Who invented commercial meat extract? Bouillon cubes?

Answer: Justus von Liebig (commercial meat extract). Auguste Escoffier or Julius Maggi (bouillon cubes)

Happy Thanksgiving! In an effort to cook more, I recently started a trial of Hello Fresh (not sponsored). Multiple recipes from this week have called for stock concentrate – which got me wondering about the origin of stock concentrates, meat extracts, and bouillon cubes.

Marco Pierre White, legendary chef and Gordon Ramsay’s mentor, now turned corporate shill for Knorr stock pot. Source.

First off, some basic definitions of broth, stock, and bouillon. Broth is made by simmering vegetables and/or meat in water. Bouillon is synonymous with broth. Stock is similar to broth, with the addition of bones. This makes a substantial difference as bones contain ample quantities of gelatin (~20% by weight vs. 1% in muscle). Gelatin is a collection of peptides/proteins produced by partial hydrolysis of collagen and gives mixtures a definite body without overly thickening a sauce (at low concentrations). Glace de viande (literally “meat glass”) is a stock reduced to approximately 10% of its original volume (demi-glace is approximately 25-40% of original volume). Bouillon cubes, also called stock cubes, broth cubes, or stock pot, originally consisted of further dehydrated broth or stock.

Dehydrated broth/stock has been known in the English-speaking world since the 17th century. For example, dehydrated meat stock was known to Anne Blencowe, a 17th-century compiler of recipes. In the 18th and 19th centuries, a dehydrated meat broth called “portable soup” became a common ration for sailors and explorers. Townsends, a channel dedicated to recreating historical foods, demonstrates how to make portable soup below (with a slow cooker!).

The first person to try to create mass-produced meat extracts was Justus von Liebig (apparently he was also a leading proponent of the theory that searing meats “seal juices in”). He also held the mistaken view that the soluble substances in meats contain the majority of the nutritional value. Hoping to feed the undernourished, Liebig attempted to create a commercially viable meat extract. Unfortunately, his process was an inefficient use of meat (30kg of meat for 1 kg of extract), making manufacturing in Europe difficult. Taking advantage of cheap cattle prices in Uruguay (where cattle was being raised for hides and not meat), Liebig was finally able to create a financially viable meat extract (Liebig’s Extract of Meat Company – today Oxo).

The origin of bouillon cubes is unclear. Wikipedia credits the invention to Auguste Escoffier, a great popularizer of French cooking in the late 19th century (pretty much every other article online on the subject almost certainly draws from the Wikipedia page). However, the source cited is a single line from an article from the International Wine and Food Society. This article opens with the line “I was dimly aware of the name Auguste Escoffier just a few months ago, but if I had been asked to give any kind of summary of his life or importance, I would have been unable to do so, other to say he was an pioneer [sic] in French cuisine.” No further sources are cited in this IWFS article. Another article claims Benjamin Thompson invented a proto-bouillon cube of solidified stock of bones and meat trimmings in the late 18th century.

However, the history of mass-produced bouillon cubes seems more clear. Maggi in 1908 (lead at the time by Julius Maggi), Oxo in 1910, and Knorr in 1912 began commercial production of bouillon cubes. Their products became ubiquitous worldwide as these companies provided bouillon cubes to soldiers during the World Wars, and as European countries spread bouillon cubes to their colonies.

Julius Maggi
Julius Maggi and his products. Apparently, he not only made bouillon cubes, but also mock-turtle-flavored instant soup and truffle-flavored Maggi. Source: a hagiographic article by Nestle

The big players in the bouillon cube business are predictably all owned by food conglomerates: Knorr (a subsidiary of Unilever), Maggi (a subsidiary of Nestle), and Oxo (licensed by various companies around the world). These companies have been very secretive about the actual manufacture of bouillon. However, Wikipedia linked to an intriguing patent from Unilever that suggests that bouillon cubes are created by directly mixing salt, fat, flavor extracts, and myriad other ingredients. Modern bouillon cubes are certainly very unhealthy, consisting primarily of salt (>50%), fat, and MSG; there is often less than 3% of actual meat extract.

Seasonings, salt, and additions such as glutamate, separately or premixed, are introduced first into the extruder through feed funnels. The liquid extract, for example meat extract and vegetable extract, which can also be added in powder form, however, is then added. The fat, which can be fed in liquefied form to the extruder Screw, is added next. Finally, the garnishes are added, such as vegetable strips or herbs e.g. parsley, which are added to the paste under mild conditions.

Patent US6099888A

For anyone with some more time, Danish national television presented a show investigating bouillon cubes with the help of a professional chef, food scientist, a meat extract manufacturer, and a Knorr representative (below). The interview portion with Unilever (parent company of Knorr) opens with the reporter asking why the Knorr test kitchen is filled with numerous ingredients like carrots and fennel not present in beef bouillon cubes. Watch as representative wilts as she is asked why they Knorr leads in both market share… and salt and fat percentage.

Some other random facts I came across while reading about bouillon cubes:

  1. Liaison. In the cooking world, a liaison is a thickening agent made of egg yolks and cream (it can also be a verb to describe the act of thickening). The word is originally French; when borrowed into English in the 17th century, it was the culinary sense that came first.
  2. Stock derives from an old Germanic word meaning “tree trunk.” The word was first used in a culinary sense in the 18th century. Broth derives from a Germanic root, bru, meaning to prepare by boiling.
  3. Stocks should be cooked uncovered from a cold start with slow heating. This allows soluble proteins to coagulate slowly, to be skimmed off later. Cooking uncovered also further dehydrates the scum (as well as concentrates the stock).
  4. Ikeda Kikunae derived MSG from kombu in 1908 (the same year Maggi developed bouillon cubes). Kikunae also coined the term “umami” as a portmanteau of “umai” (delicious) and “mi” (taste).


  1. https://www.marthastewart.com/1539238/differences-between-broth-stock-lowdown
  2. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2fE5KzvOZRk
  3. https://www.seriouseats.com/bouillon-cube-history
  4. McGee, Harold. On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, 2nd edition. Page 762-841.
  5. https://patents.google.com/patent/US6099888A/en
  6. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vTPc5O8IFLM

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: