The Surprising History Behind Bone Broth
The history behind bone broth dates back centuries.
On the surface, bone broth seems like a simple product: bones, some vegetables, water and a whole lot of cook time. But, like a ripped Crossfitter in baggy clothing, underneath a simple exterior lies something beautiful…
The History Behind Bone Broth: Humble Beginnings
Our hunter-gatherer ancestors started making bone broth out of necessity.
Throwing away parts of an animal was unthinkable. Successful hunts were so rare that every part of the animal – not just the muscle meat most people buy at the grocery store today – was precious.
From the hooves and bones to the guts and skin, hunter-gatherers mastered the art of making every part of the animal count. They ate everything they could. And they used things they couldn’t eat – like hides – to make shelters, clothing, weapons, and tools.
A tradition proudly celebrated at Coachella today
Some animal parts (bones, hooves, knuckles, etc.) were too tough to chew but didn’t work well for shelter or clothing.
So, what did our ancestors do to them?
They quickly discovered that heat would break down tough animal bones and draw out nutrients. Things started out pretty basic – our ancestors likely dropped hot rocks into the carcasses of animals to heat up the bones and break them down. And without oven mitts, we expect there were hundreds of cases of burned caveman fingers.
Enter the Pot!
It might not sound exciting, but the invention of the pot was a game changer. Instead of dropping hot rocks into an animal carcass (ugh, my fingers feel like they’re on fire just thinking about that), people could toss bones into pot, hang it over a fire, and leave it for a few hours (fire safety standards were far more lax then).
Our ancestors could then add other, more easily available foods – vegetables, tubers, you name it – to this primitive broth to create a full meal! This is about the time when modern bone broth (a combination of bones, water, vegetables, something acidic, and herbs and spices) started to take shape.
Bone Broth’s Global Impact
Did you know that “bru,” the Germanic root of bone broth, means to “prepare by boiling?” (1)
While Europeans were cooking bone broth, a smart guy in ancient Greece, Hippocrates (the father of medicine), was recommending it to people with digestion issues (2). Reportedly, he was a fan of our spicy tomato flavor.
Bone broth managed to cross international borders and became a staple of traditional Asian cuisine. Traditional Chinese meals often feature a light soup made from bone broth and vegetables to cleanse the palate and help with digestion (3). And seolleongtang (a Korean dish made from ox bones and brisket) and tonkotsu (a Japanese noodle soup made from pork bones) both play big roles in those cuisines.
Bone broth was also popular in the middle east. A philosopher and physician there, Maimonides, recommended chicken bone broth as both an excellent food and medication (4). This advice got passed down for generations, which helps explain why chicken soup is sometimes called “Jewish penicillin.”
Best served with a side of pressure to become a doctor
In South America, bone broth was so popular and respected for its health benefits that a saying emerged about it: “Good broth can resurrect the dead” (5). Unfortunately, the scientific method was not yet invented, so we have no way of knowing whether this actually worked (I assume it did).
Bone broth even spread to the Caribbean. People there ate “cow foot soup” – and continue to eat it to this day – as a healthy breakfast and to help cure all kinds of health ailments.
New Challenges (and New Uses)
Over the past several hundred years, new technology helped expand bone broth’s uses dramatically.
In the Victorian era, people started to take the gelatin from bone broth and use it to make all kinds of gelatin deserts. You could buy gelatin from merchants in the streets, but you had to purify it yourself: an extremely time-consuming process. In 1845, Peter Cooper, an American industrialist, secured a patent for powdered gelatin (6).
Bone broth also continued to be a staple in cooking and fine dining. Restaurant chefs and amateurs alike used it to make soups, stews, sauces, and gravies.
Homemade bone broth became a hit during the industrial revolution. As fuel costs rose, people who used to leave their broth bubbling over a fire at home could no longer afford the gas to heat their stoves for the hours (7).
As people worked longer hours and traveled more, inventors came up with creative new ways to make bone broth more convenient. People began making – and using – broth powders and “bouillons” (cubes of broth that have been dehydrated) in an effort to get the benefits of bone broth without the long hours (or fuel costs) to make it themselves.
Things were good for a while…
Until MSG came around.
MSG: Bad News for Bone Broth
After a Japanese biochemist invented Monosodium glutamate (the infamous “MSG”) to emulate meat flavoring in 1908, more and more food companies began to use it in their products.
Big food manufacturers were impressed by MSG’s ability to trick customers into thinking they were eating meat… even if a product didn’t have any meat in it. It also saved a lot of labor and money. Instead of boiling bones, they could just throw in a cheap chemical.
Now, most of the bone stock you’ll find at the store isn’t even made from animal bones at all.
Bone Broth Today
We’re seeing a huge resurgence in the popularity of bone broth: it’s one of the trendiest health foods around.
People are starting to reject buying mass-produced, commercially-processed “food products” made by large corporations. They’re more and more interested in going back to their roots: to organically-grown food their grandparents and great grandparents grew up on.
Health-conscious people are no longer interested in simply picking up the cheapest option at the grocery store. Now, they’re wondering how they can use slow cookers to make their own broth. They’re browsing farmers’ markets to find local bone suppliers. They’re looking to buy from trusted companies that make broth with only the highest-quality ingredients.
Bone broth has a long, complicated, and surprising history. Cultures around the globe have been making it for thousands of years. It was a fundamental part of their diets – both for the taste and the incredible health benefits. The history of bone broth is long and strong, but bone broth is still a huge part of traditional cuisines.
Food processing and new technologies almost swept the history behind bone broth away…
But the future is bright.
As the years go on, expect to see more and more people incorporating bone broth’s healing properties into their diet. And, expect to see more new restaurants serving broth, like the few already do in LA, NYC, Portland and San Francisco.
With increasing demand to know exactly what we’re putting into our bodies – and making sure our food is of the utmost quality – people are turning their attention back to the basics.
Basics like bone broth.