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. And does it really matter what you buy in the store?
But is this actually the case? It turns out that there is a slight but significant difference between stock and broth.
The Cooking Process
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. For stock, it stops there — this is an unseasoned liquid that doesn't taste all too great on its own, but makes a fantastic neutral base for soups, sauces, and other kitchen creations.
How Broth and Stock are Different: Seasoning
Broths, on the other hand, get some seasoning. We add salt, some other spices like black pepper, perhaps a splash of wine — all for the purpose of making this neutral stock taste delicious and drinkable on its own. 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.
The Old Definition
Culinary schools and passed-down kitchen wisdom will sometimes 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.
Your best bet, however, is to make sure that there is some of each when making broth or stock. 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.
What to Buy in the Store
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 totally interchangeable. I also definitely 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? Is this just a technical difference, or do stocks and broths both have a place in your cooking?
This post has been updated. Originally published 9/27/09.
(Image credits: Christine Gallary; Emma Christensen)