Sunday, July 8, 2007

Stock Basics

Let's talk stock.

I'm amazed by how few people I know make homemade stock, particularly when it's so simple, and when the difference in quality between homemade and store bought is so … well, I can't think of a word that adequately describes the scope of that difference.

Sorry, but no, that canned chicken broth is not an acceptable substitute, at least not in any recipe where stock is a major ingredient. And that "free range, organic" broth in the carton is no better. (Having said that, if you must go with store bought, Kitchen Basics stock is by far the best available.)

And there's no good excuse for not having homemade on hand, as easy as it is to make, but people know very little about how to make it. So after I get the myths and misconceptions out of the way, I'll tell you how to make amazing chicken and beef stock.

Chicken stock

The biggest misconception people have about chicken stock is that the flavor comes from the chicken meat. It does not. Chicken meat is bland, and you cannot use it to make stock. Try putting a couple of those foul boneless, skinless breasts in a pan, covering them with water, and simmering them for, oh, give it as much time as you have, say a couple of hours. After you remove the inedibly dry breasts, taste the liquid.

Nearly flavorless.

Now try the same experiment with regular breasts (you know, the kind with the bone and skin). Note that the liquid is full of flavor.

Bones, skin, and fat are the ingredients that give stock its richness and flavor — not chicken meat. Bones lend not only flavor, but gelatin, which gives stock that wonderful richness (and makes it gel when refrigerated).

The very best stock is made from the carcass left after you have roasted a chicken (or capon, or even a turkey), much better than just tossing a few chicken pieces (with bone and skin, of course) into a pot with some water, because roasting brings out the flavor in the bones and carmelizes the skin and gives the stock that yellow color. If you don't want to roast a chicken, pick up a couple of those roast chickens at the store (in my experience, they're far too done and dry, but they're good for stock), carve the meat off and eat, then put the carcasses in a large stockpot with as much of the skin as you managed to reserve.

I can hear you now. Yes, technically you can use a crock pot, but you need one large enough (I have a Cuisinart slow cooker that's quite big) and the standard Crock Pots are not close to large enough, and as an aside, I think Crock Pots give stock an odd, almost overcooked flavor. Stock pots are cheap because they don't have to be heavy. Pick up a couple at your local kitchen store.

Heat your oven to 500, spray a baking pan with Pam, and toss in a couple of onions halved, a few stalks of celery, and a few carrots (you don't have to peel or trim any of these, by the way). Roast them for about a half hour, until they're nice and brown. Remove the veggies, peel and all, to the stockpot, then deglaze the pan with some water over high heat, and add it to the pot.

Add water, about two inches above the carcasses. Bring to a boil, then lower to a very slow simmer, cover tightly, and let it go for several hours. Check it every hour or so and keep the level of the water about two inches above the carcasses. I'd cook it about eight hours. You can tell when you've got a nice, rich, stock by looking at it; you should have a nice, dark yellow, fatty stock. If not, keep cooking it.

If you don't want to buy those roasted chickens at the store, you can buy a bunch of necks and backs, or even wings, at the store, and roast them along with the veggies (then proceed as above).

Bones, fat, and skin. Bones, fat, and skin. Bones, fat, and skin.

Strain the stock. If you want, you can degrease it now, but I never do. The reason I don't is because when you refrigerate it, not only will the stock gel, but the fat will rise to the top and solidify, effectively sealing it. What I do when I want to use part of it is take it out of the refrigerator, then remove the fat from the top (it's very easy to do this) and reserve it. I then nuke the stock until it's liquified so I can measure out what I need, then add the fat back in and nuke it until it's melted and the whole container is liquified and very hot. I then put it back in the refrigerator, and the fat always rises to the top, solidifies, and seals it.

Bones, fat, and skin. Bones, fat, and skin. Bones, fat, and skin.

Beef stock

The primary difference between making chicken and beef stock is that unlike chicken meat, beef is not bland. Bones, fat, and meat, with meat being the least important of the three, give you a rich, flavorful beef stock.

I start by buying soup bones, though these days, they're too clean all by themselves to give you a great beef stock. I buy a bunch of oxtails, because they contain lots of great, sawed bones, fat, and beef. If oxtails aren't available, short ribs are a good substitute (though a bit expensive). Or buy a nice big piece of chuck — lots of flavor and that absolutely necessary fat — and use it (and if you're afraid of fat, there's no reason to be. The flavor provided by fat is water soluble, so even after you degrease and use it, you get the flavor. But to make a good stock, you must have fat.)

Again, preheat the oven to 500, and spray a large baking pan with Pam. Put all the bones and oxtails in the pan, then a couple of onions, halved (again, no need to peel the veggies), carrots and celery. Roast until quite dark brown (this is what gives color to your stock, and brings out flavors), then pour the contents of the pan into a large stockpot. Deglaze the pan with some water, and add it to the stockpot. Cover with water, again about two inches, cover tightly, and cook at a very gentle simmer for several hours (eight is always good for stock). Strain and store as directed above.

Final comments

If you don't roast long enough at the beginning, or in the case of beef stock, you don't use enough oxtails, you will end up with a pale stock (this is more likely with beef stock). Add just a couple of tablespoons of dark soy sauce — you won't taste it, but it will give the stock a rich brown color.

Note that I did not give any directions about salt and pepper. This is because you should not season with salt and pepper — especially salt — until the stock has been strained, especially with chicken stock, which will be saltier on its own than beef stock (in fact, you'll be shocked at how "bland" the beef stock tastes until you salt it).

The next time you make soup — and it's getting to be that time of year — instead of using store bought, use homemade stock. Relish the difference!

No comments: