Making Your Own Stock: A Primer…
I like to make my own. No doubt about it. It is hands down the best way to make better soups. Good stock. It’s easy, inexpensive, and it’s an efficient use of vegetable portions that you might otherwise discard. The basics of this are obvious enough. Take some vegetables, throw them in a pot of water, boil it for a while, strain it, done. But there is certainly some nuance to be had and some insight to be shared.
Vegetable Stock is the simplest stock to make. In it’s simplest form, you could take:
2 onions, chopped
5-6 carrots, chopped,
4 stalks of celery, chopped
1 head of garlic, crushed
a toss of salt and some peppercorns
10-ish cups of water (cover the goods)
Bring everything to a boil, reduce heat slightly so that the boil is gentle, not roiling for 1.5 – 2 hours. Strain it with a colander. Use it now or freeze for later. Stocks can be kept frozen for about three months before they lose their magic.
Sure, that’s simple enough, but it’s lame. And it looks like a recipe, this is stock! And why bother using all of those perfectly tasty carrots and onions when you can be even more environmentally friendly? What I do is to keep a large freezer bag that is just for cuttings. This includes the spines of kale and assorted greens, onion and garlic skins, the butt ends of celery and cabbage, and various peelings from cucumbers, carrots, and just about anything that is a vegetable. I say vegetable but need to specifically exclude fruits, root vegetables and tubers. You will find many a seasoned cook that tosses in the potatoes and turnip as well, but I find that it just starches up the stock unnecessarily, and if you want a nice clear stock that is useful for all manner of cooking beyond soups, well, just skip the potato peelings.
Summers provide an obvious abundance of the fresh vegetables that make for the best stock, but I think you will find that year round, you have plenty of fodder for the stock pot. The bag just pops back into the freezer for safe keeping after the dinner and salad prep time concludes. Bring the bag out and have it right next to the cutting board with you and it will fill all the quicker for the convenience and it’s well worth it. Once the bag is full, you’ve got enough to make your own custom stock. As a brief aside, I say to not be afraid of a little dirt either. rinse your veggies of course, but we’re going to clarify this later anyway, so don’t fret if a little dirt on the celery is involved, it’s good for you, trust me.
Take your full bag of clippings and toss them into a stock pot, if you feel your clippings are too ‘green’ feel free and modify the pot with some more carrots or onions to suit. Cover the goods with water and boil gently for 2 hours as above. You stock will be all the more complex and the richer for the varied ingredients and will certainly improve your soups dramatically. You may be tempted to start throwing lots of peppercorns, bay leaves and salt at your stock. I say to resist. While a bay leaf is a fine candidate to subtly flavor a soup from it’s inception and certainly belongs in the clarified stock when you’re brewing up the final product, it’s best to let your stock be a little plainer for the sake of versatility later on. I resist adding herbs other than parsley as well for the same reason. And in my opinion, salt and pepper, while essential, should be added later, at least mid-way through the actual soup preparation once ‘tasting’ begins…
One of my favorite things about creating an all vegetable stock is that we get multiple uses per vegetable and extend the cycle. We of course enjoy the fresh carrots on our salad, but the peelings go into the stock bag and create stock. Once the stock is strained, all of the boiled down vegetable cuttings go into our composter and spin around for a few months. Finally, it becomes excellent dirt for our modest vegetable gardens enabling fresh carrots to grow again. Cycle complete!
For a chicken stock, we of course use the same vegetables, but we add all of the chicken bones and carcasses collected over many nights of dining on the fine bird. A separate freezer bag is kept for chicken bones and yet another for beef bones. Saving the little bag of gizzards, liver and such that comes in the carcass of a whole chicken and tossing them in the bag is a must as well. The difference in cooking the chicken stock is that a lower heat should be used, something just above a simmer and of course a much longer cook time accordingly. Plan on at least 3-4 hours on the stove. Beef stock works in very much the same way, but utilizing the bones from steaks and shanks and of course cracked soup bones that are generally available for short money at your local meat market.
The last thing that needs to be covered is clarification. Indeed we can use the stock as is. It will be flavorful and delicious, but it’s a little dirty, hopelessly cloudy and frankly, just not as pretty as it can be. If you want to make a consommé or aspic, this cloudy mess simply will not do. To clarify your stock, you will need little more than an egg and some cheesecloth. Let the stock chill to at least room temperature before beginning the clarification. In fact, just cover it and come back tomorrow. Don’t put it in the fridge. Don’t put anything that hot in the fridge, it’s ridiculously wasteful, just let it hit room temp and then refrigerate if you must. Meat stocks may need degreasing. The easiest way to degrease the stock is to skim the fat from the top once it has separated after refrigeration. You are welcome to keep this fat for all sorts of other uses, as it will prove an excellent cooking oil for sure.
After degreasing, separate the egg and feed the yolk to your dog. Keep the whites and the eggshells. Crush the eggshell into bits and add to the whites in a small bowl or ramekin. Add a small amount of lukewarm water, 1.5 Tbsp or so and whisk the egg white, shells and water with a fork briefly. Dump this mixture into the pot of stock and whisk it around a bit to evenly disperse. Turn the heat back on to medium. The key to this part is that you want the heat to come on gradually, and you do not want to disturb the stock. Once ‘medium’ has been attained you will see that egg begin to do it’s work, separating the gunk from the glory. Turn the heat up another notch to medium-high and await a gentle boil. Once that boil hits, shut off the heat and move the pot to a vacant burner.
Let the pot cool again. When it’s cool, it’s much easier to remove the firmed egg on the top with a spoon. Get the biggest bits and whatever is easy, but don’t go crazy, the cheesecloth will get the small stuff. Use a colander here, over another stock pot or reasonable container large enough to hold your finished stock. Line the colander with cheesecloth. I use at least four layers to strain through. Pour slowly. Clean the cheesecloth under cool water and repeat. Two strainings should suffice.
What’s left is a beautiful, translucent stock that would make my grandmother proud. Taste it. If it is too weak, boil it down a bit to strengthen it. A little salt at this point can aid in bringing out the true flavor of your stock. Your stock can be used as a base for soups of course, but portioning it into ice cube trays makes for an easy additive to all sorts of sauces and meals. Using stock in lieu of water when making rice, couscous, and other boiled grains provides an immediate boost in your culinary prowess as well, quickly adding that special ‘something’ to an otherwise simple side. I firmly believe that the simple act of making your own stock makes you a better cook and gives you another ingredient in your arsenal to bring your meals to the next level. That and a nice bottle of wine of course…