When Michelle Tam was growing up in Menlo Park, California, in the 1980s, her family sipped broth with dinner every single night.
“We were full-on Cantonese,” Tam said, explaining that a light soup with herbs and perhaps a vegetable or two is an integral part of many traditional Chinese meals, acting as a digestive, a palate cleanser and a drink. “My mom used to make me go to the butcher and ask for the bones to make broth, which was totally embarrassing.”
Today, Tam writes and illustrates the popular Nom Nom Paleo blog, one of many sources devoted to Paleo eating, the diet du jour that is an exercise in eating “like our ancestors,” as adherents describe it, by which they mean the hunter-gatherers of the late Stone Age.
One of the cornerstones of the diet is “bone broth,” the clear, concentrated meaty elixir that home cooks and chefs have known more or less forever as stock. Those ancestors probably made theirs by dropping fire-heated rocks into the stomachs of whatever animals they managed to kill. The subsequent invention of the pot made soups, stocks and broths staples in virtually every corner of the culinary world.
Recently, this prehistoric food has improbably become a trend beverage, ranking with green juice and coconut water as the next magic potion in the eternal quest for perfect health. Like other health foods that have taken off in recent years — Greek yogurt, quinoa — broth combines mystical connections to the ancient world and demonstrable nutrition benefits in the modern one.
“I would never have thought I’d be the person who makes homemade stock,” said Tam, who now saves bones from grass-fed beef and frequently produces batches of stock in her pressure cooker. She used to grab a box of shelf-stable stock when making soup or stew, figuring that organic was a good substitute for homemade. Now, she’s a convert to the real thing: the clear, bright, essential flavor that only fresh stock, made from high-quality ingredients, can provide.
“Just because something is organic doesn’t mean it has the nutrition we’re looking for,” Tam said. “Or that it’s delicious.”
The difference between stock and broth is elusive in the bowl but clearer in the kitchen. Many people use the terms interchangeably, but strictly speaking, both broth and stock include bones and meat, but stock has a higher proportion of bones to meat. And to those who have taken up “broth-ing,” it is the content of the bones — including collagen, amino acids and minerals — that is the source of its health benefits. Extracting the nutrients from bones is accomplished through long cooking and by adding some acid to the pot, like vinegar, wine or a bit of tomato paste, which loosens and dissolves the tough bits.
‘You could sell it’
Nourishing bone broth has even begun to replace espresso and chai in the to-go cups of the millions of Americans who have at least attempted the Paleo diet. (Coffee and tea, along with dairy products, legumes and grains, are forbidden.)
“When you talk to chefs about this, everyone’s head is exploding,” said chef Marco Canora, who has just opened Brodo, a storefront window in the East Village attached to his restaurant, Hearth, where three flavorful broths are dispensed in paper cups. Like an espresso drink, the broths at Brodo can be customized, with add-ins like grated fresh turmeric, house-made chile oil and bone marrow from grass-fed cattle, which transforms plainly delicious broth into a richly satisfying snack.
“Every chef knows how to make stock, everyone uses it as an ingredient, but it would never occur to anyone that you could sell it,” he said.
But right now, it seems, you can. Belcampo, the year-old meat company that sells pasture-fed beef from cattle raised on its own ranch in Northern California, just started serving $3.50 cups of housemade bone broth as a side dish in its five butcher shop-restaurants. Online sources have sprung up to meet demand, selling frozen bone broth by the quart or by subscription.
Canora turned to broth after he adopted a modified Paleo diet about five years ago, when at age 40 he found himself depressed, prediabetic, overweight and showing early signs of gout.
“For 20 years, I smoked, I drank my face off, and 80 percent of my diet was bread and butter,” he said. Like many chefs, he ate mostly standing up, late at night, and with an eye to consuming as many fatty pork products as possible.
“Twenty years ago, if you talked about health and wellness in chef circles, they would laugh you out of town,” he said. Now, chefs are beginning to understand that food has to be more than just delicious, he said.
After a bout of nutritional consultations, he emerged clutching a list of forbidden foods longer than he’d imagined possible.
In some ways, the Paleo guidelines echo the rules of culinary-simplicity gurus like Alice Waters, René Redzepi and Canora: use the best raw ingredients — grass-fed meats, wild plants and fish, natural sweeteners, pristinely fresh fruits and vegetables — and do as little to them as possible. In others, like the ban on bread, whole grains, rice, butter, pasta, dried beans, fresh beans, cheese and cream, Paleo would seem to be the enemy of good food. Broth is one of the places where the two strands meet.
The broths that were already simmering on the stoves at Hearth, Canora said, helped him adjust to an entirely new way of eating, described in his new cookbook, A Good Food Day.
“Broth was always my comfort food,” he said. Growing up with a Tuscan mother, he recalls that there was always fresh meat and poultry broth in the house.
“Instead of sipping coffee all day and wine all night,” he said, “I started walking around with cups of broth, and that’s where the idea for Brodo came from.”
Traditional and nourishing
But most “broth-ers” are not chefs who happen to have homemade stocks sitting around. They are conscious eaters who have stumbled onto what generations of cooks in other cuisines have long known: Broth made with plenty of bones contributes to well-being in ways that other foods don’t.
“It’s been known through history and across cultures that broth settles your stomach and also your nerves,” said Sally Fallon Morell, an author of the new book Nourishing Broth. “When a recipe has that much tradition behind it, I believe the science is there too.”
Fallon, whose first book, Nourishing Traditions, has sold more than half a million copies, is a farmer in Maryland and a leader of the Weston A. Price Foundation, a group dedicated to promoting the benefits of preindustrial food and cooking.
Price was an early-20th-century dentist who became preoccupied by the effects of traditional diets and postindustrial diets on dental health, and later on health in general. With the advent of low-tech diets like raw food, whole food and Paleo, the foundation has become increasingly visible, providing a central resource on topics like raw milk, biodynamic agriculture and the health benefits of animal fats. (On the website, a photo of a glowingly healthy family at the beach is captioned, “They are happy because they eat butter!”)
Although there are few reliable studies on the medicinal effects of broth, the foundation has done analysis that shows it may provide benefits for inflammatory diseases, digestive problems and even dopamine levels.
Many Asian cuisines have a version of Long Life Broth, often a combination of whole birds and fresh or dried shellfish, with bones, feet and shells contributing their nutrients to the pot. In the 12th century, the “Jewish penicillin” cliché was born when the physician Maimonides wrote that chicken soup “is recommended as an excellent food as well as medication.” In the Caribbean, “cow foot soup,” rich with collagen, is eaten as a strengthening breakfast and for all sorts of ailments.
Korean seolleongtang and Japanese tonkotsu are broths that are thick and creamy with fats and myoglobin from bone marrow. In France, there are strict separations among stocks — light veal, dark veal, raw chicken, roasted chicken — but all of them are ideally of a perfect clarity, clear enough to read the date on a coin at the bottom of the pot, according to French tradition.
But there is no need to be that picky, or to be on the Paleo diet, to appreciate a good broth. Making one is as easy as getting your hands on fresh, meaty bones — preferably including some knuckles or necks or another cartilaginous part — then covering them with water and simmering them patiently until the broth tastes good to you. Meat and poultry can go in the same pot (delicious batches of the stuff arise from such combinations). Aromatics are optional.
Last month, a steady stream of customers lined up at the Brodo window on a raw, wet afternoon, sipping and tasting, and somewhat dumbfounded that such a basic food could taste so good.
“My grandmother used to drink a jelly glass of chicken broth every day, even when it was broiling hot outside,” said Carl Hoffman, who stopped in on his way home from work at Beth Israel Hospital nearby. Estelle Hoffman lived to be 106, he said: “She called it her fountain of youth.”
Beef Bone Broth
Time: At least 5 hours 45 minutes. Yield: About 3 quarts.
1 1/2 pounds bone-in beef short rib
2 1/2 pounds beef shank or oxtail
2 pounds beef knucklebones or neck bones, or a combination of both (or add 1 more pound beef shank or oxtail)
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
3 carrots, peeled and coarsely chopped
3 celery stalks, coarsely chopped
2 onions, halved and peeled
1 (14 1/2-ounce) can tomatoes (they can be whole, peeled or diced)
1 head garlic, excess skins removed, top chopped off to expose the cloves
2 bay leaves
1 bunch fresh flat-leaf parsley
1/2 bunch fresh thyme
1/4 ounce dried shiitake mushrooms
1 tablespoon black peppercorns
Heat oven to 350 degrees. Place meat and bones in a roasting pan or on a large rimmed baking sheet. Drizzle with olive oil, turning to coat, then brush all over with tomato paste. Roast until browned, 30 to 35 minutes. (They don’t need to cook all the way through but to just develop some color.)
Put roasted meat and bones in a 12-quart stockpot and add vinegar and enough cold water to cover by 3 inches (about 6 quarts). Bring to a boil, then reduce to a low simmer, uncovered, for 2 to 3 hours. While simmering, occasionally skim fat and foam from the top using a ladle.
Add all the remaining ingredients. Continue to simmer, uncovered, for at least 3 hours. If using knucklebones, simmer overnight, 9 to 15 hours, so the knucklebones have sufficient time to break down.
Remove meat and bones with a slotted spoon or tongs; reserve meat for another use (such as soup). Pour broth through a fine-mesh strainer into a bowl or containers. Use immediately or cover and refrigerate up to a week, or freeze indefinitely.
Source: Adapted from chef Marco Canora.
Japanese Beef and Rice Soup
Time: 10 minutes. Yield: About 8 cups.
7 cups beef bone broth (see recipe)
10 to 12 ounces shredded cooked beef short ribs (from making broth, or use 1 pound shredded braised beef) 1 teaspoon finely grated fresh ginger
3 1/2 ounces fresh shiitake mushrooms, stems discarded, caps thinly sliced (about 1 1/2cups)
1 cup cooked brown rice
1/2 cup nori crinkles (or slice up toasted nori sheets into 1/2-inch squares)
2 tablespoons tamari
Juice of 1/2 lemon
1 bunch scallions, white and pale green parts only, thinly sliced (about 1/2cup)
Bring broth to a boil over high heat. Stir in meat, ginger, shiitakes, rice, nori, tamari and lemon juice; cook 2 minutes. Stir in scallions. Ladle into bowls and serve.
Source: Adapted from “A Good Food Day” by Marco Canora.