Taste Test: Which is the Best Store-Bought Stock Option?

November 11, 2015

Obviously, homemade stock is the ideal option for any homemade dish. In a perfect world, you have a freezer stocked with neatly-labeled containers of every type of stock under the sun, just waiting to shine in a soup or to deglaze a pan.

But sometimes the need for stock can present itself at the last minute, when all you have in your freezer is a bag of frozen peas. And so you turn to your pantry. 

Chicken Stock

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More: You probably have everything you need to make vegetable stock right nowDo it.

As we enter this time of good cheer and holiday cooking madness, it's a good idea to have some stock on hand, just in case you need to stretch a stew for some unexpected guests or moisten a dried-out turkey.

So the question now becomes, which type of stock should you buy? Boxed? Canned? Bouillon cubes? Ramen packets? (Just kidding. Please do not use the last option to make stock.)

We tested all the store-bought stock types in the grocery aisle to find out:

Biscuits and Gravy

The Test:

I wanted to test the stock in a dish that would highlight its flavor, but not rely upon it too heavily. Soup was out, and so was any soup-like substance (stew, chili, etc.). I settled on gravy, which I thought would let the stock's flavor shine through. 

I decided to use chicken stock in my gravy: Not only is it the only stock that I found available in all three forms at my local grocery store, it also seemed like the most popular type of stock, and therefore the best kind to test. To keep things consistent, I got regular sodium chicken stock for all categories, and opted for non-organic varietals (since they don't have organic bouillon).

More: Vegans deserve gravy, too!

As I didn't have a desire to roast an entire chicken, I decided to test the gravy on its ideal breakfast mate: biscuits. I used this recipe for the biscuits and stuck to Kenzi's loose Not Recipe guidelines for the gravy. 

Gravy Not Recipes

The Results:

I am not exaggerating for the sake of this article when I say that I was shocked by the results of this taste test. I thought that the box stock would be a clear winner—it's what I had grown up using in my house, and I think of it as being more wholesome. 

My six testers unanimously rejected the box stock as the worst one, calling it "metallic." They did not even finish the biscuit upon which it was poured, which is a bad sign indeed. I bought the generic, store-brand boxed chicken stock, so perhaps if I had splurged for the organic brand things would have gone differently.

The gravy made from canned stock came in second place. Testers described it as "subtle," with a "classic gravy flavor," but a few also dismissed it as "bland." 

The clear, virtually unanimous favorite (only one tester preferred the gravy made with canned stock) was the gravy made from bouillon cubes. Bouillon cubes! Testers described the winning gravy as "the most flavorful," and "like what your mom would make." One also described it as "a fast food-like biscuit and gravy," which was a positive review.

I was surprised. Not only had I never cooked with bouillon cubes before, I did not even know what exactly they were made of. From the back of the box, it seemed like they contained a lot of questionable ingredients, "chicken skin powder" among them. My only guess as to why the bouillon cube made the most flavorful stock is that they had twice the sodium of both the canned and box stock, and also were the only ones to contain any fat.

Am I saying that you should make your Thanksgiving gravy with bouillon stock? Maybe, maybe not. All I can say is that the results speak for themselves—and maybe we shouldn't reject bouillon cubes quite so quickly in the future.

What is your favorite store-bought stock, be it chicken, beef, or vegetable? And do you have any awesome recipes to use bouillon cubes? Tell us in the comments! 

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Barbara S. February 17, 2017
I use Better than Bouillon all the time. I can usually get the organic chicken Better than Bouillon that I purchase at Costco. It comes in large jars there and ends up being far less costly that way. My friends and I think it's a winner.
Sally F. October 25, 2016
throw a bouillon cube in yr cheesy grits!!
DrGaellon November 22, 2015
The kitchen wizards at Cook's Illustrated also recommend Better than Bouillon. They also liked the Swanson organic much better than any of the other ready-to-use stocks.
Catherine L. November 13, 2015
Wow, sounds like Better than Bouillon is the way to go! I'll definitely have to try that next time.
Susan S. November 12, 2015
How many bouillon cubes did you use (per cup of liquid?)?
Catherine L. November 13, 2015
One cube per cup of liquid! That's the formula they gave on the back of the box.
Cathie H. November 11, 2015
And, Catherine, Better than Bouillon DOES have an organic option although all markets don't carry it.
Susan November 7, 2016
I believe Costco carries the large size, Better than Bullion organic in both chicken and beef choices. We use it and really enjoy it.
Linda November 11, 2015
I would love to see your test results with Better Than Bullion included. It is the only kind I use other than homemade stock. It is fantastic for adding a little extra flavor without adding more liquid because it is a paste.
HalfPint November 11, 2015
@Linda, I was thinking that too. My husband use to hate the chicken soup that I made (with canned chicken broth), but recently I used BTB and he LOVED it. I have to agree with him that it tastes way better than canned chicken broth
David N. November 12, 2015
I agree with you there. I keep 6 different Better Than Bullion flavors at home, for when I am out of home made stock. (or need to get moving faster than defrosting it)
btglenn October 12, 2016
I always use Better than Bouillon to enhance a made from scratch soup. I use Swansons, canned, as a base for my made from scratch soups, but never on its own. Another trick for a faster soup -- take a can of Campbells condensed chicken noodle, and drain its liquid contents into a medium-sized saucepan. Add water along with cut up carrots, celery with its leaves chopped onion and/or leeks, chopped parsley, chopped cilantro, etc., and extra pasta or noodles and cook until almost done. Adjust soup taste and add Better Than Bouillon as needed, pepper, hot sauce, dry lemon powder, etc. Then add the rest of the can contents, heat, and serve. In about 20 minutes you have an almost home-made soup.
Yozhik0607 November 11, 2015
Interesting results! I really like using vegan bouillon cubes for vegetable broth (I don't like boxed vegetable stock), but I haven't used meat bouillon cubes because I haven't noticed one that seems healthy enough for my tastes (though I haven't looked too hard). was kind of hoping this would be a taste test of the different boxed stocks - I'm always wondering about whether I have the best-tasting brand. Maybe a future taste test :)
OneLittleDetail November 11, 2015
I really like the "better than bouillon" base. I keep the chicken and vegetable bases in my refrigerator all the time.

They last forever, contain real chicken/vegetables, and come in low sodium varieties. They even have a veggie based "chicken" broth that I've been itching to try!
Rachel November 11, 2015
I do too. I use their beef base for french onion soup. However, II buy the Knorr Caldo de Pollo bouillon cubes from Latin markets near where I work, and they work great!
David N. November 12, 2015
Try mixing the chicken and beef for French Onion. It gives a great flavor. I also use their bases...
ArtoriusRex November 11, 2015
I love Better Than Bullion products. Very easy to use and not too salty.
Rachel November 11, 2015
What brand of buillion cubes did you use?
Catherine L. November 13, 2015
I used the generic store-brand cubes, since I was using store-brand for all the products to keep some consistency.
latenac November 11, 2015
"Tastes like Mom would make" I wonder if that's really the crux. I know Cook's Illustrated did a grass fed vs non grass fed beef tasting and the older testers preferred the grass fed b/c it tasted like childhood and younger preferred non grass fed b/c it tasted like childhood. Or if you grow up with jarred spaghetti sauce it can take a bit to adjust to sauce made from scratch, etc. I'm sure the salt content helped but memories can also be strong.