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Broth vs. stock: What’s the difference and does it matter?

(Rey Lopez for The Washington Post/Food styling by Lisa Cherkasky for The Washington Post )

The line between broth and stock has become so blurred, it might seem the two terms are synonyms. Just head to the grocery store and you’ll find shelves upon shelves of boxes and cans of products marked as one or the other displayed side by side, with the average consumer none the wiser as to what sets them apart. Even in recipes from culinary professionals — ourselves included — the terms are often used interchangeably.

Get the recipe: Roasted Chicken Stock

But what exactly is the difference between broth and stock, if there even is one? If so, does it make a difference which you use when making soups, stews and other dishes? Here’s what you need to know.

While both broth and stock are made by simmering animal parts (unless the liquid is plant-based), vegetables and sometimes herbs and spices in water, technically they are different things:

  • Stock is primarily made from bones that have been simmered for a long time and is unseasoned. The long cook time allows the collagen in bones to convert to gelatin, giving well-made stocks their viscous body and causing them to gel when cooled. Stocks are best used in braises, sauces and stews.
  • Broth is primarily made from meat that has been simmered for a shorter amount of time, typically two hours or less, and has been seasoned with salt. It has a thinner consistency and is best used for soups, cooking grains or other dishes where its seasoning is welcome.

“Traditionally, broth was made with meat and, sometimes, bones; stock was made with bones, but not necessarily meat,” according to “Joy of Cooking.” “Perhaps it is best to think of stock as an ingredient and broth as more of a destination: a simple clear soup made from meat, poultry, fish, shellfish, or vegetables that is often eaten (or sipped) as is.” Following this modern distinction, yes, “vegetable stock” is a thing that you can use to braise vegetables, and it also explains “bone broth,” which is a liquid made from simmering bones for a significantly long time (up to two days) that is seasoned and meant to be sipped on its own.

Homemade broth is the key ingredient your bowl of soup deserves

Yet neither taxonomy quite accounts for the stuff you buy at the grocery store. While manufacturers seem to adhere to the rule that stocks should contain less salt than broths, that doesn’t mean that packages bearing the “stock” label are sodium-free. For example, the regular sodium versions of College Inn brand chicken stock and broth have sodium levels of 480 milligrams and 850 milligrams per serving, respectively. So if choosing between regular sodium broth and stock, I recommend defaulting to stock so you can have more control over the amount of salt in the finished dish.

Overall, however, the best option for most home cooks is unsalted or no-salt-added stock or broth, which is typically what I call for in recipes because you’re most likely going to be adding salt and seasoning to taste, regardless. (Low- or reduced-sodium options are a good second choice, though you will need to check the nutrition label to see which product has the least amount.)

But don’t fret too much: When you’re just trying to get dinner on the table, whatever you have on hand will do. As a cook, salt is paramount, so you need to be aware that the people who made the product you bought and/or the person who wrote the recipe that you’re following might not have considered the nuance of stock vs. broth and the impact they can have. (Full disclosure: Even we have been a little loosey-goosey with the terms in our broth and stock recipe names.) So check the broth or stock’s sodium levels before adding to your recipe, be judicious about seasoning (particularly when the liquid will be reduced), and taste your food.

If you find yourself with an over-salted sauce, soup or stew, there are ways to fix it, such as by adding sweetness or extra starch.