Given the current reputation of Scotland’s diet, you’d be forgiven for thinking “Scottish health food” was an oxymoron. But many traditional Scottish foods are a nutritionist’s dream. And one of the simplest is a Scottish Broth. Packed with nutrients and fibre and endlessly adaptable, it’s a perfect, satisfying meal for the winter months.
Broth was a staple of the traditional Scottish diet. The way my mother tells it, there was a permanent pan of broth on every stove, in every farmhouse, across the country. That may no longer be true, but as autumn takes hold and winter approaches, it’s time to turn to this Scottish health food to warm our bones.
We don’t always celebrate traditional Scottish foods – ok, Robert Burns wrote a whole poem glorifying the haggis – but a Scottish broth is something to celebrate. Don’t confine yourself to Scotch Broth, that is a single interpretation of this style of soup.
A Scottish broth is comfort food. Rustic food. A thick and chunky soup that’s a meal in itself. The ultimate one-pot dish. It’s a style of soup fit for the climate in the north of these isles. And isn’t replicated elsewhere.
Broth is rustic comfort food at its best
Don’t confuse a Scottish style broth with the current health fashion for “bone broth.” Nothing wrong with bone broths, but nothing new either. Depending on the recipe, they’re stock or consommé rebranded. Healthy – yes. A satisfying meal – no.
Burns chided the people eating fancy “French ragout” for sneering at the Haggis. And I would chide anyone if they turned their nose up at a Scottish broth in favour of a more “sophisticated” soup. Made well it may be rustic, but its elegance will please even the most refined palate. I know that from experience.
As a young commis chef, I worked in the 2 Michelin star Les Hauts de Loire. At the time the hotel was owned and run by the Bonnigal family. One of my responsibilities was preparing the daily potage (a thick French soup) for the terrifying matriarch,Madame Bonnigal. I was well warned. Upset Madame Bonnigal and be ready for the consequences. Young and foolish, I strayed from the standard French fare and made Cock-a-leekie, a classic broth. Horrified, the waiter refused to take it to her. Head chef, Rémy, and the restaurant manager fought over who would take the blame for this disaster. There was no time to change it. The broth went to Madame Bonnigal. 15 minutes later she came to the kitchen to congratulate Rémy. He humbly accepted her praise of his newest recipe. And I kept my job – just.
Try to make your own broths. Granted, bought soups are more convenient. But they lack flavour and are nutritionally inferior. “Fresh” soups are over-priced and most tinned ones are not much better than junk food. Instant soup powders are junk food.
How to make a Scottish broth
What follows is not a recipe. A Scottish broth is a style of soup. This is a guide to making your own version. I’ve suggested variations that introduce other very un-Scottish flavours – call them an evolution of the traditional broth. As with my guide to making a healthy salad, I encourage you to experiment.
At its simplest, a Scottish broth has a lot of vegetables as its base, stock and a starch to thicken it. It’s a health food. I’ve suggested variations, some include extra fat or processed meats. Understand the context – they’re relatively small amounts in the overall dish. It’s still a healthy choice.
The starting point for almost any broth is the same. Onions, leeks, carrots and celery softened in butter or oil. The classic combination that professional chefs call a “Mirepoix”.
Dice the vegetables. Chefs get over excited about size and uniformity. But it’s not important. Think about what size you’d like find in your soup spoon later and aim for that.
While you’re chopping, melt butter in a soup pan.
Add the vegetables and soften them over a low heat. The idea here is low and slow – no colour on the vegetables. Stir them every couple of minutes. The aim is to sweeten the vegetables without caramelising them. Put a lid on your pan and the vegetables are less likely to catch on the bottom.
Onions, leeks, carrots and celery should make up the majority of your broth base. Adding other root vegetables to your mirepoix works well, but take care with strong flavours like turnip. And this is a good time to use up the stalks of other vegetables like broccoli. Or add a hard a vegetable like shredded white cabbage. But all tender vegetables should be added later.
Adding a little meat
Adding a little meat like streaky bacon to the base works well for some broths. If you want to try it, quickly fry the diced bacon in your pan over a high heat before you add the butter. Unlike the mirepoix, you want the meat to brown and add that tasty flavour to your broth. When the bacon’s a nice golden brown, take the pan off the heat. Let it cool before you add your butter. You don’t want to burn it. Reduce the quantity of butter if the bacon has released a lot of fat.
Lots of soups have a tomato flavoured base. To make a tomato-based broth, add tomato puree to the mirepoix when it’s halfway soft. You’ll need to pay more attention as tomato puree makes the vegetables more likely to catch the bottom of your pan.
If you’re going for a more Mediterranean feel for your broth, swap the butter for olive oil and add garlic and a pinch of herbes de Provence to your mirepoix. Instead of streaky bacon, try pancetta or chorizo (and if you add smoked paprika, it’ll boost the chorizo flavour).
There’s no harm in making your life easy. If you don’t want to do your own chopping, buy fresh or frozen ready chopped vegetables from the supermarket. Yes, sometimes the combination of vegetables isn’t great and the chopping can be a bit rough. But we don’t always have time to do everything.
Once your vegetables are soft add your stock or water and bring to the boil.
Nothing beats a home-made stock – but we don’t always have time. Honestly, it’s no big deal. There are alternatives.
If your broth is full of vegetables, a little salt may be all that’s needed to bring out the flavour. For a tomato based broth, replace some water with a tin of chopped tomatoes for greater depth of flavour.
Using butter in to soften your mirepoix gives your broth flavour. Take it further by trying a trick I learnt as a boy from a thrifty lady crofter.
Mrs Kennedy used to help my grandfather by doing little cooking for him. I have two lasting memories of Mrs Kennedy. To my young eyes, she was ancient – though in reality she probably wasn’t. And she made the most amazing lentil broth. Her secret? Lots of butter – she never used stock. To this day, I’ll occasionally do the same. And it makes a great lentil broth (or other pulse broths, without pulses the butter will tend to float to the surface). Use roughly 20-30g of butter per portion. In the context of an otherwise fat-free meal, that’s no big deal.
Stock cubes and concentrated stocks
All concentrated stocks have one thing in common – the main flavouring is salt. Half salt varieties have half the flavour. Add them to your broth instead of salt. You’ll get the benefit of the background stock flavour and the salt you need to bring out the taste in your broth. They come in different flavours, but vegetable and chicken are the best all-rounders.
Adding cheap cuts of meat
If you want to turn your broth into the centrepiece of your meal, add a cheap cut of meat on the bone. Cook it in the broth and it will fill it with flavour. Good choices are lamb shank, chicken leg or ham hough. A large cut may take longer to cook than your broth. So, add it after the water and before the other ingredients. When it is almost cooked add everything else. When your broth’s ready, gently lift out the meat. It should be falling away from the bone. Let it cool enough to handle and shred it before returning it to the broth. A hearty meal fit for any winter’s day.
Thickening your broth
Any starchy vegetable, pulse or grain will thicken your broth. Here are a few ideas for you to try.
Lentil broth is an all-time classic. Mirepoix, red lentils and stock. But why not play with it? Add bacon, sausage, tomatoes or curry spices.
Split peas are similar to lentils. Classic broths are made with either green or yellow split peas. Ham hough works well with both. Venture away from the classic two and experiment with other types of dahl.
Borlotti and other beans will give your broth a rustic Italian feel that works well with tomato, garlic and pancetta in the base. Use canned if you don’t have time to pre-soak your beans. Before adding, crush them slightly to let the starch to escape and thicken your broth.
The classic Scotch broth is thickened with oatmeal and pearl barley. And it’s worth visiting your local health food shop to find them. Supermarket “broth mixes” are a mix of grains and pulses that don’t taste the same.
Rice is a good choice and used in the classic Cock-a-leekie.
Pasta is another option for an Italian twist to your broth. If your planning on keeping your broth, add your pasta when you reheat it. You’ll avoid it going limp and soggy.
Any pureed or mashed vegetable will thicken a broth, although potato is the usual choice. It doesn’t over flavour the broth and cooks to a smooth finish. It’s the perfect way to repurpose left-over mashed potatoes. Alternatively, add diced raw potatoes and they’ll break up as they cook.
If you want your broth to be the main course of your meal pasta, rice and potato are not the best choices. They’ll fill you up quickly, but you’ll be hungry again in a couple of hours.
Whatever you choose to thicken your broth add less than you think you need. Over thickening a broth is a classic rookie mistake. You can add more later if your broth isn’t as thick as you’d like and adjust your cooking time.
Stir the broth as you add your thickening ingredients. If you don’t they are more likely to stick to the bottom of your pan. Keep stirring until the broth returns to the boil. Turn it down to a very low simmer. Again, if you use a lid your broth is less likely to catch. Stir the broth occasionally until done.
3 more tips
Adding tender vegetables
Tender vegetables like courgettes, peas, green beans or fresh tomatoes are best added towards the end. You want to give them long enough to cook, but not much more. Leafy greens such as spinach and soft herbs can be stirred in just before serving and they’ll cook without going over.
Salt but not pepper
You must add salt to your broth before eating it– unless you’ve used a concentrated stock. Salt brings out the flavours in your broth. Try your broth before serving and carefully add salt to taste.
If you’re making a spicy broth its best to be cautious. Hot liquids ramp up the spice kick. And that includes pepper. In a “plain” broth I’d recommend you don’t add pepper to the pan, but add it to taste in your plate.
Cooking your broth
Preparing your broth is 15 minutes work. But it could take 1-2 hours to cook. If you don’t have that kind of time, set it cooking in a slow cooker before you leave in the morning. You’ll have a delicious supper waiting for you when you get home. Or cook your broth when you do have time, and store it for when you need it.
Storing and reheating your broth
It takes almost the same time to make a large pan of broth as a small one. Save time and make two or three meals in one go. Broth will keep in the fridge for 3-4 days and in the freezer for 2-3 months. Cooling and reheating a broth will actually improve the flavour.
Cooling your broth
Don’t leave the broth on the stove. It will spoil.
When storing broth, quick cooling is the first step to ensuring your broth is safe to eat later. Cool it as quickly as possible before you put it in the fridge or freezer.
- Carefully decant the hot broth from the pan into a bowl. Without the residual heat of the pan, it’ll cool more quickly
- Put the bowl in the coolest room in your home
- Prop one edge of the bowl up to allow air to circulate underneath the bowl
- When the broth is at room temperature, cover and store in the fridge
- If your freezing it, split the broth into portions before freezing
Reheating your broth
In the fridge, your broth may set almost solid, so chilled or frozen, the reheating technique is the same. Follow these steps and your broth won’t stick to your pan. Using a pan is easier than a microwave. But if a microwave is what you’ve got – adapt the instructions to suit.
- Heat a covering of water in the base of your pan
- When it’s boiling, carefully add your portion(s) of broth
- Cover with a lid
- Warm over a low heat
- Stir every 2-3 minutes
- Keep heating until the broth boils – all over not just around the edges of the pan
- Remove the lid and simmer for two minutes stirring regularly
Properly reheating your broth is the second step to ensuring it’s safe to eat. Microwaves are notorious for cool spots. If you’re microwaving your broth, stir regularly and be especially careful it’s hot right through.
Autumn’s here. Broth season is open.
The clocks change at the end of the month and the leaves on the trees are turning – broth season is starting.
And to borrow from Robert Burns,
Auld Scotland wants nae skinking ware
That jaups in luggies “
(Old Scotland wants no watery stuff, that splashes in the bowl)
Scottish broth, an easy to make and healthy comfort food for the cold months to come. Follow this guide. Experiment and enjoy.
I’d love to hear your favourite combinations – they’ll inspire new ones of my own.
Do you struggle with your diet?
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Hi, I’m Ralph – a nutritionist with over 25 years’ experience as a professional chef. I’m based in Edinburgh where I provide one-to-one nutrition coaching. If you’re not in Edinburgh I can help you online.