Showdown: Store-bought vs. Homemade Broth or Stock

Time for another Homemade vs Store-bought showdown! This time we're going to look at broth and stock.

I spent time gathering data on both broth and stock. You'll notice I'm using these terms interchangeably, but they are not exactly the same thing. Broth is made by boiling meat and vegetables in water without bones. Stock is made by boiling meat, bones, and vegetables. I always make stock rather than broth. It has a higher nutritional content and better flavor.

I found some things out that really surprised me. For instance, did you know that it costs 2/3 more to buy broth than it does to make it at home? Yep. I have specific numbers under the cut.

And now, the showdown.

1. Convenience

Store broth has a few good selling points to it in the convenience category. It keeps indefinitely, it stores at room temperature, and you can just grab it and throw it into a recipe with a minimum of thought or effort. You have to go to the store to buy it.

Neither can I really imagine a universe in which homemade stock would strike me as inconvenient. Throwing a pot of stock on takes a grand total of five minutes, plus another five to ten at the end for straining and storing. Stock seems inconvenient at first because it takes hours to cook, but those are hours in which it needs essentially no supervision.

Homemade stock will keep in the refrigerator for a week. In the freezer, it will keep for a good six months before you run a risk of the flavor going "off" a little bit. So, once you've laid in a supply, it's just as accessible as the canned variety.

Advantage: Draw

2. Price

To get a really good idea for this, I did a little research. Let's look at the breakdown, shall we? Most of these are sold online by the case. I don't know many people who buy broth by the case, but let's roll with it. Buying in bulk is cheaper, and I'll give the benefit of the doubt to the store bought stuff here. At its cheapest, what does it cost?

Campbell's Chicken Broth: $13/gallon
College Inn Chicken Broth: $13/gallon
Swanson Chicken Broth: $13/gallon

College Inn is rounded down (it was $13.33) and Swanson is rounded up (it was $12.88) but overall, I was honestly surprised to see the price so consistent when you break it down by actual volume instead of per-can (not all cans were the same size).

What about the ingredients for homemade? Rather than looking at a specific local price, I decided to use average national prices from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. These were the average prices around the country in August 2011.

Chicken: $1.29/lb
Celery: $0.95/lb
Carrots: $0.69/lb

There were no prices for onions on the BLS page, but I did find this PDF file from the USDA that had some more information.

Onions: $0.55/lb

I'm going to go ahead and add a +/- of $2 for the cost of salt, pepper, bouquet garni, and any other spices or add-ons you might choose to throw in. That's a total estimation and guess. I tend to think of those things as "free" because I always have them in my house and spice-type staples come out of a different budget than fresh ingredients.

Oh, and I forgot one other thing! According to the EPA...

Water: $0.002/gallon -- or, essentially, free

Let's be extra-generous and pretend that to make your broth or stock, you are going to use an entire chicken instead of using the leftover carcass, cartilage, skin, and meaty bits that you didn't bother cutting off the bones for another meal. I have never heard of anybody doing this, but let's just pretend for a minute.

Figuring a whole 4 lb chicken and half a pound of each vegetable, the price for homemade broth is $6.23/gallon. That's less than half!

If you do something a little more reasonable and use the breast and thighs of your chicken for another meal, the total price drops down to $3.65/gallon, for an overall savings of $10/gallon.

Think about how angry you'd be if someone were charging you an extra $10/gallon to put fuel in your car. Instead, they're charging you an extra $10/gallon to put fuel in your body, and hoping you won't notice.

Advantage: Homemade knocks it out of the park

3. Taste

If you've ever eaten a spoonful of broth right out of the pot, you will know that it doesn't taste the same as the stuff you pour out of a box or can. It usually tastes... well, more meaty. Richer. More flavorful. The salt isn't as overwhelming, and if it's been boiled down to the right concentration, it also doesn't taste watery.

I will sit down and drink a cup of homemade chicken stock, plain and hot, like tea. I don't do that with canned broth, because it tastes like can. I don't do it with boxed broth, because it inevitably tastes either too salty or too watery. The best flavors come from nutritious foods, and as you're about to find out, there's a reason why I have to draw the conclusion I do here.

Advantage: Homemade

4. Health

What are the health benefits of broth, exactly? We all know that chicken broth is supposed to be good for you when you're sick. This is because chicken broth has antiviral properties. Stock, which is made from bones as well as meat, contains collagen and gelatin, which are good for the digestion and the joints.  If you've made it right, it's basically fat-free, very low in carbohydrates, and also a solid source of protein and vitamins.

Is there a difference in the nutritional content of homemade and store bought broths and stocks? Well, this is going to be a little tougher to analyze because it's hard to get detailed analysis of something as variable as homemade stock, but we'll do our best.

The following is the average nutritional info on both store bought and homemade broth/stock, according to the USDA's Nutrient Data Laboratory. I also checked the listed nutritional information for each of the three brand names above. Where the listed, specific data does not match the USDA data, I've added a parenthetical note.

Store Bought

Calories: 17
Total Fat: 0.24 g
Carbohydrates: 0.9g
Protein: 2.4g
Sodium: 379mg (listed: 853)
Calcium: 7g (listed: 0)
Iron: 0.48mg (listed: 0)
Magnesium: 2mg
Potassium: 192mg
Vitamin C: 16mg (listed: 0)
Vitamin A: 0iu

Homemade Stock

Calories: 86
Total Fat: 2.88g
Carbohydrates: 8.47g
Protein: 6.05g
Sodium: 343g
Calcium: 7mg
Iron: 0.5mg
Magnesium: 10mg
Potassium: 252mg
Vitamin C: 0.5mg
Vitamin A: 7iu

Homemade stock is higher in calories and carbohydrates than the store bought, according to the USDA. Other than that, it's higher in protein and, if you go by the nutritional data published by the companies themselves, it's dramatically higher in all other nutrients. Store-bought broth appears to be essentially nutrient-free, with the one exception of sodium. According to the data published by Swanson, College Inn, and Campbell's, the average sodium content in store bought broth is a whopping 853 grams!

The average sodium in homemade stock, according to the USDA, is a mere 343 grams. Know how to drop that number way lower? Just don't add salt.

Advantage: Homemade, because it is more than just salty, chicken-flavored water.

5. Environmental Impact

As I mentioned in my post on dried vs. canned beans, canned foods have BPA in them. Before you run off to switch to buying the boxed stuff, I might as well tell you--boxed soups also have BPA in them. This is a huge red flag for me of something I do not want to continue to keep in my house.

In addition, most store bought broths contain soy, corn, or MSG--and sometimes they have all three. Once again, unless otherwise stated, the likelihood is that these come from GMO crops. 80-90% of soybeans and corn grown in the USA are genetically modified organisms.

Oh, and we should also consider the living conditions of the animals used to make broth. It's a fair bet that if they're putting it in soup or in a can, it's because it wasn't pretty enough to fetch a good price at the supermarket. So you're eating the worst off-cuts of meat from battery chickens and CAFO beeves.

Homemade stock affords you a chance to exercise a little choice and make sure you get meat that comes from healthy, humanely raised animals.

Advantage: Homemade


By a landslide, the winner is Homemade! The store-bought challenger didn't even stand a chance when pitted against this home-grown hero.

Recipe: Homemade Stock

If you don't already know how to make stock at home, don't worry. It's simple and easy to learn how.

Ingredients (makes 1 gallon)

  • 1-2 lbs cooked bones (ideally leftovers from a previous meal) with some meat still attached
  • About 1/2 lb each carrots, onions or leeks, and celery
  • 1-2 bay leaves
  • 1 pinch thyme
  • 1 pinch parsley
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 splash of white wine
  • 1 1/2 gallons water
N.B. if you are missing one of these ingredients (other than water and meat), don't worry. It will still be nutritious and good.

Fill a large stock pot with cold water. Add meat and bring to a boil on high heat. 

Once the meat is boiling, turn the heat down and let it simmer for 20-30 minutes. Skim off any foam, scum, or fat that may have risen to the top and discard. 

Add vegetables and spices and simmer for 4-8 hours. Strain through a colander or cheesecloth, or remove bones and vegetables with a slotted spoon, and refrigerate. 

When cooled, skim off fat from the top and reserve (it's good for cooking with). Store in the fridge for up to a week, or freeze and store for up to 6 months.

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