These days, making homemade broth seems to be an anachronistic, if not redundant, thing to do, given the abundance of boxed, packaged and canned proxies available on grocery shelves.
But if you look at the nutrition label on a box or can of store-bought broth (Yes, even the organic ones!), you’ll quickly realize that the industrially-produced version is an empty, processed food—barely deserving of the term that our grandparents and great-grandparents understood as a healing and nourishing culinary treasure: Broth.
Health Benefits of Chicken Broth
Homemade broth has a reputation for curing what ails you, and that reputation is well-deserved. According to “Broth is Beautiful”:
Science validates what our grandmothers knew. Rich homemade chicken broths help cure colds. Stock contains minerals in a form the body can absorb easily—not just calcium, but also magnesium, phosphorus, silicon, sulphur and trace minerals. It contains the broken down material from cartilage and tendons–stuff like chondroitin sulphates and glucosamine, now sold as expensive supplements for arthritis and joint pain.
Additionally, when properly-made homemade broth is cooled, it congeals due to the gelatin that was cooked out of the bones in the pot. The use of gelatin as a therapeutic agent goes back to the ancient Chinese, although it enjoys worldwide renown:
The French were the leaders in gelatin research, which continued up to the 1950s. Gelatin was found to be useful in the treatment of a long list of diseases including peptic ulcers, tuberculosis, diabetes, muscle diseases, infectious diseases, jaundice and cancer. Babies had fewer digestive problems when gelatin was added to their cow’s milk formula. The American researcher Francis Pottenger pointed out that as gelatin is a hydrophilic colloid, which means that it attracts and holds liquids, it facilitates digestion by attracting digestive juices to food in the gut.
Research on gelatin came to an end in the 1950s because U.S. food companies discovered how to produce meat-like flavors in the laboratory. Following the Second World War, food companies were introduced to monosodium glutamate (MSG), a food chemical invented in Japan in 1908 to enhance flavors by stimulating the meat-taste receptors on our tongues.
Once Big Food learned how to synthesize the flavor of meat in the laboratory using inexpensive proteins from grains and legumes, the door was opened to a flood of cheap, new products like bouillon cubes, dehydrated soup and sauce mixes and frozen dinners.
These products became so ubiquitous that today, the “homemade” soup found in most homes and restaurants is actually a reconstituted, powdered soup base containing MSG—often hidden in ingredients called “hydrolyzed proteins” or “autolyzed yeast extracts.”
In contrast, homemade broth starts with whole food: meat, fat, bones. Add a few veggies and herbs, and you have a tasty bowl of MSG-free, bioavailable nutrition.
Consuming homemade bone broth daily is the basis of the GAPS Diet, because the minerals, gelatin and amino acids glycine, proline and glutamine present in homemade broth help to heal and seal the lining of your gut, which in turn can relieve food sensitivities, digestive disorders, autoimmune conditions, and even psychological issues like autism and schizophrenia.
If you experience eczema, autoimmune disorders, digestive issues, or irritability when you eat certain foods, you’ll want to consume some broth every day, because these conditions are often caused or made worse by leaky gut. Fortunately, broth is an outstanding base for making soups and sauces, simmering meats and veggies, and even cooking beans and grains.
After a year of working on this recipe, I finally found a way to make chicken broth that satisfies my rigorous requirements:
- The broth must gel, every time. For me, a good broth must be so thick after a day in the fridge that I have to spoon and scrape it out of the jar to reheat it. This was the hardest part to master consistently until I got the ingredients and cooking method right, but a good gel on your broth is a measure of its nutrition.
- It must be low allergen. My daughter has a lot of trouble with celery, and I am very sensitive to garlic and bay leaf, so this broth has no mirepoix, but is very yummy nevertheless.
- It must be simple. I put all my ingredients into cotton mesh bags or “Soup Socks” in the stockpot, which makes straining my broth very easy. And with this recipe, after the initial boil, you can ignore your stockpot for 4 or 5 hours. Or, if it’s too hot this summer to make broth in your house, you can make this in an Instapot or slow-cooker camped in your garage! (Though note broth made by slow cooker will NOT gel as well.)
- It must be yummy. I use pasture-raised hens with feet for this recipe, not only because they are small, and provide a greater ratio of bones to meat in my broth, but also because they simply taste better. And I feel good knowing the hens were raised humanely with optimal nutrition and no hormones or antibiotics. Once you’ve mastered homemade chicken broth made with hens that foraged outdoors most of their lives, you’ll never go back to store-bought again.
I get pasture-raised hens either from my farmer’s market, when they are available, or from Whole Foods. The hens at the grocery store don’t have feet, so I buy a package of chicken feet from my favorite online meat vendor, U.S. Wellness Meats, just to make this recipe correctly.
The Perfect Chicken Broth
The health benefits of homemade chicken broth are long renowned and well-deserved. Here's why and how to make perfect chicken broth easily.
- 2 pasture-raised hens (These are often quite small, and you should find 2 that will fit inside your stockpot or slow-cooker.)
- 4 pasture-raised chicken feet This is a crucial ingredient. If they didn't come already attached to your hens, you can buy them bulk here.
- 1 medium onion quartered OR 3-5 large leeks, roughly chopped
- 1 small handful black peppercorns (about 10-20)
- 1 small handful allspice berries (about 10-20)
- 1-2 Tbsp. sea salt to taste
- 1 tsp. white vinegar or other mild vinegar (optional)
Wash your hens, making sure there are no residual feathers, organs or packing materials remaining.
Place all ingredients except sea salt inside 1 or 2 cotton mesh bags, pull or tie them closed, and place them so they sit low in your stockpot. (You can buy Soup Socks for this purpose as well.) Alternately, you can strain your broth with a china cap when it is done.
Fill the stockpot or slow-cooker with fresh spring or filtered water, making sure the hens are fully submerged. Add salt and then vinegar, if using. Cover.
Bring to a boil, then turn down to simmer for 3-5 hours. I simmer longer for better gel. If you are using a slow-cooker, put it on high for 2-3 hours, then on low for 6-8 hours, though test it the first time, because slow-cookers can really vary.
After the broth has cooled a bit, remove the ingredient bags/Soup Socks and empty them into a large bowl. The chickens will completely fall apart. Separate the meat from the skin, sinews and bones and set aside to use in soup, salads, or other dishes, as you wish.
Once the pot has cooled enough to lift, start transferring the broth to Mason jars for storage in the freezer and fridge. If you like your broth particularly clear, you can strain it again through cheesecloth as you fill your jars.
If you plan to freeze your broth, leave at least an inch of room in the jar for expansion, so your jars don't break.
Check your broth after a day in the fridge to see how well it gelled! The thicker the better. You may also have a nice, yellow layer of chicken fat (schmaltz) on top, which you can skim to cook with, or stir into soups and sauces, as you like.
To add a nutritional boost and a deeper flavor to your dishes, use your broth wherever you might use water to cook veggies, meats, beans or grains.