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Homemade broth is the key ingredient your bowl of soup deserves

I make and eat a lot of soup in the winter. More often than I want to, I will bust open a carton of store-bought broth. Sometimes the time and effort of making the soup itself is all I can handle. It’s not that making broth is difficult. But it does require more forethought (and refrigerator or freezer space) than I usually have.

Sadly, what passes muster for most store-bought broths is limited to brown, salty water.

I recently made a batch of one of my favorite soups — step right this way to Post columnist Ellie Krieger’s Family Favorite Minestrone — and could not get over how good it was. The biggest difference from some of my other batches? This one used a particularly rich, dark batch of homemade vegetable broth — step right this way to Food editor Joe Yonan’s Scrappy Vegetable Broth. The entire soup had a much more savory backbone that made the healthful dish that much heartier.

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“The body and flavor of the soup changes dramatically when you make your own” broth (or stock, depending on whom you ask or what you’re making it with), says food writer and cookbook author Ivy Manning. When writing her 2017 book, “Easy Soups from Scratch with Quick Breads to Match: 70 Recipes to Pair and Share,” Manning tested her soups two ways, with homemade and store-bought broth, and they were inevitably better with the homemade stuff.

Homemade broths are a relatively low lift — put things in a pot and boil it while you do other things. They’re also thrifty — use up ingredients you already have or stock up on what’s cheap at the store. Here’s how to get started making your own broth, with a couple of next-level tips.

If you’re short on time, make broths for when it counts. Let’s be real. Lofty goals or not, a homemade broth isn’t going to happen every time you want a pot of soup. So consider when it will matter most. When there are a lot of flavors and ingredients going into a soup, homemade isn’t as important, Manning says. But with something like a chicken soup, where the broth really needs to shine? Yeah, it’s worth the effort.

Be thoughtful about what you put in the pot. Manning recalls a phrase a chef she worked for would use: “Garbage in, garbage out.” So if you’re making a broth with a few sad shriveled vegetables from your crisper drawer, forget it. She’s not even a huge fan of the turkey carcass broth, especially if you’re not adding much else to enhance it.

If, however, you have extra onions, celery and carrots lying around in decent shape, proceed. Manning likes a ratio of 50 percent onion and 25 percent each of carrot and celery for her mirepoix, a.k.a. the base of many broths and soups.

For meat-based broths, Manning recommends you “buy the parts of the animal that look like they were responsible for moving them around.” That means anything like wings, drumsticks, shins and shanks. There’s flavor in the connective tissue and bones, and collagen, which breaks down in cooking to provide body and a satisfying texture. It’s the reason your broth might gelatinize in the fridge, which means you’ve done it right. Manning is flexible on the parts, depending on what’s on sale at the supermarket.

Pack in flavor where you can. Roasting bones will absolutely bring out additional flavor for meat-based broths, although Manning is also a fan of a quicker fix with broiling.

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To add even more depth to your broth, try including tomato sauce, kombu (seaweed) or mushrooms. Soy sauce can salvage a weak vegetable broth after cooking, too. All are high in glutamates, the substances responsible for savory, umami flavor. Other flavor enhancers: Peppercorns, bay leaves and herbs. Manning will even add a few tablespoons of nutritional yeast to chicken broth a few minutes before it’s done, which she says helps with that umami and contributes a golden hue. Rinds from spent wedges of Parmigiano-Reggiano can be good, too, but Manning suggests using those mostly for European-style soups. And be sure your rinds are from a fresh wedge you just ate or have been stored in the freezer. Old ones that have been languishing in your cheese drawer may bring a funky flavor you’re not looking for.

Stay away from brassicas — broccoli, cauliflower, etc. — which Manning says can turn broth into, ahem, “skunk water.” You can use other potential discards, though. The dark green parts of leeks, some (but not too much) fennel and carrot tops (similar to parsley) are all possibilities.

What else should you leave out? Salt. Getting the level right can be tricky, plus you’re going to be seasoning the soup anyway.

Cook it right. Manning likes to use a tall stockpot, which is good for large batches and gives you enough head space to top off the pot if the water level looks low before the broth is done. Start your broth with cold water. For meat, add just about enough water to cover the ingredients. For vegetables, Manning suggests covering with half an inch of water. Slowly bring the water to a boil over medium-high heat. Once it’s just about boiling (bubbling but not vigorously), reduce the heat to maintain a simmer with constant, small bubbles. The gentler cooking keeps the fat and protein from dispersing too much and keeps the broth from getting cloudy.

Manning doesn’t usually bother skimming the surface of the broth while it’s cooking. She prefers to do that later, after the broth has cooled (more on that below).

Vegetable broth might take an hour to an hour and a half, she says. With meat, “there’s sort of a bell curve that after awhile you’re not getting anything out of those bones. They’re dead,” Manning says. To see whether your chicken broth is done, she suggests trying the meat. If it tastes like water, you’re good. If meat is falling off the bones, that’s another sign the broth is ready. Beef will take longer, 2 to 2½ hours. “It should just smell intoxicatingly delicious” when it’s done, she says.

If for some reason your broth comes out too watery and bland, put it back on the heat and reduce it by half, Manning says. That will concentrate the flavor and give you a better result.

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Strain your broth after cooking (pressing on the solids can make it cloudy). Especially if it’s meat-based, you’ll want to let it cool overnight in the fridge. That way you can easily skim off fat and anything else that might have risen to the surface.

Think beyond the stove top. Manning has written several Instant Pot cookbooks, and she’s particularly fond of using such multicookers to make broth. (Her vegetable broth, which I recently made, is stunningly easy, flavorful and colorful.) They also make the task much faster.

If you’d like to go the opposite direction, try making your broth in a slow cooker.

Use it now or later. Store broths in the fridge for up to a week. If you’re freezing broth, make sure you leave enough space for expansion. In our Food Lab, we measure 2- and 4-cup portions into zip-top bags and label them with the type of broth, date and amount. We then let them freeze flat on sheet pans, which makes them easier to store and stack once they’re solid. It also helps with defrosting. Manning recommends using frozen stock within 3 months. After that “it starts to kind of fade,” she says. Nothing catastrophic, though it may not be as delicious.

After all, delicious is the goal. Otherwise, why bother?

And you should definitely bother.

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