Honestly, I have always just 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. Right? Turns out that there is a slight but significant difference.
Stocks and broths both start off the same way: various kitchen 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.
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 on its own. A more technical definition for broth wuld 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.
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?
More on Making Stocks:
This post has been updated. Originally published 9/27/09.
(Image: Dana Velden)