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.