Sign up for any culinary school, open up any How To Be a Chef in 800 Easy Pages kind of cookbook, talk to any classically trained chef, and the first thing they will tell you is to learn how to make stock.
Stock is the foundation of cooking, they will say. It is the base for all your soups and all your sauces; it's what you use to stew and braise, what you use to thin out liquids and purees that are too thick, or, reduced, it's what you add to them for more flavor. Used to poach delicate fish and meat, it makes those foods magnitudes more flavorful.
"Oui, Chef!" I said, standing up straight.
And so what that means, too, is that your stock must be perfect. It must embody all the flavor of the bones and the vegetables and the herbs, but be able to blend into the background. To do that, you must simmer it for hours â€“ many, many hours.
"Oui, Chef!" I said, hurrying to clean the bones.
It must be skimmed meticulously so that it does not make for greasy sauces. It must be crystal clear, so that it doesn't cloud what you are cooking.
"Oui, Chef!" I said, skimming and straining and preparing to do this for the rest of my life.
So I have a little explaining to do, I guess, about why it took me over a year into this column before getting to the subject of making stock. And the reason is this: I kinda stopped caring. For everyday cooking, I'm just as likely to use wine, beer, tomato juice, a quick vegetable stock I can whip together, soaking liquid from rehydrating dried mushrooms or the like, cooking liquid from beans or other simmered things, even plain old water if my other ingredients are flavorful enough. It wasn't like I'd broken my chains of love for stock, but that I'd found plenty of other things to use in a pinch, and then a pinch became normal life.
But I still like keeping a zip-lock bag full of stock cubes in the freezer (frozen in ice cube trays), for whenever I just want that clean, satisfying, flavorful-but-not-overbearing backbone stock gives to a dish. It's still the ideal canvas on top of which to layer flavors, to make fragrant with herbs or spices, to splash with wine or spike with citrus, to fatten up with butter. Maybe, though, since I've grown so used to bootlegging stock-like things, I've also grown to believe most of the technically correct details in stock-making have become a little unnecessary. The liquid gets a little cloudy? Oh well. There aren't really quite as many bones in it? Big deal. Don't quite have four hours to kill? Snooze. It'll be plenty tasty all the same.
So here, I'll show you the classicist's way of making stock, but then I'll let you in on all the ways you can cheat.
Classic meat stock
Makes one gallon; double, halve, or quarter as necessary
- 8 pounds of bones – chicken, veal, beef, or pork, or lamb or whatever
- 8 ounces onions, cut in 1" dice
- 4 ounces carrots, cut in 1" dice
- 4 ounces celery, cut in 1" pieces
- 1 sprig thyme
- 4 parsley stems
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 teaspoon whole peppercorns (You're supposed to wrap the herbs and peppercorns in cheesecloth to make a "sachet d'epice," which you can take out if the flavor gets too strong. Do I do that? No. Can I tell the difference? Never. In fact, can you leave them in the whole time or out entirely? Sure.)
- Cold water to cover, probably 5-6 quarts
Equipment: a pot big enough to fit everything, and that is ideally taller than it is wide (so the liquid doesn't evaporate too quickly). A strainer and a fine-mesh strainer. Maybe some cheesecloth, if you have some.
- If you're using chicken or other thin bones, rinse them well in water to wash them. For thicker bones such as beef or veal, drop them in a pot with cool water, bring to a boil, and drain off the now-blanched bones. Both of these techniques are meant to get rid of some of the blood, loose bits, and impurities that will turn into unseemly scum that you'll have to skim off later.
- Cover the cleaned bones in cold water and put over high heat. When the liquid is just about to come to a full boil, turn the heat down to a very gentle simmer, like only one or two bubbles at a time. Don't hover over it, but every once in a while, swing on through the kitchen and skim off any fat or scum that floats to the top. Simmer 3 hours for chicken, 5 hours for pork, 7 hours for beef or veal. Top off with water to keep the bones covered, if necessary.
- Add the vegetables, herbs and peppercorns. Simmer one hour more.
- Give it a taste. Can you taste a meatiness, some sweetness from the vegetables, and, after you've swallowed, a nice, lingering depth? Don't get me wrong; it won't be delicious. It will be kind of bland, not something you'd want to eat on its own, but that's the point. It's supposed to be a nice backdrop. OK, once you've communed with your stock, strain out the bones and vegetables, then strain it again through the fine-mesh strainer (or you can line your strainer with a few layers of cheesecloth). If you're picky, blot away any little slicks of oil with paper towel corners. Let cool to room temp, then chill or freeze.
OK, now to the ifs, ands & buts.
For brown stock (made from roasted bones)
Brown stock is much bolder in flavor, darker, richer and more complex. It's what you use when you want to make a killer beef stew, for instance, or magnificent chili. To make it, skip the washing / blanching step for the bones, and instead give them a light rub with oil and roast them in a hot oven, 425 or so, until they are brown, toasty, and smell terrific. Then proceed as with step 2 above. While they are simmering, caramelize the vegetables slowly in a wide pan along with 6 ounces of tomato paste (assuming you're using the full pound of vegetables) before adding them to the stock. For more on how to make these caramelized vegetables, called pinçage, go here.
For vegetable stock
Some people have great recipes for vegetable stock -- complex, balanced combinations of many vegetables, but I find that a simple stock made of mirepoix (the classic combination of 2 parts onion, 1 part carrot, 1 part celery) with maybe some thyme, parsley and a couple cloves of garlic usually suits me just fine (plain old white mushrooms are great, too). Cut them into ¾" dice, sauté them lightly in a touch of oil -- "sweat" them, not brown them -- add just enough water to cover, and simmer 30-40 minutes and you're done. Again, not mind-blowing stuff, but it will give you a liquid that will add a nice structure of flavor for whatever you make with it. If you want brown vegetable stock, just substitute the mirepoix with Pinçage.
ARGH! I let it come to a boil / don't have a fine mesh strainer!
OK. Alain Ducasse would probably deem your stock unfit to water his weeds with, but honestly, it's fine. What happens is that a boil will emulsify some of the fat into the stock, making it less than crystal clear, and some will say it dulls the flavor. A less-than-utterly perfect strain will leave some errant bits of protein or whatever to sink to the bottom. I think if you can taste the difference, no one is good enough a cook for you anyway. So don't stress. Also, some classic Asian versions actually call for the liquid to be boiled, specifically to get that fat and protein emulsified, resulting in thick, rich, milky-looking stock. And they are fantastic.
I only have an hour, not four, and definitely not eight!
Cutting down the simmering time by 85 percent isn't the greatest idea in the world, but you know, that hour is still something. You will still get some flavor extraction from the bones. You can also add the vegetables right away from the start, and you'll get all of the flavor out of them in an hour as well. Or, you can go with the Asian method of bringing it to a full boil and letting it rip from there; one of the rich, milky chicken stocks I learned from a Chinese chef only boils for an hour. (She also adds a handful of ginger peels or a few slices of fresh ginger and scallions to the stock.)
How am I going to get eight pounds of bones?
Well, you can buy them. Or you can save your bones, cooked or not, from bird or beast and save them in your freezer until you have enough to make some stock. Or you can just use less water and make a small batch. Or you can just make stock with whatever you have, and if you don't love it in the end, you can always freeze and refortify it later -- use it in place of water to make your next stock.
Is there anything I can do with all these used bones?
Yes! One of my favorite things in the world is remouillage, which, in French, means to re-wet. Basically, once you've got your beautiful stock all drained and strained and ready to go, you can go ahead and just recover the spent bones in water and cook it again. What comes out is a weak stock, cloudy and not great on its own at all, but totally great to use in place of water for your next stock. Or you can cook it down, way down, reducing it to a thick, kind of stiff concentrate of incredibly meaty depth, which you can spoon into sauces or stews that could use a bit of oomph. This concentrate is called glace. Have you heard of the lusciously rich brown sauce called demiglace? That means "half glace." So you know this stuff is weapons-grade flavor.