Naughty but nice

I feel guilty saying it, but stock cubes are a necessary evil

We home cooks are in a state of insecurity following an endorsement by Marco Pierre White - the first British chef to earn three Michelin stars - of stock cubes. We had been sure that the ethical, economical, healthy, flavour-enhancing thing to do was to make our own stock, with vegetables or carcasses. We may have had cubes in our cupboards, but we used them guiltily.

Now White has told readers of the Guardian that Knorr stock cubes are "one of the greatest inventions in gastronomy". As if fearing that the remark was not emphatic enough, he has reinforced it in Caterer and Hotelkeeper magazine, asserting that "Knorr is the best f***ing ingredient in the world, let's not kid ourselves".

If it is the best f***king ingredient, it is one that is a good deal better than the sum of its f***ing parts. A Knorr chicken stock cube includes enough flavour enhancers (monosodium glutamate, disodium 5'-ribonucleotides and disodium guanylate) to scare off many health-conscious consumers. Even more people will be repelled by the presence on the label of hydrogenated vegetable oil, which is widely agreed to be harmful. Then there is the salt: one cube contains 4.25 grams - nearly 75 per cent of the recommended daily intake for an adult.

A cube may not be good for our health, and it is certainly not good for our consciences. Where have Knorr's chickens come from? Not, one may be sure, from farms where they wander about in the open air, feeding on the best organic corn. Imagining their confined, sun-starved lives, we can console ourselves only with the thought that a little of them goes a long way in a Knorr cube. Chicken fat makes up 4 per cent of the ingredients, and chicken powder 1.4 per cent.

Maybe we should not take White's remarks seriously. The food writer Jay Rayner has advanced a theory that they are part of the scary chef's campaign against his former protégé Gordon Ramsay. The subtext is that Ramsay, with his fancy and Michelin-obsessed cuisine, is a ponce. But even so, White is not offering an egalitarian message. We cannot all buy the secret of Michelin-standard sauces at 75p for a packet of four: we have to possess his knowledge, too. "The problem is most people don't know how to use it [the cube]," he says.

What he is getting at, I think, is that you should use cubes in lower concentrations than the packet suggests. As I write, I have a fresh stock simmering on the stove. But I do not make stocks every week and I find soups and dhals made with plain water tend to be . . . watery. Although a whole stock cube gives a dish a powdery, chemical taste, a third of a cube adds depth and richness. Even if it does not contribute to your self-esteem.

Nicholas Clee's food blog is at http://nicholasclee.blogspot.com