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Vegetable stock? Really?




By Brian Geiger, contributor

January 15th, 2009


Kitchen Mysteries is a weekly exploration of oddities surrounding cooking and food. They could be recipes that fail when they shouldn't, conflicting advice from different sources, or just plain weirdness. If it happens in a kitchen, and you're not sure why, send a tweet to The Food Geek to find out what's happening.

Friend of The Food Geek, Crystal, asks:

Is it possible to have vegetable stock instead of broth, since vegetables don't have bones

I have wondered this myself from time to time, but I'd never worked up quite enough curiosity to find out. Thanks to your helpful question, I now can.

The first time I heard of the difference between stock and broth was on an episode of Good Eats, "Behind the Bird". In it, Alton Brown says that the difference between a broth and a stock is that a broth is made from meat or vegetables, but a stock is made from bones. The idea being that a stock is always jam-packed with collagen, whereas a broth is just some nicely-flavored liquid.

This is a great and useful definition, until you look through hundreds of cookbooks and check through items on a grocery store shelf and you see things like Vegetable Stock. Now, it's not like most of the cooking world has never been wrong before,* but this is a bit ridiculous. And a bit odd, because as you hit somewhere around recipe book 92, you start noticing some patterns to the usage of stock and broth. The same recipe will call the preparation stock or broth, but in different but consistent contexts. Something is definitely up. This calls for a trip to the Food Geek Bookshe… er, Library.

This first place I check is Larousse Gastronomique, which seems the ideal sort of reference book to answer this kind of question. It is not. It mentions both, but does not do a particularly good job of differentiating the two. Furthermore, the broth simply told me to see the definition for bouillon, and the entry for bouillon claimed that it's also called stock. So that is just more confusing than it was. However, Larousse Gastronomique did say that there is something called "vegetable stock", so we can't just claim it doesn't exist.

Then I checked The Saucier's Apprentice, because stocks are often used as bases for sauce, but they don't even acknowledge broth. If I weren't pretty sure they're somewhat different, I'd just tell you that they're really the same thing and leave it at that. As it stands, I'm sure there's something different in the usage, so it's time to go to the main source.

I pick up my well-worn copy of Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking, which is perhaps the most complete and useful book on the understanding of how food works ever made. Lo and behold, there's a little sidebar, which answers this question precisely.

Stock, as a word, implies a kind of building block. Stocks are never served on their own, they are used to build other things. "Stock your pantry," is an example of that word used in a different way. Same thing. Broth is an older word, and it essentially means something that is boiled. 

So, to summarize, vegetable broth and vegetable stock are the same thing. If the focus of the end preparation is mostly the liquid in question, call it broth. If the focus of the end preparation is something significantly more complicated, like a sauce or a more involved soup, then call it stock. Not that it really matters in the kitchen, but if you write a cookbook or similar, it would probably be nice to differentiate.

With meat-based stocks and broths, I would suggest going with the bones vs meat naming scheme, as proper naming can give you a better understanding of how the final dish will turn out.

*- I cannot tell you how grating it is to hear that searing meat seals in juices.

posted in: Blogs, food geek, vegetable, broth, stock, bouillon, etymology
Comments (11)

chefelizabeth writes: oh and btw, am right there with you on the searing meat thing! I have made it one of my missions to eradicate this notion one student at a time! Juicy meats are meats that are not overcooked!! Posted: 3:09 pm on January 17th

chefelizabeth writes: Enjoy reading your articles! I studied all things cuisine in Paris and there we learned that the difference between a stock and broth was that a stock was made with roasted bones/vegetables and a broth was made with boiled bones/vegetables. Posted: 3:06 pm on January 17th

dsraymond writes: Both are flavorful liquids and yes broth is made from the meat as well as the bones. With stock you are trying to extract the collagen as it is part of what makes a sauce nape (thick). Nape - it coats the back of a spoon. You can use either in many cases as it is intended as a flavoring however if you're making a pan sauce after a saute, stock is best. Posted: 2:09 pm on November 15th

TheFoodGeek writes: That's some good information, Prototypeman. Thank you for adding it. Posted: 8:49 am on May 17th

Prototypeman writes: Be aware that in Britain, there is a distinct difference between Broth and Stock, very different to U.S. definitions: A Stock is a thin liquid made by simmering raw ingredients until all the taste has been retrieved from them, finalised by sieving to get a result that is a liquid alone. This gives e.g. Beef Stock, Chicken Stock, Fish Stock. Stock made from purely vegetables is a Vegetable Stock. A Broth, on the other hand, is a soup in which there are solid pieces of meat or fish, along with some vegetables. The main difference being that the solid parts of the Broth are there to add flavour to the whole, the individual parts retaining their flavour. Usually, a broth is made by using a stock as the base, then adding the required meat or fish and bringing the whole to a boil, with added vegetables. Broth does not NEED to be made with stock, it can start as plain water. Being a thin and watery soup, Broth is frequently made more substantial by adding e.g. rice, barley or pulses. Although strictly speaking a broth should contain some form of meat or fish, it is nowadays acceptable to refer to a Vegetable Broth, being a soup with just vegetables. (Wikipedia) Posted: 10:06 pm on May 10th

fud writes: Don't forget the health benefits of meat based stocks vs vegetable stocks. From Nourishing Traditions cookbook by Sally Fallon, page 116, the beginning of a large section on stocks: Properly prepared, meat stocks are extremely nutritious, containing the minerals of bone, cartilage, marrow and vegetables as electrolytes, a form that is easy to assimilate. Acidic wine or vinegar added during cooking helps to draw minerals, particularly calcium, magnesium and potassium, into the broth. Dr. Francis Pottenger, author of the famous cat studies as well as articles on the benefits of gelatin in broth, taught that the stockpot was the most important piece of equipment to have in one's kitchen. Posted: 2:51 pm on April 28th

TheFoodGeek writes: You are quite welcome, Crystal. Sometimes it's hard to know what's important and what's just traditional when it comes to cooking.

And, Cooksbakesbooks, thank you very much. I will do my best to keep the science going. Posted: 12:21 am on January 29th

Cooksbakesbooks writes: While I'm absolutely all for cooking artistry, it's also intriguing to consider the semantics, definitions and the science of cooking. It's all good. I like Geiger's article in the latest Fine Cooking on the Maillard reaction and why his chicken piccata wouldn't brown after he dipped his meat into lemon juice before he tried to brown it. I would love to see more articles like this in Fine Cooking, which is my favorite cooking magazine--and I am a charter subscriber! Posted: 5:41 pm on January 17th

crystal_dawn writes: Thanks for the clarification.. It's nice to know that I'm not the only one who doesn't have a clear idea on the difference between vegetable broth vs vegetable stock. If all those books have different definitions, what hope does a novice cook like me. :) Posted: 3:01 pm on January 16th

TheFoodGeek writes: Thank you, sercook. The salt/no salt distinction does make sense from an ideal perspective of what stocks and broths should be. After all, one does not want too to over-season one's food with extra salt in the stock. But even if that were commonly the case, it doesn't get to the heart of the matter, so I can see why you'd be skeptical of that explanation.

The Professional Chef is one of my under-utilized books in the "library." I didn't even think to look in that for this question. I'll have to keep it in mind for the future; lots of good information in there. Posted: 6:42 am on January 16th

sercook writes: When I was at the CIA a few years ago, the chef told our group that the difference between a stock and a broth was salt: A broth has salt and a stock does not. I've always thought that rather simplistic, and never really believed it. Looking tonight at my copy of The Professional Chef 8th Ed. by the CIA, both the stock & broth recipes call for salt. But it says: "The major distinction between broths and stocks is that broths can be served as is, whereas stocks are used in the production of other dishes." As for the vegetable stock, the CIA recommends roasting the veggies (like you would with meat bones) before adding to the water. Thanks, Food Geek for clearing this up for us! Posted: 9:16 pm on January 15th

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