For years I assumed that "stock" and "broth" were interchangeable terms for the same thing: liquid flavored with vegetables, meat scraps, and bones, used as the base for soups, sauces, and other dishes.
But is this actually the case? It turns out there is a slight but significant difference between stock and broth.
The Primary Difference Between Stock & Broth
Often stocks and broths both start off the same way: scraps of vegetable, meat, and bone are slowly simmered to extract as much flavor as possible. But there is technically a difference between the two.
- Broth: Technically speaking, broth is any liquid that has had meat cooked in it. Of course, now broth really is a catch-all for any flavored cooking liquid, including broths made by simmering fish, vegetables, or even legumes.
- Stock: Stock, however, always involves bones, simmered for a long time to extract their gelatin and flavor. The thick, often-gelatinous nature of stocks is only possible when bones are present. Roasting the bones makes for a richer, more deeply colored stock, but it's not essential to the process.
Seasoning Makes a Difference
There are other differences as well; chief among them is seasoning. Stock is a liquid that is left unseasoned for cooking with. But broth is usually seasoned and can be drunk or eaten on its own.
For the most part, a stock should be an unseasoned liquid. Broths, on the other hand, get some seasoning. We add salt; some other spices, like black pepper; and perhaps a splash of wine — all for the purpose of making this neutral stock taste delicious and drinkable on its own.
So, a more technical definition for broth would actually be "seasoned stock." Now that the salt and other seasonings are added in, broth is tasty and satisfying.
It might seem like stock will always end up salted and seasoned once it's used, and therefore saying there's a difference between the two is really just splitting hairs, but the point of stock is that you have control over how it gets salted and seasoned from dish to dish. Maybe the stock will be used for poaching fish, so you only want a little or no salt. Maybe you'll be reducing it down to a sauce, so starting off with a salted broth will make the reduction taste too salty. The point is that stock is a blank slate, while an already seasoned broth is not.
A New Way of Doing It
Culinary schools and passed-down kitchen wisdom say that broth is made from meat and stock is made from bones. Meat gives flavor, which is why it is necessary in a broth that can be eaten alone. Bones, cartilage, and skin have collagen, which when heated, turns into gelatin that gives a stock body and a thicker, richer texture in the mouth.
However, whether you're making a meat-based stock or broth, it's always best to include as much raw material as possible. While you can skew the proportions in either direction, depending on what scraps you have or what flavor and body you're going for, having both will ensure that your stock or broth is flavorful yet has body and isn't thin. And if your liquid is cloudy, don't sweat it — flavor is the important thing here.
Are Store-bought Stock and Broth the Same?
All of this said, this difference between stock and broth is fairly confined to the restaurant and professional culinary world. In our home kitchens, the terms are generally interchangeable.
I also see "stock" and "broth" both used to describe the same product in the grocery store, sometimes salted and sometimes not. Personally, if I'm not making my own, I prefer to buy brands with the least amount of sodium (salt) since that gives me the most control with my own seasoning.
What do you think? In your everyday cooking, is this a technical difference, or do stocks and broths both have a place in your cooking?
This post has been updated. Originally published January 2015.
(Image credits: Christine Gallary; Emma Christensen)