Given my earlier post on avoiding processed foods, some readers may wonder why I use stock in the box or instant broth. Isn't that a processed food? In most cases, yes. Very few brands are just like the stock you make at home. Even the better ones add chicken flavor. Unless it says low or no-sodium, a lot of salt is added as well. Powdered or cubed instant bouillon, which is significantly cheaper than stock in a box, is nothing like homemade stock and the first ingredient is usually salt. It's basically flavored salt.
So, why do I use it in the School of Eating Good recipes?
I seriously doubt many newbie cooks are going to make their own stock from bones or vegetables, the way I learned to do in culinary school. It's not hard to do but it is a lot of work. There's boiling, then straining and the packaging of the finished stock. You need enough freezer space to put it away because that's the only way a home cook can preserve the stuff. Instant stock is incredibly convenient.
Even I, culinary school graduate, use pre-made stocks. Here is what you need to know about these products.
The best of the pre-made stocks is "stock in the box," as it is called these days. It comes in an aseptic package. It's shelf-stable requiring no refrigeration until you open it. It comes in 1 quart and 1 cup boxes. The flavor varies dramatically from brand to brand. Some are weak and off-tasting. The best are a pretty close approximation of homemade stock. My favorite brand is Kitchen Basics because they make a no-salt added stock which is what homemade stock has: no added salt at all. You get to season it the way you like. Even their stocks containing salt are much lower in sodium than any of the other products. They are the most expensive, however. A quart box of stock runs about $3-$3.50 which is a per cup cost of 75¢ to 88¢. Definitely not cheap.
Next, I like the concentrated stock bases which is stock reduced into a paste. My favorite brand is Better Than Bouillon. They make a wide variety of bases: beef, vegetable, chicken, seafood, ham. The jars are shelf-stable but require refrigeration after opening. You can make nearly 10 quarts of stock out of one jar. The sodium level is above stock in the box, but lower than instant bouillon. Their flavor is excellent and an opened jar will last in the fridge for up to a year. They are more expensive than instant bouillon but not nearly as expensive as stock in a box. I recommend you find the low-sodium versions. A jar runs $3.50-$4 so 1 cup of stock costs 10¢ which is very reasonable.
Lastly, there is instant bouillon. There is a wide variety of ingredients in these but most contain lots of salt. In many cases, salt is the first ingredient. If you buy these, seek out the low-sodium versions. They are still relatively high in sodium compared to the other products. These cost as little at a penny a cup, as they should, because salt is really cheap!
Which should you use? If you can afford the stock in the box, by all means use it. It will always be the closest product to homemade stock. The concentrated bases are a great product at a great price. If you can find these, I heartily recommend them. Walmart and most supermarket chains carry them.
If you can't find the concentrated bases or if you are on a very tight budget, you'll need to make do with instant bouillon. It's important that you seek out the low-sodium products. Stock is often reduced in recipes and a very salty stock will result in an over salted dish. Do not add additional salt to a recipe until you have tasted it. Be aware that I always use low or no sodium stocks, so you will need to adjust the salt (see this post about use of salt in the recipes on this blog) if you use a high-sodium stock.
Here are some of our recipes that feature stock:
Mushroom Barley Soup
Italian Wedding Soup
French Onion Soup
Vegetarian Curried Split Pea Soup
Pasta and Bean Soup
Quick Chicken Noodle Soup