How to make a humble box taste like homemade. And then some. 

Whole Foods

Boxed chicken broth is one of the hardest working items in my pantry. I like it in place of water when I’m cooking rice or polenta, I add a splash to leftovers before reheating to keep them moist, and I use it to make super fast sauces. But I like it best as the base for lickety split weeknight soups.

I know, I know. I’ve been hawking soup like I’m getting paid to do it (Campbell’s, call me). But soup is so endlessly adaptable, easily storable, and reliably forgiving that I make it at least once a week. And boxed broth makes it easy.

A word on broth vs. stock. Stock is the result of simmering animal bones, mirepoix (that’s just chef-fancy for onion, celery, and carrot) and other herbs and/or spices in water until the bones have released gelatin and flavor to create a rich, unctuous liquid. Broth is what it becomes after you season it. But as you can probably tell from a quick trip down your soup aisle, you’ll find boxes of flavored liquids labeled both stock and broth. Don’t worry too much about what they’re called. These days the terms are used largely interchangeably. It’s a technicality not worth worrying about under these circumstances (i.e. Wednesday night, 7:30pm, starving).

For you weeknight warriors, boxed broth and stock function the same way. Don't worry, we went ahead and tasted them all so you don’t have to. While it didn’t make the cut, I’m a big fan of Swanson Organic Free-Range Chicken Broth as well. Its straightforward chicken flavor and neutral golden hue make it a perfect canvas on which to build. 

Whether you're using chicken or turkey, beef or vegetable, know that boxed broth is not and will never be the same as homemade. Homemade broth (a good starter recipe here) will always be more complex and delicious than something you get in a box. Plus you get the satisfaction of knowing exactly what you put in it. I encourage you to try making it yourself, but on another day. That’s not the point here. We want fast, easy, and economical and, for weeknights, boxed broth is a shortcut worth taking. Some markets make their own broth in house and sell it in quart-size deli containers in the refrigerated section and sometimes frozen. This is an excellent option and second best to homemade.

All that said, with a few simple additions you can transform a quart of broth into a savory concoction with more depth and flavor than the box has on its own. Simmered for about 10 minutes, these combinations make robust bases for a variety of add-ins and ons. For goodness sake, season all of these with salt and pepper. A few to try:

Ginger, Garlic, Shallot

Simmer a quart of broth with a knob of fresh ginger, peeled and thinly sliced, a couple thinly sliced shallots, and 2 thinly sliced garlic cloves. Add shrimp, rice noodles, a sliced fresh chile, and a big handful of basil, mint and/or cilantro.

Onion, Fennel, Garlic

Sauté a chopped onion, a chopped fennel bulb, and a couple finely chopped garlic cloves in a little olive oil. Add a squeeze of tomato paste, stir, stir, stir, then add a quart of stock. Whisk to combine and bring to a simmer. After 10 minutes, add some clams, or shrimp, scallops, or pieces of firm white fish and simmer until open (clams) or opaque (the others). Drizzle with olive oil, top with fennel fronds.

Onion, Carrot, Celery

Sauté a chopped onion, a couple ribs of sliced celery, and few small chopped carrots in a bit of olive oil until softened. Add a quart of broth, and simmer 10 minutes. Add a couple handfuls of egg noodles (less than you think—they’ll keep soaking up the liquid as they sit) and some shredded rotisserie chicken. Boom: 15-Minute Chicken Noodle Soup.

Miso, Soy, Scallion

Bring a quart of broth to a simmer. In a small bowl, whisk together a couple good spoonfuls of white miso and a spoonful of soy sauce until smooth. Whisk into simmering broth and add a bunch of thinly sliced scallions. Stir in cooked rice, cubes of tofu, and top with kimchi. We stole this one from Real Simple BFF, Lindsay Hunt. Get the recipe here and more like it in her wonderful book Healthyish.

Ginger, Garlic, Curry

Sauté a chopped onion, a tablespoon chopped fresh ginger, and 2 cloves chopped garlic in a little vegetable oil until softened. Add a tablespoon of hot or mild curry powder and cook until slightly darkened, about a minute. Add a quart of broth, a couple chopped sweet potatoes and a can of chickpeas (rinse and drain these first please). Simmer until sweet potatoes are tender. Top with cilantro. 

These are just some thought-starters, but feel free to get creative. Next time you’re at the market, buy a few quarts of broth to play around with. Try different flavor combinations and additions, then tweak and adjust depending on what you have in the pantry and fridge. Once you get the hang of it, you’ll be able to tailor a box of broth to suit your taste any night of week.

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