We’ll let you in on a little secret. When your grandma simmered the bones left over from the previous night’s dinner to make the most delicious chicken noodle soup your tiny self had ever experienced, she was doing more than just filling you with her favorite family recipe. By wringing every last bit of nutrition from those bones, grandma was doing the environmentally sound thing by using the entire animal, and she was also supplying you with extra protein and a variety of beneficial nutrients.
Fast-forward to 2015, and “bone broth” is the nutritional buzzword du jour. But we’ll let you in on another secret: “Bone broth” is just a fancy-pants highbrow name for stock: chicken stock, beef stock, fish stock — pick your favorite animal. And people aren’t just buzzing about broth because it’s trendy. There are actually benefits to consuming it — benefits that can’t be gleaned from eating meat.
You eat meat for its protein and veggies for their micronutrients and fiber. And you should be drinking bone broth for its amino acids and mineral content. Not only is bone broth a rich source of amino acids, but it’s particularly high in different aminos than meat is, particularly these two.
Considered a nonessential amino because the body is fully capable of creating it by itself, glycine is involved in a lot of very essential processes in the body. For one, it’s involved in the creation of other compounds, including creatine (which is of tremendous importance for athletes), glutathione (a vitally critical antioxidant) and heme (the iron-containing and oxygen-carrying component of blood). It has been shown in studies to raise growth-hormone levels, which can assist with muscle growth and performance, and it assists with the maintenance of healthy levels of homocysteine, a marker of inflammation which, when elevated, is associated with higher risk of heart disease and other inflammatory conditions. As if that weren’t enough, glycine is essential for wound healing and has additional roles in glucose production and digestion. Proponents of fasting programs have become interested in glycine for its ability to support glucose production and detoxification while limiting muscle protein degeneration. Considered a major neurotransmitter, glycine also supports deep sleep.
Proline is most appreciated for its structural contribution to the protein collagen, making it a key component of skin, ligaments, tendons, cartilage and, of course, healthy bones. Proline is required for the body to make tissue repairs, such as during sleep; insufficient proline slows healing.
Calling on Collagen
Together, glycine and proline account for about half the amino-acid composition of collagen. Collagen is the most abundant protein in the body and is the main building block of connective tissue, including tendons and ligaments. As the body ages, collagen breaks down, which leads to decreased stability, weaker and less-elastic joints, thinner cartilage and the less-resilient skin often seen on the elderly.
Unlike meat, the bones (usually knuckles and feet and soup and marrow bones) used to make broth are rich in collagen. When simmered for long periods, they yield the collagen-rich liquid known as bone broth. Upon cooking, collagen breaks down into gelatin, which supports gut healing and could be particularly beneficial for people with autoimmune diseases or systematic inflammation. Just as they do in the bones and joints you throw into your broth, collagen and gelatin give the body the raw materials to rebuild its own connective tissue.
Beyond glycine, proline, collagen and gelatin, bone broth offers several other players — many of which are commonly marketed as supplements for reducing inflammation, arthritis and joint pain. The amino acid glutamine supports immune health, at least in part by helping to maintain the integrity of the intestinal wall. Bone broth also provides glycosaminoglycans (GAGs), a group of carbohydrates present in bone and connective tissue thought to be important for joint health. Two GAGs, hyaluronic acid and chondroitin sulfate, are used to treat osteoarthritis and arthritis-induced pain and damage, respectively. Glucosamine, the most popular GAG, is often marketed and studied together with chondroitin. Bone broth offers a single whole-food source of all these beneficial components, ideal given that it’s likely that they’re more effective together than when any one is taken alone.
Look, drinking bone broth isn’t going to be the most exciting culinary adventure you’ll have (we hope). But if you really just can’t get into it, try tweaking your recipe before writing it off altogether. Maybe you’ll fare better by sticking exclusively to poultry bones. Or maybe you want to try roasting the bones before extracting their goodness in the slow cooker. You also might enjoy the broth with some extra garlic thrown into the mix. You could even try adding additional or different vegetables, or letting your slow cooker simmer for longer. And definitely kick it up a notch by serving it with a dash of sea salt and pepper.
If you still can’t seem to overcome the idea of drinking bone broth, rest assured, there are other delivery routes worth exploring. For starters, swap out conventional chicken or beef broth for true bone broth in your favorite recipes. Next time you make soup, let bone broth be your new base. You also can use bone broth to enhance the flavor of mashed cauliflower, potatoes and squashes. And if you’re sick of spending money on all those fancy local organic tomato sauces, you can combine bone broth with tomato paste (and a few flavor boosts like garlic, onion and basil) to create your own. Add bone broth to stews, gravies and even stir-fry recipes; the possibilities for disguising it in your favorite foods are endless.
Troubleshooting Tip If you follow all the steps and end up with what looks like brown Jell-O in your refrigerator, well-done. The gel indicates the presence of gelatin, a product of broken-down collagen and one of the major beneficial components of bone broth. Don’t think you’re a complete failure if your broth doesn’t gel; it’s still a pool of nutritious goodness. Keep in mind that it can be hard to get a gelatinous result without using gelatin-rich connective tissue like that found in joints. If you’re using primarily meat bones, try adding more joints — like those super-cheap chicken feet no one else wants — to your next batch and you might just achieve that meat Jell-O after all. Other disruptions to the gelling process include adding too much water to the bones or boiling too forcefully.
The Basics of Broth
Bone broth boils down (see what we did there?) to two things: bones and water. When making broth, you can use joints (chicken feet, wings and necks, cow knuckles and ox tails) or meat bones (ribs, soup bones and marrow bones), but combining the two is ideal for achieving a broadly nutritious product. Just as with muscle meats, it’s important to choose bones from grass-fed, pastured animals to maximize the broth’s health benefits, particularly its fat component. Recipes often call for apple cider vinegar — because the acid helps extract minerals from bones — and vegetables, for the purpose of improving and enhancing flavor.
Today, we are lucky: True bone broth — not that rapid-cooked, watered-down chicken and beef broth you’re used to grabbing off the store shelf — has become such a health trend that companies are producing and selling it commercially. The Today show ran a feature on bone broth earlier this year. In New York City, people can even drop by Brodo, a dedicated bone-broth bar. And while buying the stuff pre-made is certainly an option, the best way to kick the intimidation factor and get a true appreciation for its magic is to make it yourself. The process puts your food scraps from the week prior to good use, saves you money and is so easy; the stuff practically makes itself (while you sleep).
A quick Google search brings up a slew of recipes, but don’t get overwhelmed. You don’t even have to buy fresh herbs, veggies and bones if you have leftovers. Think about making bone broth as your opportunity to use the entire vegetable, herb and animal: that hard outer peel of the onion, carrot and celery scraps you’d otherwise throw away, those herbs going bad in your crisper, and even chicken feet. Here’s a basic recipe to get you started.
DIY Bone Broth
- 2 quarts water
- 1 teaspoon Himalyan sea salt
- 1/2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
- 1/2 onions, sweet and/or yellow, coarsely chopped
- 1-1/2 carrots, cleaned and coarsely chopped
- 1 parsnip, cleaned and coarsely chopped
- 2 celery stalks, cleaned and coarsely chopped
- handful of fresh poultry seasoning herbs (or preferred combination of thyme, rosemary, sage and/or parsley)
- 2-3 garlic cloves, lightly smashed
- 2 pounds meat bones from grass-fed/pastured animals (any combination of beef, lamb and/or chicken), either purchased as soup bones or saved from prior bone-in meat meals
1. Add all the ingredients to a slow cooker. Place it on a high setting to bring to a boil, then reduce to low and let simmer for up to 36 hours, depending on the ratio of poultry to beef bones. (Poultry bones should simmer about 12 hours and beef bones for 24 hours.)
2. Using a cheesecloth, strain the broth into a large bowl or glass storage container. Discard the waste, but feel free to save the bones for reuse in future batches; experts say they’ll continue to provide the healthy stuff until they go soft.
3. Once the broth has cooled, store it in the refrigerator for up to five days or freeze for longer-term use
Note: As strange as it may be to drink soup out of a coffee cup, this is commonplace for seasoned bone-broth drinkers. If you enjoy sipping on straight bone broth but prefer to do so in smaller doses, try storing it in ice-cube trays. That way, you can pop two ice cubes a day into a mug and reheat. Plus, freezing bone broth helps it last longer, meaning less pressure on you to finish all of it within a few days.