One of my more recent experiments has been making my own stock. Almost any good savory dish contains stock, since it adds so much more flavor then water, and so a good stock is like a baseline for a good dish.
Many pre-packaged stocks have ingredients or a high salt content to help preserve the stock, and can lead to too much salt in a dish, or off-flavors. Since I have the most experience with chicken stock at this point, that's what we'll be discussing today.
What exactly is stock?
- Stock and broth are not the same. Chicken stock is water in which vegetables, trimming, and chicken bones with meat were cooked, which is then strained and reserved to add flavor and complexity to dishes. Broth is a clear soup, usually with stock as part of the base. Because of this difference, a recipe using packaged stock alone as the base for a clear soup(often seen in "fast" recipes for chicken soup or Asian soups like udon) will yield disappointing results.
- Consomme is stock which has been put through a fine strainer, reduced, and had egg whites added to give it additional clarity. It is often served alone. More on Consomme can be found here.
- Bullion is the French word for salty dried stock shavings in a jar. Not a fan, myself.
While some recipes call for sliced whole vegetables, like this good basic stock from Alton Brown, I prefer the frugal approach. Stock has traditionally been a way to recycle the bones and vegetable peelings that would otherwise be thrown in the trash. If you like to turn your leftovers into compost, you have the additional advantage that stock leavings break down very quickly.
You can put practically anything in a good stock. Most serious cooks have their own personal favorite they've developed, but it's incredibly easy to adjust the contents of stock based on what you have, and what you're planning to make. Just have two ziplock bags in your freezer, one for meat bones, the other for vegetables, to avoid cross-contamination, and store until you have time to make stock.
- Poultry is the typical stock base. Chicken, turkey, capon, or any other kind of fowl can make for wonderfully rich stock. For a frugal week, I like to roast two chickens on Sunday, reserving the organs. Then after Sunday dinner, I deconstruct the chickens, putting the carcasses and skin in one stack, and shredding the meat for use in casseroles during the rest of the week. The organ meats and gizzard which come with the standard chicken or turkey are often best sauteed in the bottom of the pot before the other ingredients are added, however I also soak the liver in milk to remove odd flavors. I usually let chicken stock simmer for 4 hours, or until the carcasses have disappeared into a fine rubble of bones on the bottom of the pot. Some funky smells can happen at the beginning, but should be gone by the time it's finished.
- While the most common stock called for is chicken or vegetable stock, home-made beef or veal stock is really wonderful, and adds body and flavor to dishes containing red meat that chicken stock can't compete with. The simplest way to get a good beef bone is by buying a bone-in cut and roasting it in the oven or low and slow on the grill, however real butchers will sell you stock bones. Red meat like beef, pork, and veal usually need to cook longer then chicken stock, since one is working with one or two large bones. Break the bones if possible to speed the process up.
- Pork stock is common in Chinese cuisine, and ham stock in Spanish and American Southern cooking. Similar to making beef stock, but I find that since ham is cured, it often smells "done" sooner.
- Fish stock is used in some Chinese recipes, essential for gumbo, and as a base for some French soups. Use about 3 lbs. of fins, spines, and heads from non-oily fish--bass, cod, etc., and cook for only 40 minutes or so.
- Shrimp stock is similar to fish stock, using the heads, tails, and shell of the shrimp(and my favorite for gumbo). Also quick.
Just about anything can go into stock to compliment the meat, or to create a vegetable stock. The base for many stocks is the French mirepoix--the flavor combination of celery, onion, and carrots, but there are an almost infinite number of variations which can be tried. Just remember that one should avoid the driest, outermost peels on onions, as well as brassicas and greens like broccoli, kale and cabbage, since they will turn stock bitter. Also, please cut out and throw away any bits that are spoiled or moldy! Other then that, think of what would taste good together and get creative. A simple vegetable stock only needs 40 minutes at the most to cook, and unlike meat stock, can usually be used right away.
- Roots and root peelings: Potatoes (not too many, or it will start to turn into soup!), swedes/parsnips, turnips, carrots, radish, daikon, jicama, beets.
- Celery, corn cobs, tomatoes, Seeds, tops and veins from peppers (not too many if they're hot!), squash, mushroom stems and cuttings, cucumbers, zucchini
- Fruits like apples and pears (remove the area closest to the seeds--it contains small amounts of cyanide!), or for tropical stocks pineapple peels.
- Entire heads of garlic can be cut in half before being thrown in the pot. Herb stems after the leaves have been removed, whole black peppercorns, the leftover greens from spring onions, ginger peels, citrus zest or peel (pith scraped off, or else it will turn bitter).
- If using uncooked bits like organ meat or shrimp shells, saute in the bottom of the pan with a little olive or vegetable oil. Depending on the flavors I want, I also do this sometimes with aromatics like onion and celery.
- Use a big pot if possible, it's best to have a lot of water, since it can affect the stock to add water part-way through.
- Keep the stock at a simmer, skimming any foam or junk that comes to the surface.
- I usually don't add salt, or if I do, only a tiny amount. This makes it easier to control the amount of salt in the dishes the stock goes into.
- Once the stock is done, I like to let it cool slightly, then strain the stock into a clean, cool pot or group of smaller containers which go in the fridge overnight. Remember, the taller your containers, the thicker the fat layer will be in the morning, and the easier it will be to remove.
- In the morning, there will be a think layer of fat which you can use a spoon to remove and discard. Or, if you want to get really frugal yet tasty, cut off the skin and fatty parts of the chicken beforehand and make yourself some nice Schmaltz.
- The remaining stock will have a thick, rather gelatinous and wonderfully silken texture. Use it now, or pour/scrape it into ice cube trays to freeze, then bag. Make sure you label and date it, home-made stock is good for about four days in the fridge, and three months in the freezer.