The bouillon cube is often portrayed as a Faustian bargain struck with modern food science, wherein convenient mediocrity replaces laborious but noble simmering. This vilification isn’t entirely fair. Recipes for bouillon cubes can be found in eighteenth-century European cookbooks—Escoffier made them! And the on-the-shelf version of the bouillon cube is older than your grandma: it was first developed by a Swiss inventor named Julius Maggi in 1908, and his namesake brand is still one of the world’s most popular today.
So what were old-school bouillon cubes like?
One of the first written descriptions comes from Vincent La Chapelle, household chef to second-tier nobility across Europe during the eighteenth century.
In his book The Modern Cook, he gives a recipe for “the way of making Broth Cakes, which may be conveniently carried abroad, and preserv’d above a Year.” The recipe is an old-school doozy: it calls for the reader to first make a stock from half a large bull, a whole calf, two sheep, two dozen chickens, and twelve to fifteen pounds of staghorn, then reduce the stock into a demi-glace with a honey-like consistency, and finally dry that out in the oven. But his motivation for making them was more modern—the cakes, he wrote, are perfect for busy cooks who “have neither time nor convenience of getting the necessary ingredients.”
And what about the bouillon cubes of today?
Today’s bouillon cubes never exist as stock—they’re compressed chunks of pre-dried powders.
It’s probably not a surprise that salt is the largest component of Maggi’s cubes—it accounts for over half the weight in the U.K. recipe. The second-largest portion is some sort of starch. The particular kind varies by region—Maggi uses cassava flour in West Africa, for instance, but wheat flour or cornstarch elsewhere. Dried vegetable powders, herbs, and spices are added and customized by region: France gets cilantro, pepper, and clove; the Middle East gets white pepper, turmeric, and coriander. Since 2012, iron has been added in markets that struggle with anemia. For a sense of umami, the cubes include a hit of glutamate. Sometimes this means where it occurs naturally, like in a powder made from fermented soybeans, while in other cases it’s good old MSG.
But why does it taste like chicken? That’s complicated. In some regions, the company is making a push toward more recognizable ingredients, using dehydrated chicken meat and chicken fat. In most of the world, though, Maggi purchases additives produced by enormous yet mysterious industrial flavoring firms. In those cases, the flavor compounds are designed to mimic the flavor of chicken—without requiring any participation from chickens themselves. What we know as “chicken” flavor is a moving target: in Europe, flavor scientists employ a formula that tastes like long-simmered chicken; in the Middle East, the flavor is amplified with more spices.
How are they made?
Maggi’s cubes get made in big factories arranged vertically—ingredients (mostly pre-dried) are lifted to the top floor, and gravity aids each subsequent step. Ingredients are weighed out, then dropped one story down into horizontal drums, where they’re homogenized and dosed with minute amounts of oil and water to aid in binding. Time is money, so careful testing has determined the bare minimum of mixing—usually just a few minutes.
The final mix is deposited into a giant bag called—seriously—the Big Bag. Each bag can weigh more than a thousand pounds. The Big Bag is then positioned over a press on the floor below.
The goal is a four-gram cube, fourteen millimeters on each side. A large rotating table of pneumatic pistons presses the powder into a mold with a carefully calibrated pressure. Too much force, and the cubes won’t dissolve when the consumer is cooking with them. Too little, and the powder won’t bind into a solid cube. The presses move almost too fast to register: each can produce at least sixteen cubes per second. From there, the cubes speed along a conveyor belt to the wrapping line, where a machine with speedy metal “fingers” wraps them like an endless stream of tiny Christmas presents.
Much like irritated travelers trying to catch a flight, at least some bouillon cubes need to be scanned before they’re released into the world. Some are opened and visually inspected; others pass through a metal detector or an X-ray scanner to ensure no bits of metal or other contaminants end up in the cube.
Who’s using all those cubes?
They’ve become foundational to home cooking around the world—in parts of the Middle East, Latin America, and (especially) West Africa, you can’t escape bouillon. (In Central and West Africa alone, Maggi moves more than a hundred million cubes every day!) And while it doesn’t come from vats of long-boiled stock these days, or even a real chicken, it’s how millions of people make dishes that at least taste like it.