Last week was soup week at our house. This year’s soups are Summer Vegetable (peppers, beans, tomatoes, corn), Winter Vegetable (butternut, potato, celeriac, parsnip) and a small quantity of Roasted Pepper (a thick puree of sweet Italians and smoked bells). Now, having used up my stocks, I have to make more.
The late fall and Thanksgiving is perfect for making stocks for the year. True, the average family freezer won’t hold multiple quarts of stock, and canning is time-consuming. But stock is versatile. Frozen, it lasts almost forever, and is happy to be stored in whatever size container you want to recycle — small ones, like individual yogurts, are perfect for giving potent flavor to gravies, sauces and soups.
In our freezer, any broth without a label is (by default) chicken stock. I think of it as the “universal solvent” of cooking, an anonymous magical elixir that leaves flavor wherever it goes, no matter what the innate nature of the dish. The same is true of mushroom/vegetable stock, particularly with wild mushrooms as a primary constituent. Beef stock is more focused and demands special treatment, while seafood stocks are still more finicky.
The ultimate stock is veal. I do make it, but it is difficult to find the ingredients, and very precious. I reserve its use to a tiny handful of special dishes for company. Anthony Bourdain says, “This is the good and truly useful stuff you want for sauces. It takes a lot of stock to make a relatively small amount of demi glacé, so make as much as you can.” Easy for him to say.
Stock is essential to culinary history. Its fundamental premise is: Let nothing go to waste. Historically, this meant finding a way to eat animals that were not raised strictly to be eaten, animals that had led useful lives as beasts of burden or producers of wool. Or those who had provided eggs and milk for the table, and now arrived there themselves. No sentimentality here: This is the essential vicious cycle of omnivores.
Moreover, in those days, spoilage was a constant threat, so animals were often slaughtered at home, the “waste” providing ample trimmings and bones. A cuisine based on stock demands such ingredients — bones, tough meat, cartilage and fat.
Historically, stock also depends on a plentiful supply of late-harvest vegetables — which might otherwise go to waste — all the cornucopia of the summer combined and reduced to a nuclear essence.
We no longer have such dependence on bits of uneaten meat and vegetable detritus, but the peasant kitchen wasted nothing. And therein lies the essence of stock. Says John Thorne, “Stock speaks of a time when the good housekeeper served the tops she had cut off from the turnips and the poached beef out of which she had made her broth, and then she scraped the serving platters clean. She cut away the bits of meat that might make up a shepherd’s pie and divided the rest between the stockpot and the dripping jar.”
Today we have no time to dispose of leftovers in a “pot au feu” — nearly everything we buy has already been trimmed of its non-essential properties. Much of the appeal of stocks and broths has been that they come, magically, from nowhere, from the scraps and bones that would otherwise be discarded. Thorne adds, “Although its public face is frugality, its private one is glee: something good for nothing.”
So let us enter this mysterious world of simple things that can combine into magic.
Wish though I may, I can’t provide full recipes for stocks. What I can do is provide secrets and hints. As always, my role is demystifying the pretensions of high-end restaurants, and encouraging you to do it yourself, only better.
The common theme of stocks is oven-roasting, in a pre-heated, covered pan. With chicken stock, take the bones and attached meat from a cooked chicken or turkey, paying particular attention to any dark meat that may have escaped the meal. (Many bistros remove the breasts from chicken and consign the entire carcass to the oven.) Beef stock requires meaty bones and marrow bones. Both should be roasted together with vegetables. For vegetable stock, make certain there is a surplus of mushroom, onion and leek. All ingredients should first be tossed with olive oil (no, no, not that olive oil – use the cheap stuff). Or cover them with a mixture of olive oil, tomato paste and wine.
Roast at 350 for an hour. You do not want burned ingredients, which will add a bitter flavor; rather, you are looking for caramelized flavors.
Interestingly, garlic is almost never part of a stock base (for one thing, it burns much quicker than other vegetables). But leek, onion, carrot and celery (including the leaves) are essential. Fennel, sweet pepper, celeriac (“celery root”), parsnip, turnip and winter squash are OK, if not too prominent. Some chefs say the meat and vegetables should be roasted separately; still others contend that no vegetables should be used in a meat stock — they dilute the basic flavors. Some advise salting early on, as salt causes cellulose cells to release their juices.
Once the roasting is complete, remove the pan, pour in white or red wine, and scrape the bottom with a large spoon; then transfer everything to a stock pot (these tend to be narrow and covered, so as not to let the stock evaporate). Add water to cover well, and bay leaf, parsley, fresh thyme, peppercorns and cloves. Bring heat up slowly, then let the pot barely simmer for several hours.
There are as many theories as cooks. Don’t be distracted by magisterial proclamations. Except mine, of course. Here are some secrets:
Turn the roasting ingredients often enough to prevent their sticking to the bottom of the pan and becoming “gunk,” which will have a bitter edge. I like the idea of salting after the first turning.
We are entering wild mushroom season. While many mushrooms require a lot of labor to prepare for cooking, mushrooms added to a stock will provide great flavor. Since you will be straining the stock, you needn’t be overly scrupulous about cleaning them. If there are still boletes at the Farmers Market, buy them now ... they won’t get cheaper. Chopped, and dried or frozen, they provide a deep richness.
Vegetarian stocks need flavor. Let your vegetables have more oven time to concentrate their essential oils. Check them often to turn and make certain they are not sticking to the pan. In preference to roasting, some chefs prefer to dice, then “sweat” vegetables with butter or olive oil in a large covered pot or saucepan. I’ve had success using all kinds of vegetables in this manner, even zucchini and yellow squash. As above, frequent turning is essential. Many chefs cover the vegetables with a sheet of parchment under the lid, to encourage them to concentrate their flavors.
Caramelized onions are a potent ingredient in any stock, but they are critical for vegetable stock. Traditionally they are slowly sautéed in butter, then beef bouillon is added in small amounts, bit by bit. For vegetarian stock, use more onions and deglaze with wine. Keep doing this until onions are a sticky mess.
Never let the stock boil, which will allow evaporation, and may cause the flavors to become harsh and the color cloudy. If you are making meat stock, gently skim off the frothy scum that will rise during the first hour. Avoid stirring.
If you are not making a strictly vegetarian stock, scraps of cured meats like prosciutto, ham, pancetta, etc., will enhance existing flavors without adding their own (sometimes your deli will have unusable ends). Or use an end or rind of Parmesan, but wrap and tie it in cheesecloth, or it will become a hard blob on the bottom of the pot. If you have a smoker, any vegetable will profit from the process, which displaces water with a subtle smoky essence. If, after a couple of hours, your stock seems watery, break the rules and add some Better Than Bouillon.
Tomato paste is easy to overdo, but a teaspoon per quart will add tang without giving a tomato-sauce taste. The same is true of Kitchen Bouquet, a kind of liquid vegetable caramel, especially valuable in darkening and enriching beef stock.
Strain the stock once it has extracted the maximum flavors from its constituents. I use a regular strainer, followed by a fine-mesh strainer. Different sizes of the latter are available from United Grocers at surprisingly reasonable prices.
At this point, the stock is very fragile, and can go bad in a couple of days. Prompt freezing solves this problem. Julia Child suggests making ice cube trays, then when frozen, dumping the cubes into a freezer bag for easy access.
Stocks are the most time-consuming part of cooking, so having them available will make your work easier and your food better.
Joseph Byrd can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .