Simple really is better, especially when it comes to food. Learning to cook simple things also teaches you to perfect the building blocks of many other great foods – including building blocks you can’t really access any other way.
Stocks are a great example. You can’t buy perfect stocks; you have to make them. And in an era where we’re coming to grips with the fact that most commercially prepared foods do us far more harm than good – that faster and more convenient is not necessarily better – knowing how to make a homemade stock offers a soul-nourishing satisfaction.
If you want to make soups as good as Grandma’s, you need homemade stocks. If you want to make quick, fabulous reductions like your favorite TV chef does, the secret is homemade stocks. If you want to increase the flavor quotient in your recipes, and replace unnecessary fats in your foods, you need to know how to make homemade stocks.
So what is stock? Stock is the strained liquid resulting from the cooking of meat, poultry, fish or vegetables in water. Although it doesn’t sound terribly glamorous, it is an essential ingredient in many types of traditional cookery, and a foundation of fine restaurant cuisine.
Often confused with broth, stock differs from its soupy sibling in that broth is actually made from stock that has been enhanced or fortified in some fashion (either through seasoning or volume reduction) that makes it ready for eating. All stocks are edible of course, they just aren’t generally ideal for serving on their own. It’s once you transport a stock’s essence into a broth, soup, braise or sauce that the real fun begins.
Making stock is not expensive. In fact, saving the bones, trimmings and peelings from other cooking projects (store them in the freezer) can result in a final expense counted in pennies, not dollars.
Stocks and Bonding
The delicate melding of complex flavors produced by a good stock is its hallmark, and yet there is perhaps no culinary art so elemental. Back a thousand years or more, our forebears made stock combining leftover bones and inedible meat scraps with vegetable peelings and water, tossing in some leftover ale or wine, and placing it all in an iron pot. Swung over the fire as the hearth’s intensity waned, the broth steeped overnight. It provided the structure for the next day’s first meal and the key ingredient to any other meals slated for that afternoon or evening. This process made good economic sense: It utilized every last morsel, and delivered several deeply nourishing meals for a hungry crew.
In this era, it still works much the same way – except that your stove top replaces the fire, and if you don’t have a huge, hungry crew to feed, you can freeze the stock in whatever ready-to-use portions you like. And use it you will!
Good for What Ails You
From a wellness standpoint, homemade stocks and broths have enormous value. Long rumored to be an elixir with near-magical healing properties, stock has recently gotten the nod from scientists, too, who’ve confirmed its superior nutritional makeup.
Stocks contain calcium, magnesium, potassium, phosphorous, silicon, sulphur and plenty of trace minerals – all in a highly bioavailable format (electrolytes) that the body can readily process and assimilate. Homemade stocks help build better bones in our children and can assist in recovery from many common illnesses. Stocks also contain high concentrations of gelatin, a natural substance that aids digestion and provides important amino acids like arginine and glycine. Gelatin is one of Mother Earth’s great super foods, helping to combat ulcers, tuberculosis, diabetes, muscle disease, jaundice and cancer. Gelatin also aids in the preservation of joint function, extending the healthful lifecycles of our bones, teeth and cartilage.
Unfortunately, you won’t get the majority of these benefits from commercially prepared stocks. In fact, most commercial stock products contain ingredients known to be harmful to your body – including MSG, hydrolyzed proteins, trans-fatty acids and unhealthy concentrations of sodium. The flavor doesn’t begin to compare.
As wonderful as the nutritional properties of homemade stock are, the psychological and spiritual attributes of stock-based soups must also be given their due. Memories of hearth and home, of being pampered by Mom, of enjoying the simple pleasure of hot soup on a cold winter’s day – all these recollections evoke pleasant, safe and nurturing psycho-emotional states.
But perhaps stocks’ single most important quality is that because they are handmade, because they do take time and care, we intuitively sense that they must come from the heart. On a deep level, they inspire our gratitude, and that’s as it should be. Love, after all, is a recipe’s No.1 ingredient – and prepared properly, all homemade stocks contain an extra helping.
Inspired to make your own nourishing homemade stock? Follow these basic guidelines:
- Use a tall narrow pot to cook stock; this slows evaporation.
- You can make stocks from any bones you like, or you can make vegetable stocks. Be aware that chicken, veal and vegetable stocks are “all purpose,” but lamb, beef or duck stocks may only be appropriate for richer dishes, or those featuring the specific stock meat.
- Only use ripe or over-ripe vegetables in stocks; they contribute sweeter flavors.
- Bones from younger animals make for better stocks, as they have more collagen, gelatin and flavonoids than bones from older animals. Mature animal bones tend to create stocks that taste very “mineralized.”
- I recommend making stocks from bones with some meat and fat on them. The flavor is vastly improved and the fat can be removed later on.
- Feel free to add flavors to your stock where desired or appropriate. Mushrooms will add an earthy flavor to stocks. Try adding lemongrass peelings, ginger slices and a star anise bud to the basic recipe below to create a wonderful stock for Asian recipes.
- Never boil your stock. Bones and meat contain many unwanted particles that are released when heated in water. Boiling breaks them into far finer particles, making them difficult to strain out later and resulting in a final product that is off-tasting or slightly bitter. Gentle steeping (at 190 to 200 degrees) will allow those solids and particles to bind together in clumps that can easily be strained out.
- Never squeeze or press down on your stock when straining, this may result in some of those unwanted coagulated solids seeping into your stock.
- Store the finished product in the refrigerator for a few days or in the freezer for up to six months.
- To facilitate freezer storage, reduce your stock by half by simmering it after it has been strained several times, chilled and de-fatted. Stock can then be stored in a freezer bag, in 2-cup portions. Freeze them flat on a cookie sheet. This will let you store them vertically and make better use of freezer space.
Basic One-Step Chicken Stock
- 10 lbs. fresh chicken backs, neck and wing bones
- 2 cups each diced carrot, celery, onion
- 1 leek, greens trimmed and discarded, split and washed
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 tbs. Peppercorns
- 8 sprigs parsley
- 6 garlic cloves, smashed
Rinse the bones, in the hottest water that comes out of your faucet, for 3-4 minutes. Drip dry in a colander.
Place all the bones into a 2-gallon stock pot. Add the rest of the ingredients. Cover with cold water to 4 inches above the bone mass.
Bring stock to a bare simmer, then immediately lower heat to maintain a 190- to 200-degree temperature. There should be no bubbling or movement of the stock. Use a metallic heat diffuser if you have trouble maintaining a flame that low. This can also be done in the oven in a covered Dutch oven.
Keep steeping for 36 hours, adding the occasional cup or two of cold water if stock evaporates below the level of the bones and vegetables.
After cooking, strain slowly, through a colander first, then through a fine-mesh cap strainer. Discard the solids at the bottom of the pot.
Strain stock twice again through clean cheesecloth each time. Rapidly cool stock, and refrigerate overnight. Skim fat and refrigerate, freeze or utilize.
Stock can be used for soups, stews, risottos, sauces, braised dishes and the like.
Andrew Zimmern is a celebrated chef, restaurateur and expert culinary instructor. He is also Life Time Fitness's resident food expert and Experience Life's regular "Edibles" columnist. You can find more of Chef Andrew's recipes and cooking suggestions in the Cooking for Life section at lifetimefitness.com. Contact Chef Andrew at firstname.lastname@example.org.