How to choose stock
How to pick the right stock for the meal, the occasion and health.
We’ve come a long way since the Oxo stock cube or Maggi powder (probably in either chicken or beef) was our only choice of prepared stock.
Not only is there now a huge range of powdered stocks including garlic, mushroom, vegetable and green herb, but ready-to-use liquid stocks are now widely available.
Traditionally a stock is the flavoursome liquid produced after the long slow cooking of meat or vegetables in water, usually with added seasonings like onion, salt and pepper, and herbs.
Often the carcass of a chicken, a ham or bacon hock, fish heads, or vegetables are used to make the stock.
Although I regularly use purchased stock, I’d encourage anyone with the ingredients on hand (like a chicken carcass after having the roast) to make stock from it.
It’s the simplest thing to do (it has to be for me to do it), freezes well, and tastes great. Simmering stocks for longer, reducing the amount of liquid, gives stock a more intense flavour.
Stock is essential in the kitchen as it’s used in so many dishes:
- Stock is used in stews and casseroles to add liquid and flavour.
- A good stock is essential to make risotto and you can add flavour to couscous by using heated stock instead of water.
- Add some vegetables/pulses/grains or noodles/meat or seafood into stock, along with a few herbs or spices, and call it soup.
What’s in prepared stock?
Liquid stocks like Campbell’s or Continental real stocks are predominantly made from stock similar to one you’d make at home, although they add other flavours to that. Things like glucose or sugar, yeast extract, onion powder and herbs add flavour to the stock.
The Essential Cuisine stocks are the closest we found to a really good homemade stock (and are priced accordingly). Their chicken stock has only two ingredients – chicken and water – no added flavour required as the chicken flavour speaks for itself: it doesn’t even have any added salt.
If you dehydrate a stock, which is largely water, you’re going to be left with the flavourings. And if you’re selling the dehydrated stock, you probably need to add some things to make it keep and to ensure it doesn’t solidify too readily, which seems to be pretty much what you’ll find in the ingredients lists of the powdered stocks.
Homemade stock often has added salt and if you dehydrated it there could be a surprising proportion of salt.
However, we know that too much sodium from salt is not good for our health, and manufacturers are catching on too.
There’s not a huge range of reduced-salt products available yet, but hopefully that will change when we all switch to using them!
Campbell’s reduced-salt liquid chicken stock has 50% less sodium than the standard version, at 640mg per cup; and Continental’s powdered beef stock with reduced salt has 25% less sodium than their standard product, at 560mg per cup when made up.
Maggi’s garlic stock powder has 325mg per cup. The other lower-sodium products we tried were the Essential Cuisine chicken stock, which had no added salt, at 192mg sodium, and Vegeta Chilli Stock with 415mg.
It’s worth knowing the Heart Foundation Tick programme is lowering its criteria for sodium in stock; from September stocks with the tick on them will have to be lower than 230mg per 100g.
To put the sodium in context, the suggested dietary target for good health from the Ministry of Health is 1600mg per day, which is less than the amount in 3/4 of a teaspoon of salt (sodium chloride), yet the average Kiwi consumes more than twice that.
High sodium intakes are strongly associated with increased risk of high blood pressure, coronary heart disease and stroke, as well as gastric cancer, osteoporosis, cataracts, kidney stones and diabetes.
The message should be loud and clear: while we do need sodium, we are all getting far too much; less is better.
Stock is about flavour so there really is nothing else in terms of nutrition. From the selection we looked at, a cup of stock can add between 36-195kJ per cup, which is not a lot in the preparation of a main meal.
All of these products are high in convenience. Okay, with the liquid stock you just open and pour, but it’s hardly any more trouble to mix up a powdered stock.
One significant difference between the products is price, which ranged from just 8 cents to $3.65 per cup, so that may be a decider for you.
Space in your pantry may also dictate the range you stock (all except the Essential Cuisine product were shelf-stable).The powdered stocks are great space-savers and may be a good backup, even if you prefer to use a liquid stock most of the time.
The bottom line
- If it’s available in the flavour you want, choose a lower-salt version. If it’s not, consider diluting the stock with water and adding some other flavourings like white pepper, fresh or dried herbs, tomato paste, etc.
- After that it’s about taste and price, which are both individual and may result in a trade-off. We did a blind taste test and while the real stocks generally fared better, you pay a lot more for the real thing and most of the powdered ones were quite acceptable.