For my entire cooking life, I took a kitchen-sink approach to broth. I grabbed the limp vegetables hiding in the crisper, the chicken carcasses and pork bones on the cusp of freezer burn, some chopped onions, and an old parm rind; I threw it all in a pot of water; I brought it to a simmer; I called it a day. This is a perfectly adequate approach, especially for any other cooks who straddle lazy and productive like me. And I was content to continue down this path of perfectly fine broth until I worked with Eric Sze, the chef-owner of 886 and wenwen in New York City, on this guide to hot pot.
I snuck into the Test Kitchen while he and assistant food editor Jessie YuChen were cross-testing the broths for the story, and I was blown away by how delicious a vegetarian broth could be. I only slurped one spoonful, but even so, I remember it clearly. It was unlike any broth I’d ever made: rich and deep with mushroomy flavor and distinctly herbal angelica root, thick and silken in texture like good tonkatsu, and rounded with a wisp of sweetness from rock sugar. I had a broth awakening.
“Cooking is like building a house,” Sze told me later on. “You need to lay a foundation, then put down the bricks, the walls, the roof. Broth is very much the same thing.”
For him, broth isn’t a reactive response to what’s in your fridge but rather a proactive choice to build something delicious. This isn’t to say that making an intentional broth will require much more effort than what you are already doing. When you decide to make broth, you’re already committing a certain amount of time and energy—here, Sze focuses that time and energy so the final liquidy product is less shot in the dark and more bull’s eye. Below are the techniques, tips, and mantras he relies on to make broths with a little more intent and a lot more flavor.
1. Pick your base ingredient.
Before you start cooking, figure out what kind of broth you want: veg or meat? Whatever you choose, make sure you get a variety of that base ingredient. That means, if you’re doing a mushroom broth, don’t just buy shiitake but also enoki, king oyster, and portobello. If you’re making tomato soup, turn to fresh tomatoes, canned tomatoes, and paste. For cabbage soup, seek out Napa cabbage, green cabbage, Savoy cabbage, and Taiwanese cabbage. Or, if you’re craving a beefy broth, get several types of beef bones and cuts: shank, top round, even ground beef. “It adds another element,” Sze shares. “You want the same umbrella of flavor but different pockets and punches of that flavor.”
2. Then show it some TLC.
Once you’ve chosen your path, prep that base ingredient. For a veg broth, cook down the base ingredient in a pan (or roast in an oven) to sweat out all the moisture and concentrate the flavor. For a meat broth, Sze blanches the bones to clean them before adding to the broth. “That’s my Taiwanese heritage talking,” Sze says.
3. Unleash Maillard.
If vegetables or meat are your superheroes, aromatics are their trusty sidekicks. Sze’s favorites come from the allium family—onions, garlic, scallions, leeks—which he gives a rough chop and browns in a pan, a crucial step. This upgrades your already very flavorful and fragrant aromatics to Super Saiyan level (I’ve been watching a lot of anime recently). “Broth never exceeds 212° F, so you need to unlock the Maillard reaction in the aromatics before adding the liquid,” he says. “Sear them to get them golden-brown, then drop them into liquid.”
4. Add depth beyond salt.
You’re likely already salting your broth, but you’re probably not adding Taiwanese rice wine, MSG, or sugar for depth. And I would say that these ingredients are where the magic of Sze’s mind-blowing broths lies. “I always reach for Taiwanese rice wine, which balances out any gaminess from meat and also works well for veg broths,” Sze says. Just as valuable and versatile is MSG, which brings umami to whatever it graces, and rock sugar, a staple pantry ingredient in many Asian households, including Sze’s. “It’s the same as cane sugar, and it’s inexplicable,” he explains. “I add in a little bit at a time, tasting as I go. The sugar accentuates whatever flavors you’ve already developed.”
5. Take your time.
“Time is the most expensive ingredient” is Sze’s mantra. Once you have all your ingredients ready—blanched bones or sweated-out vegetables, caramelized aromatics, rice wine, MSG, and sugar—add water and bring it to a vigorous boil. Then sit back and relax.