Sure, stocks from scratch are great, but chefs still love flavor-packed cubes and powders, especially now.

By Aaron Hutcherson
May 06, 2020
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In this era of shelter-in-place orders, millions of people have found themselves with a lot of extra time on their hands. For many, much of that time has been spent in the kitchen, a result of both staving off boredom and, you know, the need to feed oneself. While some of us are now the proud parents of sourdough starters and are either buying or making stock from scratch, not everyone has that luxury. For those people, bouillon cubes and powders are essential to fill in for the slow-simmered stocks our dishes require.

"There's no substitute for doing something from scratch. So let's just get that out of the way," says chef/owner Cheetie Kumar of Garland in Raleigh, NC. However, there are certain advantages to bouillon cubes that shouldn't be ignored, she says, particularly during a time such as this.

Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

"Not every family has the means and the ability to butcher their own chickens and then make stock from that," says Gramercy Tavern sous chef Aretah Ettarh. Developed, robust stocks are the foundation for countless dishes in cuisines around the world, and bouillon cubes and powders provide a certain level of accessibility to flavorful food for people without the skill, time, or other resources to make stock the "traditional" way. "A lot of the reason why they're used is because of the access, ability, and simplicity of using them," Ettarh says.

As someone who shares a small space with roommates where we tend to buy our own ingredients, I’ve found myself grabbing bouillon on my trips to the grocery store. Refrigerator and freezer space, where I might have stored quarts that I made myself, is precious and reserved for more important items, like fresh produce, eggs, and pints of ice cream. Even the boxed stock I use frequently hasn’t made it into my shopping basket, as our cabinets are filled with dried pasta, beans, microwave popcorn, and other pantry staples.

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"Bouillon cubes have so much umami in them that it tastes a lot more interesting and more developed than some store bought chicken stock," Ettarh says. For curious cooks, they can be a gateway to understand that highly sought after fifth taste. "They're filled with a deep, rich taste that really amplifies whatever you're trying to make."

Ettarh grew up eating pepper soup made from a broth base that included chicken-flavored bouillon cubes used in conjunction with other aromatics. Kumar agrees that "it should be thought of more as a seasoning." As such, we should try to understand the flavor profile each brand offers. "I know the Maggi cubes use a lot of turmeric and onion powder," Ettarh says. "So if you're looking for that kind of flavor profile in what you're making, you should use that brand."

"I have a love-hate relationship with bouillon cubes," current Top Chef: All-Stars contestant Eric Adjepong says, "but the convenience is really unmatched." Bouillon cubes are popular in a lot of West African and Latin American cooking. "For a lot of West Africans, Maggi is a huge staple," he says, "almost as big as onions or garlic." The brand gained a foothold among cooks in that region in the late '80s and '90s amid the rise of industrialization and decline in time available for cooking.

All of the chefs express wariness about the amount of salt and MSG often found in bouillon products. ("I for one think MSG is a tool and needs to be used appropriately," Kumar says.) Adjepong even wrote his masters thesis on the use of Maggi cubes and its possible correlation with the rise of health issues like high blood pressure and heart disease in Ghana. "I don't want to knock it completely, because it does have some really great uses as far as flavor," Adjepong says. "When it comes to certain dishes," like the traditional Ghanaian rice and beans dish called waakye, "I do enjoy the flavor, and the intensity of flavor, that it can bring."

Kumar is a fan of the Knorr brand powdered chicken bouillon because you can regulate the portion more easily, whereas with the cubes you're tempted to use the whole thing. "Cooking for two, as opposed to 200, it allows me a little bit more control," she says.

Used in a perhaps more conventional way, Kumar likes to make concentrated chicken stock with carcasses from leftover roast chicken for a gelatinous base that "you can just dole it out in small quantities," she says. "You have something that's really potent, chickeny, and powerful. You know: low volume, high impact."

You can also use bouillon in beer batters for chicken or fish because "it imparts so much flavor." Kumar says it's also great for cooking beans in place of a ham hock or flavorful stock that might be better used in something else. "Beans kind of lend themselves to having a pretty powerful stock anyway." She also suggests adding it to the pot during the last 10 or 15 minutes of cooking along with herbs, lemon, and olive oil for "a really flavorful ending. I think beans need a base and then a top note."

Though bouillon certainly has its uses, these chefs suggest caution. "They can really add like a murky flavor, especially the pasty stuff that comes in a jar," Kumar says. "You can always add more, but it can also really over-salt something quickly."

"I will say just use your discretion," Adjepong says. As with any ingredient, it's all about moderation. "So especially if you're cooking for yourself or maybe one other person, you don't necessarily need a lot. A little will get you a long way," Ettarh says. "Think of it like eye shadow,” Kumar says, "you don't want to use too much or you'll look like Tammy Faye Bakker."