The Frontal Cortex

Stock Versus Water

Michael Ruhlman says to not waste money on store bought stock:

I cannot say this strongly or loudly enough: DO NOT use canned stock/broth. Use WATER instead. I repeat. You DO NOT NEED to buy that crappy can of Swanson’s low sodium chicken broth! It will HURT your food. Use water instead. When that recipe says 1 cup of fresh chicken stock (or good quality canned broth), please know that your food, 90 percent of the time, will taste better if you use tap water instead of that “good quality” canned broth. Water is a miracle.

Last time I was doing a recipe for a book with one of the most lauded chefs in the country–he said to the recipe developer/writer, yes, ok to use canned if you don’t have fresh. I said, “Really?” He said, “yes.” I said, “When was the last time you used canned stock?” When he didn’t respond, I said, “Have you tasted canned stock?” He said he hadn’t that he could recall.

I repeat: your food will taste better and fresher if you use that wonderful and inexpensive fluid at the end of your tap rather than anything that you can buy in a can or a box.

Allow me to respectfully disagree, at least under certain circumstances. If you have time and some extra meat bones lying around, by all means make some homemade stock. It’s an incredibly easy process – all you do is simmer and skim – and you can always freeze the leftovers. People waste lots of money on all sorts of fancy kitchen gadgets and spices and ingredients, but making your own stock is, by far, the single most important thing you can do to improve your cooking.

Why is stock so important? As I note in my book, a good stock is a concentrated burst of umami, a liquid dense with glutamic acid. (That’s what happens when you boil meat for several hours.) While a lovingly made homemade stock will also be redolent with lots of other flavors, the main purpose of stock is to give food a burst of savoriness, a resonant protein note.

Now back to the canned stock/water debate. I think one of the biggest mistakes made by home chefs is an unwillingness to properly burn their food. When cooking meat, you almost always want to give the flesh a nice maillard crust, which is what happens when a carbohydrate molecule meets an amino acid in a hot, dry environment, like the bottom of a pan. (This is made harder by the popularity of non-stick pans.) Why is this so important? As I note in my book, it’s not because searing the meat seals in the juices:

Technically speaking, a steak cooked at high temperatures contains less of its own juice, as that alluring sizzling noise is actually the sound of the meat’s own liquid evaporating into thin air. (For maximum retention of natural juices, cook the steak slow and steady, and don’t salt until the end). Nevertheless, what Escoffier noticed is true: even if a well-seared steak is literally drier, it still tastes juicier. The disquieting explanation of this culinary illusion is that a well-seared steak – its Maillard crust crisp and crackling, its interior plush and bloody – makes us drool in anticipation. As a result, when we eat the more appetizing – yet less juicy – steak, the meat seems to be juicier. However, what we are actually sensing is our own saliva, which the brain induced our salivary glands to release.

Rather, the reason meat tastes meatier when cooked at a high heat is because all that heat unravels the amino acids, converting them into a more appetizing form. Those burned bits of protein stuck to the bottom of the pan are densities of umami. They are the secret ingredient of every sauce. (It’s also worth noting that you don’t need meat to get lots of umami flavor. You can also sear mushrooms – don’t overcrowd in the pan! – or add some sun-dried tomatoes or rely on my personal favorite: lots and lots of parmesan cheese. See here for more.)

So, if you properly cook your meat, and get lots of protein stuck to the stainless steel, or if you take care to always add in some umami flavor components (I like to sneak in some salted anchovies when making dishes like ratatouille, and always add a tablespoon of ketchup to my tomato sauces) then please use water or some homemade stock when making a sauce or soup. Your dish won’t need any more umami, especially if it comes in canned form. However, if you do what most people do, and don’t properly brown your protein or add enough parmesan to your risotto, then I think your food will probably benefit from a little canned stock. What you’re most likely missing is the mouth-filling richness of umami. To make a long story short: canned stock is bad, but sometimes it’s a necessary evil.


  1. #1 Desiree
    September 17, 2008

    Another respectful disagreement. I absolutely agree with you about browning. But to “de-glaze,” or release some of that gorgeous protein stuck to a stainless steel pot with a little liquid, I prefer stock to tap water (although even better is a little diluted sherry, port wine, or sometimes even balsamic vinegar). Best of all: one cube of a frozen-in-ice-cube-tray demi-glace made every six months or so from roast veal bones. Haven’t tried the parmesan, though — great idea….

  2. #2 Jonah
    September 17, 2008

    Oh, I was totally unclear! If you’ve got homemade stock, then absolutely use that when deglazing! I only recommended water for deglazing if the alternative is canned stock…I’ve fixed the post to make it less ambiguous.

  3. #3 Rachael
    September 17, 2008

    If you don’t happen to cook that often (or even if you do), here’s a tip: put a giant tupperware container in the lowest shelf in your freezer. Every time you have scraps (bones or vegetables), throw it in the tub (just make sure to rinse veggies before doing this). Then, you’ll always have some odds and ends for stock.

    Now my pet peeve is vegetable stock. Canned organic chicken stocks are “eh”, and I won’t use veal stock from a commercial source… but commercial vegetable stocks are a terrible contribution to the anti-vegie movement. They taste awful. Most vegetable stocks have been made with a large quantity of carrots or tomatoes; I find them far too sweet. The sweet taste borders on rotten. When I make vegetable stock, I only include a carrot or two; too many, and the sweetness becomes overwhelming.

    If I’m in a real bind (don’t judge me until you try it):

    The manufacture says no MSG or hydrolized yeast protein, but correct me here — isn’t yeast extract also L-glutamate?

    Anyway, I keep a few of those in my drawer for when I’m in a pinch.

    And I agree; especially when it comes to vegetables, a nice bit of burnt does a world of good.

  4. #4 Rachael
    September 17, 2008

    I should clarify that link — when I am in a bind, I use a specific brand of bullion. “Rapunzel” brand vegetable bullion is the only kind I like, and I prefer it over canned stock any day.

  5. #5 Steve
    September 17, 2008

    Wouldn’t it just be more beneficial to learn how to cook properly? Then you would have no need to use canned stock and you’d have acquired a useful skill.

  6. #6 Lacy Davis
    September 19, 2008

    You say “lovingly made” stock. I would love to hear your take on the “intentional chocolate” experiments conducted by Dean Radin. (

    Could it be that food prepared with love tastes better, or at least affects our moods in a more positive way than food processed by uncaring machines?

  7. #7 allears
    September 23, 2008

    how do the boxes of organic chicken stock compare to canned stock for this purpose? The Beef Stock ones say “beef flavor” which makes me suspicious, but there is real beef in the ingredients. I’m confused.

  8. #8 Jason
    October 16, 2008

    I also agree that most people simply do not brown their food enough… the key being to heat the pan until your lipid of choice is nearly smoking before adding any food, and once in the pan, you must resist all temptation to shake or stir the pan around as you see famous guys do on Food Network. As for stock, they’re excellent for sauces… but in the matter of soup, I think you’ll find that water-based soups have a wonderful clarity and clean flavor. Stock-based soups, while still good, have more muddled flavors. Eat stock soups for a while, then switch to water. You’ll see what I mean.

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