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Trail food: Oxo stock cubes

A day hiking is followed by campsite selection, site selection is followed by putting a shelter up, then a pack explosion of gear, closely followed by brewing up a post hike drink. More often than not, this is a hot Oxo.

Food carried on the Speyside Way. Oxo cubes are tucked away with tea bags and dried milk powder, top right
Food carried while backpacking the Speyside Way. Oxo cubes are tucked away with tea bags and milk powder, top right

Three Points of the Compass normally includes one OXO cube in the foodbag for each day on trail. There are many different makes and flavours of stock or bouillon cubes and powder, but I always carry the Oxo brand for use as a drink. Each standard stock cube has just under a gram of salt so goes some way to immediately putting that back into the system. Obviously the fluid intake is important and a hot drink is often much appreciated, especially on a wet or cold day but it may simply just be the rich, deeply flavoured umami element that is the reason a hot Oxo drink is so satisfying. It isn’t for everyone, but works for me.

1946 advertisement

The Oxo brand is owned by Premier Foods in the UK. In South Africa Oxo is owned by Mars, Incorporated and by Knorr in Canada. They make and sell stock cubes, herbs, spices, gravy and yeast extract. However their roots lie in the original beef stock cube. Around 1840 Justus von Liebig developed a concentrated thick liquid meat extract. This comprised of just meat extract with 4% salt. The company name, registered in 1865, was ‘Lemco’ derived from Liebig’s Extract of Meat Company. The Oxo trademark was registered worldwide in 1899 and in 1900 in the UK. The name was probably derived from the word ‘Ox’. It is a familiar brand, especially in Britain. The company recognised the benefits of strong promotion and had sponsored the 1908 London Olympic Games (supplying the British team and marathon runners with fortifying drinks), alongside Odol mouthwash and Indian Foot Powder, this despite Coca Cola claims to being the first commercial sponsor of the Olympic Games.

It was only in the last few years that Three Points of the Compass found he had been crumbling Oxo in the wrong way!
It was only in the last few years that Three Points of the Compass found he had been crumbling Oxo the wrong way! Fold out the wings on the cube and flatten it
Oxo EviiiR coronation map, 1936
Complementary map produced by the Oxo company in 1936
Oxo Coronation map, 1936
On the map of the processional route, Oxo cube figure raises a hot Oxo drink to the health “unto His Majesty”

The rare map above was for the 1936 Coronation and was produced by the Oxo company. It was intended to show how visitors to London could view the procession of EviiiR. An event that ultimately did not occur as the King abdicated prior to his coronation. Three Points of the Compass wrote more on this subject and other London maps here

Oxo cubes tucked away in the Three Points of the Compass Brew Kit
Oxo cubes tucked away in the Three Points of the Compass Brew Kit

The beef extract was extolled in medical journal The Lancet, Florence Nightingale sang it’s praises. When Stanley set off on his expedition to find the missing Dr. Livingstone, it was Lemco’s beef extract that he packed as a restorative drink. Oxo became associated with feats of endurance and strength following their sponsorship of the London to Brighton walk. The company’s liquid extract was a costly product however, out of reach of most households, and Oxo worked on producing a solid version. The result was the famed stock cube, that sold for a penny each. These were on sale from 1910. During the First World War, over a 100 million hand wrapped Oxo cubes were provided to the British forces. Lemco was purchased by the Vestey Group in 1924 and has subsequently moved through a number of owners since. Oxo cubes today have flavour derived mostly from autolysed yeast extract and the much maligned monosodium glutamate (MSG) rather than pure beef extract. ‘Autolysis’, more commonly known as self-digestion, refers to the destruction of a cell through the action of its own enzymes.

1947 advert

Oxo was heavily advertised as a hot drink in the first half of the twentieth century, added to milk being one suggestion, but less so these days. Oxo cubes and other bouillon brands are more often added to meals by today’s cook. Meat pies, casseroles, stews, shepherd’s pie, spaghetti bolognese, lasagne and other dishes all benefit. Chicken stock cubes are popular too. Cubes and powders find their way into West African and Latin American dishes.

Three Points of the Compass does also occasionally carry vegetable bouillon powder for adding to an evening meal of textured vegetable protein and instant mash on trail. This is usually Marigold brand. Now that does have a high salt content- 2.2g per 5g. That amount of powder is about a teaspoon full, enough to make a hot drink with. But as said, I prefer Oxo as a drink because of its beefy taste.

If not drinking water, tea or hot chocolate, Three Points of the Compass only uses the Beef flavour cubes for drinks when backpacking. This is the taste I prefer. From a product that began life as almost complete beef extract, the recipe dramatically changed when it moved into cube form. It was reformulated in 1977 to give it a ‘beefier’ taste and there are now additional flavours- Chicken, Ham, Lamb and, since 1989- Vegetable and even a Vegan ‘beef flavour’ option introduced in 2020. Others such as ‘Chinese’, ‘Indian’ and other flavour stocks joined the range in more recent years. They can be purchased in packs of various sizes- 6s, 12s, 18s, 24s and 60s. I always have them sitting in the larder for use in general cooking, so just grab whatever number I require for a multi-day hike. This will be either the standard or low salt version.

1950s advertisement

A drink made from an Oxo cube contains little in the way of calorific value. The benefit is all in the rehydrating, replacement of lost salts and simple enjoyment. Despite being called ‘Beef’ cubes, there is now less than 5% actual beef product in these cubes however this is sufficient to add a beefy taste to the drink. It is seldom wise to look too closely at the ingredients of the foods we like. But if we must… each cube contains flour (with added calcium, iron, niacin, thiamin), salt, maize starch, yeast extract, flavour enhancers (monosodium glutamate, disodium guanylate), colour, beef fat, autolysed yeast extract, dried beef bonestock, flavourings, sugar, acidity regulator (lactic acid) and onion powder… yum!

1950 advert

Each cube weighs 7.1g. For me, this is an acceptable weight for a hot drink at the end of each day. Though as said, I am also packing along tea bags (and milk powder) and hot chocolate. I have written before how I might also occasionally add an Oxo to 25g of Gofio on trail.

Low salt version of Oxo cubes alongside the standard variety that has almost a gram of salt per cube
There are low-salt versions of Oxo available if preferred. These reduce the salt content by around 25%, from 0.95g to 0.66g per cube. The X shape of the cube was introduced in 2009, supposedly to aid crumbling

In the kitchen, cubes are crumbled and used as flavouring in meals or gravy or dissolved into boiling water to produce a bouillon. It is the hot bouillon drink that Three Points of the Compass drinks on trail. It makes a hot, hydrating, salty, savoury, flavoursome drink at the end of a day hiking. Preferably then followed up by a pint of tea later. Either the hot Oxo or tea will accompany my evening meal. If I am still thirsty or hydrating then it is usually just water that will be drunk into the evening and if I can be bothered, and can spare the fuel, or feel the need, I will finish off with a hot chocolate prior to going to sleep.

Low salt version of Oxo stock cubes
Nutritional information for low salt version of Oxo stock cubes
Standard version of Oxo stock cubes
Nutritional information for standard version of Oxo stock cubes

If you haven’t tried it, perhaps think about doing so. If not Oxo, then possibly the Knorr or Maggi alternatives.

Preparing a hot Oxo and lentil curry at the end of a day's hiking
Preparing a hot Oxo and lentil curry at the end of a day’s hiking

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