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Is Bone Broth the Magic Elixir It Seems to Be?

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Have you heard about bone broth? Recently, the savory, umami-laced liquid that you’ve been using as a base for soups and stews has migrated out of the stockpot and into your mug. You might have seen it making the rounds on the internet and popping up in restaurants and street carts, peddled as a meaty elixir with a myriad of health benefits.

Bone broth is gluten-free, it’s paleo, and there are even vegan iterations (though obviously sans bones): It’s the new green juice, the new quinoa, the new froyo (sorry, dated reference). The Wall Street Journal calls bone broth “quite possibly the only dish that counts as both a comfort food and a health aid.” It’s an excellent way to make use of scraps and reduce food waste, and you can even whip it up in record time with an Instant Pot or pressure cooker. But is it as good for you as people say—and, more important, is it good?

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Bone broth is a versatile canvas for your favorite savory flavors.
Bone broth is a versatile canvas for your favorite savory flavors. Photo by Catherine Lamb

What's the backstory?

Bone broths, of course, are nothing new. Cultures around the world have been brewing broth from leftover animal bones—typically beef, chicken, and pork—for millennia in an attempt to make use of the whole animal. Traditionally, bone broth has been an economical way to make use of inedible animal bits, a liquid to fortify the stomach when there wasn’t much food to go around. Basically, it’s stock—you know, the thing you make soup with. That’s right, many people use the terms interchangeably, though stock typically has a higher proportion of bones to meat.

Recently, however, bone broth has become quite popular—almost deified. Not only as a component of your dinner (in a bowl of Japanese tonkotsu ramen, a French pot-au-feu, Korean seolleongtang, etc.), but in and of its own right: It is advertised as a miracle liquid to keep you full and cure you of your ailments, with a small cup going for anywhere between $7.00 to $15.00. Chefs have long embraced the flavor-enhancing powers of homemade, slow-simmered stock as a tool in their arsenal, but recently some have started selling it as a stand-alone dish or meal. Jenn Louis, chef and owner of Lincoln Restaurant and Sunshine Tavern in Portland, Oregon, where she offers bone broth as a starter, calls chicken stock “liquid gold.” Marco Canora, chef and owner of Hearth in New York, opened Brodo (Italian for broth), a take-out window out of his East Village restaurant peddling takeaway bone broth in coffee cups, in 2014. His cookbook Brodo: A Bone Broth Cookbook came out in 2015, and today, Brodo’s bone broth is available for delivery to 48 states.

what exactly *is* bone broth?

Bone broth is usually made from (duh) bones, typically joints such as knuckles, feet, necks, and tails, some of which still have a bit of meat still clinging to them. Typically, the bones are roasted before boiling to enhance flavor and make it easier to extract their collagen. After they’re covered in water, herbs and vegetables are often added, along with a splash or two of something acidic, like apple cider vinegar or red wine, to help pull the nutrients from the bones.

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The broth is then simmered for a very long period of time, often for at least eight hours, and sometimes in excess of 24 hours. Canora’s cookbook recommends a six-hour simmer for chicken bone broth, with a 16- to 18-hour one for beef or lamb broth. For home cooks, however, eight hours is a more reasonable goal; put your pot on the lowest heat setting and let it go for as long as possible. Per the Brodo cookbook, the extensive simmering time serves to extract gelatin, and to coax out small amounts of trace minerals, such as calcium and phosphorus, from collagen-rich joint bones. At the end of the cooking process, the bones should fall apart when pressed lightly between your thumb and forefinger.

There's a lot of flavor in that pot—also gelatin, collagen, and some minerals.
There's a lot of flavor in that pot—also gelatin, collagen, and some minerals. Photo by Alpha Smoot

what about vegetarians?

There are indeed vegetarian versions of bone broth, though they don’t offer the same array of health benefits. Most versions substitute some mixture of dried mushrooms, seaweed, miso, and vegetables for the bones. While this still makes for a satisfying cup of savory broth, and will give its drinker a good dose of iodine and antioxidants from the seaweed, it doesn’t offer the collagen, gelatin, or other minerals provided by bone broth.

what are the health benefits?

Bone broth is indeed a rich, savory, warming drink, but its recent catapult into the limelight is mainly due to its purported health benefits. From increasing hair and nail health to improving sleep, bone broth promises a myriad of beneficial effects—some of which are proven, some of which are very speculative. We asked registered dietician Stephanie Clark of C&J Nutrition to shed some light on the health benefits of bone broth:

Why is it supposed to be good for me?

Bone broth is often framed as a meal or snack replacement similar to juicing, but hot and infinitely more satisfying in the chilly winter months. Bone broth is high in gelatin, a flavorless, colorless form of supplementary protein; drinking a cup can combat mid-afternoon hunger slumps or sugar cravings. In fact, Harvard Medical Health purports that one cup of bone broth contains from six to 12 grams of protein—not bad.

Clark agrees that bone broth does have some benefits as a nutritional booster; in fact, she believes that is its main boon: “The main way that [bone broth] should be used is for people that are looking to increase their protein intake, or just [want to] have a quick, easy way of sipping on something with protein.”

What else can it do?

It turns out that what your grandmother said might actually be true: There is some evidence that chicken soup really can help you ward off sickness. This is because chicken broth, and bone broths in general, inhibit what’s called neutrophil migration; that is, they help mitigate the side effects of colds, flus, and upper respiratory infections.

And, unfortunately, that’s really all we know for sure. As Clark states: “people have different definitions of what bone broth truly is, and there isn’t a standard definition; the term comes more from a culinary standpoint, which makes establishing nutritional benefits a bit difficult.” Currently, all the concrete data we have to go on comes from the USDA nutritional analysis of stock, which is taken from store-bought stocks, not ones made at home or by chefs.

Essentially, there’s not enough data to say for sure whether bone broth can actually do everything that people claim it can: Does it really have the power to promote joint health and prevent osteoarthritis? Can gelatin help seal your gut, keeping leaky gut syndrome at bay? Can the glycine in the broth keep you from tossing and turning during the night? Can collagen—also found in bone broth—actually help promote skin elasticity, reducing wrinkles and giving your skin a youthful glow as if you’re lit from within all while decreasing split ends and strengthening your nails?

Sadly, the answer is that we just don’t know. Yet. “Just because there hasn’t been much research done on bone broth, doesn’t mean these purported benefits are completely bogus,” says Clark. “It just means that they’re unsubstantiated as of now.” What we do know is that if you’re drinking bone broth you’re hydrating, which has been shown to improve skin dryness. Also, as Clark says, if you’re getting more protein, it may up your energy level, which will not only help your skin, but can increase overall immunity.

Majestic, mighty broth!
Majestic, mighty broth! Photo by Alpha Smoot

so, what's the verdict?

Whether or not it makes you look like you’re 21 again, bone broth is delicious and warming and can definitely help you through an afternoon hunger slump or sate a craving for something savory and cozy. And if it makes you feel like a dewy-skinned superhero, all the better.

If you don’t want to shell out a chunk of change for boutique store-bought bone broth, good news: it’s incredibly easy (and affordable) to make at home!

Really? Tell me how!

To make bone broth, first round up a bunch of the boniest bones (knuckles, feet, necks, tails, etc.) you can find, as joints have more collagen. Ask your butcher for soup bones, they’ll know what you’re talking about.

Some choose to roast the bones first to enhance their flavor, and as a way to cook off some of the fat, if desired. (If you’re going this route, spread the bones out on a baking sheet and roast at 425°F for 30 minutes, or until browned. You could also use bones from a chicken that you’ve already roasted, as Clark does.) Don’t skimp on the amount of bones—the more you use, the richer the flavor.

Toss your bones into a large stockpot or a crockpot, and add any desired herbs, like rosemary, sage, or thyme, and vegetables, such as carrots, onions, and garlic. Add a splash of something acidic, like apple cider vinegar or red wine, to help extract the nutrients from bones. Cover the bones by a few inches with cool water and cook for as long as you possibly can, preferably six to eight hours. After this time, says Clark, the vast majority of the nutrients in the bones have most likely already seeped out into the water. Strain off some of the fat that floats to the top, if desired. When the bones are soft and crumble to the touch, your broth is ready to strain and consume. Note: You can cut down on cooking time by using a pressure cooker or Instant pot, which will give you a pretty good bone broth in two hours or less.

A pot of bone broth in the making.
A pot of bone broth in the making. Photo by Catherine Lamb

does it store well?

Bone broth can be stored, in a tightly-covered plastic container, for up to a week in the fridge, or frozen for up to six months. Tip: Divvy broth into ice cube trays before freezing for a quick, efficient storage method.

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how do i use it?

The most straightforward way to use bone broth is just to drink it straight-up. Gild your broth by topping it with some powdered or fresh turmeric, crushed ginger, a dollop of miso, or a drizzle of chili oil. Of course, bone broth is essentially amped-up stock, so you can also use your long-simmered creation as a base for soup, or as a liquid with which to cook grains or risotto.

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Have you tried bone broth? What's your take? Are you sold on the health benefits, or just intrigued for the taste? Sound off below!

Tags: bone broth, broth, stock, meat, trend, health