Many of us grew up reaching for little foil-wrapped cubes or jars of bright yellow powders to add to soups, stews, pilafs, and anything that called for stock or broth. Many people around the world still do, in fact. Bouillon cubes and their many offspring flavor food in kitchens on every continent (research bases in Antarctica included).
Initially, I embraced bouillon, but when I got older I dismissed it as a culinary cheat: artificial and inferior. But I eventually loosened up, especially when I learned skilled cooks in many countries rely on bouillon as an easy and affordable way to infuse rice, bean, meat, and vegetable dishes with extra flavor.
What can bouillon do for you? A lot, especially if you use it strategically rather than an all-out replacement for actual stock.
Origin: Bouillon gets its name from the French term for stocks or broths. The Swiss company Maggi introduced the first bouillon cube in 1908
Varieties: There’s a universe of bouillon products for every type of stock: chicken, beef, pork, fish, mushroom, and vegetable
Uses: You can use bouillon to make stock (just add water) or as a flavor booster if your dish tastes flat
The History of Bouillon
When we hear “bouillon” we likely think of an ingredient. But it started out as a name for a preparation or recipe. In classical French cooking, bouillon is a highly flavored stock or broth. Sometimes it’s served on its own, like our Beef Bouillon Soup from Oxtails recipe. Other times, it’s used to poach fish or meat, like our Cod Poached in Court Bouillon.
The roots of bouillon as a concentrated product were in the mid-1800s, when a German chemist named Justus von Liebig developed a beef concentrate he called “beef tea” and marketed it as a health food (beating out bone broth as a craze by 150 years). Later, a British company made their own beef tea, called Bovril. These products were intended to be consumed on their own and not used in cooking, but that all changed when The Swiss company Maggi introduced the first bouillon cube in 1908.
(For more on the evolution of bouillon as a product rather than a dish, check out this fascinating episode of the podcast Gastropod.)
Bouillon Cubes, Powders, Bases, and Concentrates
Bouillon is a family of products, not just one thing. What they all share is that they are concentrated forms of stock and seasoning.
Cubes are probably the most familiar form of bouillon. They’re compact, cheap, last for ages, and come in tons of flavors (beef, chicken, pork, seafood, etc.). Some cubes are hard while others are soft. Typically, one cube and one cup of water will make one cup of stock, but check on the box for specific ratios.
Granules or powders dissolve faster than cubes, but they work the same way. You’ll find these products in jars and packets.
Bases are thick, gritty pastes in tubs or jars. They need to be refrigerated once opened. Bases tend to have a less processed favor.
Concentrates are smooth and somewhat gelatinous. These are often a little more expensive than cubes, powders, and bases. They’re a bit like an industrial version of glace de viande, which in classical French cuisine is what you get when you simmer a pot of stock down until it turns into an amazingly concentrated gel. More Than Gourmet is a commonly available brand, though you often need to look for it at fancier grocery stores or cooking stores.
Where to Buy Bouillon
Head to the aisle in the grocery store with canned and boxed soups and stocks; you’ll see them on a shelf nearby. Some stores have a better selection than others.
Fun places to buy different varieties of bouillon cubes are international markets. Giant global brands like Maggi and Knorr make different formulations for different countries, varieties you can’t find in mainstream stores. I’ve found curry bouillon cubes, vegetarian “beef” bouillon cubes, and tom yum cubes.
There’s a giant range in price and quality in bouillon products. Some of them seem to be not much more than salt and food coloring, while others can be surprisingly good.
How to Store Bouillon
Based on what I’ve observed in my mom’s kitchen my entire life, you keep a whole gallery of bouillon cubes in the back of your cupboard for up to years and years. Seriously! These products are largely salt, and so can last for a long time. Dry bouillon (cubes and granules) are best used within a year, but they really don’t go bad.
Once opened, wet pastes and bases like Better than Bouillon, Tone’s, and More Than Gourmet need to be refrigerated. Opened and refrigerated, these products will keep for about a year; their color may darken over time, but they should still be okay to use.
When to Cook with Bouillon
Whether cubes, granules, or pastes, bouillon works best as a supporting player: recipes where the decent stock is necessary, but not essential.
It would be great in our slow cooker beef Bourguignon, which already has bacon and red wine. But I’d not use it in dishes where the stock is the star, like our French onion soup. Use good homemade or boxed stock for that, but you can use a little bouillon in addition if you want to punch the beef flavor up even more.
Do Bouillon Cubes Have MSG?
Some do, some don’t. If you don’t want MSG in your bouillon products, just look at the ingredients and put them back on the shelf if you see “monosodium glutamate” listed.
(As a side note, MSG turns out not to be the demonic, headache-causing additive it was billed to be for years. But if you prefer to avoid it, there’s certainly nothing wrong with that.)
Why We Love Better Than Bouillon
A bunch of us here at Simply Recipes are fans of Better than Bouillon, which is a paste concentrate sold in jars. Find them on the shelf at the grocery store near the boxed and canned stocks and run-of-the-mill bouillon cubes.
What is it about Better than Bouillon that has captured our devotion so? In short, each variety is a handy umami bomb. Its taste is evocative of real ingredients rather than the fabricated flavor you can get from some bouillon cubes.
You can help yourself to as much as you need from the jar, and an open jar keeps in the refrigerator for ages. I put a dab of their seasoned vegetable base in soups (like pasta e fagioli) and stewy dishes (like vegan sloppy joes) when they need a little sumpin’ sumpin’. Rachel likes their roasted chicken base, Milagros likes their regular chicken base, and Summer uses their lobster base in a pinch.
Another product I like is liquid chicken concentrate in little single-use tubes. Savory Choice makes it, but Trader Joe’s sells its own version. It’s the most chicken-y bouillon out there. I used to make risotto with it, and a chef friend of mine was known to sneak super-salty licks of it straight from the package.