1) Those who use store bought stocks without a smidgen of remorse. Is chicken stock something you can actually make at home? Who knew?
2) Those who have made their own stock at least once in their life and realize that the store bought stuff is not up to snuff. But let's face it -- who has the time to make their own on regular basis. So in goes the boxed stuff with a generous dollop of guilt.
3) Those who think that the stock is the foundation of cuisine, and if you can't make it, you should get out of the kitchen (or at least stick to dishes that don't require stock).
Today, I'd like to address the second group. Those guilty home cooks who know that there is more to life than bouillon cubes, but don't always have the home-made stock on hand.
I know there are a lot of opinions on the subject already. According to Mark Bittman and Michael Ruhlman water is an acceptable substitute for home-made stock. On another hand, Cook's Illustrated suggests that some store bought stocks are significantly better than others, and as long as you avoid the really disgusting ones, your dish will come out well. The brands they recommend are Swanson Organic for Chicken Broth and Pacific for Beef Broth.
It took me over a year to figure out where I stand on this issue. I tried a number of soups, braises, and pan sauces with home-made stock, water, and the winners of Cook's Illustrated store bought stock taste tests. I don't need to tell you that the dishes made with home-made stocks always won the taste tests. The question is by how much and what's the best alternative.
When it comes to clear soups (chicken noodle, french onion, etc), home-made stocks make all the difference. Unfortunately, using water or store bought stock defeats the purpose of these soups for me, so I can't recommend any substitutions.
Pureed Soups (cream of asparagus, butternut squash, celery root, etc)
To my surprise and delight, home-made vegetable stock (see the end of this post for a recipe) works wonders for these soups and it's much faster and easier to make than chicken stock. Water is the next best thing. There is a noticeable flavor trade off, but these soups are still worth making with water. Using a store bought stock gives these soups more intensity than water, but not in a good way.
I made 3 batches of short ribs braised in red wine -- one with home-made beef stock, one with Pacific store bought beef stock, and one with water. The ratio of wine to stock (or water) for all batches was 2:1. Originally, there was going to be a fourth batch made with More than gourmet (that's the brand name) demi-glace. But after tasting that thing and having to spit it out, I decided against it. I'd describe it as tomato paste and flour dissolved in water with some artificial flavorings. Calling it demi-glace is a travesty in my opinion.
Back to my three batches. To my amazement, there was barely any difference in taste between them! After a little thought, it made a lot of sense. During the 5 hour braising process, the short ribs infused the liquid with their flavor making a sort of stock. I found this finding particularly useful. If home-made stock is a rare commodity in your kitchen, save it for a soup. It is also good news for people who don't have time to make different types of home-made stock (chicken, beef, veal, etc). Chicken stock is perfectly usable even for a beef braise. During the long braise, it will turn into a beef stock :)
Of course, the differences between my batches might have been much more striking if I were to use stock as the only braising liquid instead of only 1/3 of the liquid. But most of the braises that I enjoy use wine, beer, soy sauce+balsamic vinegar, and other flavorful liquids besides stock.
This is a tricky category. After searing your protein, you'll have a very flavorful fond left in your skillet (that's the French term for sticky brown bits), so you are half way there in terms of flavor. If you add home-made stock (normally it's unsalted, thus lended itself nicely to reducing without getting too salty) and a splash of wine, you'll create a heavenly dish. Without home-made stock, "heavenly" might be a hard thing to achieve. But the good news is that if you proceed carefully, and deal with these sauces on a case by case basis, you can find liquids besides home-made stock that can produce a good sauce.
- Chicken dishes. Even Swanson Organic (the least scary store bought chicken stock) tastes awful to me when reduced -- too salty and ramen noodle like. When deglazing a pan after searing or roasting chicken, I prefer to use porcini reconstituting liquid. You can make it in a pinch by soaking 0.75 oz of dry porcini (if possible imported) in 1 cup boiling water for at least 30 minutes. Strain through a damp paper towel lined sieve to catch grit before using. Don't let the price of dry porcini scare you. It might be as high as $70/Lb, but you only need 1 - 2 oz for most dishes. Home-made vegetable stock also works well, but porcini liquid is faster to make and tastier.
- Beef, lamb, and duck. If you don't mind your sauce on the slightly sweet side, using port can cover up all sorts of stock deficiencies. You don't need anything fancy. Trader Joe's port for $7-10 will do fine. When reduced, it becomes more syrupy than red wine giving your sauce the body (syrupiness) it would be missing without home-made stock. Of course, one can't make sauce with port alone. This is one of the few cases where I would argue in favor of a store bought Pacific beef broth. It's lower in sodium than most commercial beef stocks so it reduces better. While it doesn't have the intensity of a home-made beef stock, it actually has a reasonable roasted flavor and no unpleasant aftertaste. Even though I found one completely unsalted stock made by Kitchen Basics, I don't like it as much as Pacific due to its artificiality and lack of beef flavor.
- Pork and veal. If you are going the savory route, try porcini liquid and white wine. If you are going the sweet route, try port and Pacific beef broth.