stock. If you eat a lot of chicken, it seems natural to make use of the bones. For me, I make stock when I have a chicken and rely on store-bought the rest of the time.

VERDICT: Make when you have bones, but it's certainly fine to buy when you don't.

What do you think?

Related: Kitchen Shortcuts: An Easy Trick for Straining Stock

(Images: Peapod and Emma Christensen)

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