For better or worse, your television has all but gentrified the professional kitchen. The anonymous ritual of long hours, high flames and dripping sweat has made way for celebrity chefs, competitive cookoffs and secret ingredients. But live action and quickfire challenges does not a restaurant make. In fact, for several centuries one quality over any other has distinguished the best restaurants in the world. The original secret ingredient: stock, broth and bouillon.
What’s In Stock
Stock, broth and bouillon are all names for liquid meat essence, extracted from flesh and bones through hours of slow simmering in water. Stocks are the building blocks of the kitchen, and role players among your ingredients: base flavor, body builder, braising liquid, seasoning or sauce, a stock can play lead liquid in virtually any savory dish.
With so many animals to choose from, the ways to make stock are boundless: veal, beef, chicken, lamb and duck are all common land dwelling candidates, and fish, mollusks and crustaceans offer their own stock pot of possibilities. Among those made from meat, stocks are generally classified as either brown or white: brown when the meat and bones are first roasted for a full flavor; white when they are instead blanched for a neutral color.
Stock is a general term for such liquids, but can also refer specifically to a dense, gelatinous reduction made predominantly from bones. Whereas broth and bouillon suggest a light, flavorful meat soup, traditional stock is thickened with bones and the dissolved gelatin they release. Semantics aside, the crux of the issue is this: whereas meat provides flavor, bones create body. Veal bones in particular supply large amounts of water-soluble gelatin, producing a stock so thick it gels when refrigerated. Veal stock is king in the French kitchen, where cooks arduously pine over every bone and bubble. But unless your home kitchen is ruled by a tyrannical French chef, you needn’t be quite so picky.
Making Stock At Home
Make your own stock; the reasons are endless. First and foremost, homemade stock tastes dramatically better than the closest grocery option. Making stock allows you to cook frugally, putting every scrap of meat and vegetable to good use, and while it takes time, a good stock requires little attention. Stock can be “stockpiled” in ice cube form and frozen for up to a year – drop a few cubes into any savory dish that calls for liquid. Lastly, it is all but impossible to cook restaurant quality food without first-rate stock.
Restaurants tend to fuss over stock segregation, making chicken stock with chickens and duck stock with ducks, and the cook who jumbles the jus is, of course, promptly fired. But the home cook should not hesitate to make stock using more than one animal. This is easy, economical, and produces an all-purpose stock, which is precisely what you need for everyday cooking.
Cuts such as the bone-in shoulders, shanks, necks, knuckles or trotters of veal and beef, combined with the legs, thighs and carcasses of poultry, all make flavorful, well-rounded stock. Just keep in mind that you are shopping for the meat that no one else wants: cuts that are tough, cheap and riddled with bones and cartilage. If possible, break the bones down to smaller pieces, which will surrender more quickly than large slabs. You can also save scraps of meat and vegetables as you cook other meals, freezing your cache as you go. When the time comes to make stock you will already have half your ingredients on ice.
Brown Meat Stock
Stock is an ace in the hole for many a top chef, and it can be your secret ingredient as well. The process has only a few steps, so keep in mind: the little things matter.
Step 1: Slather bones, meat and trimmings with vegetable oil, and roast until brown in a high oven. The scraps should develop a colorful, crispy brown surface – a process known as the Maillard reaction, which takes place between 300 and 500 degrees Fahrenheit, and creates the strong meaty flavor characteristic of brown stocks. For an even darker stock, brush the meat with tomato paste during the last 10 minutes of roasting.
Step 2: Separately, slather large chunks of onion, carrot and celery with oil, and roast until brown. This mixture, called the mirepoix (meer-pwah), should be about one-fourth of the meat and bones by weight. Of course, eyeballing this ratio is just fine.
Step 3: Combine meat and vegetables in a large pot with a bay leaf, a healthy pinch of thyme and several whole peppercorns. Use water and elbow grease to get any caramelized bits from the roasting pans into the stock pot. Cover everything with cold water, bringing the liquid to a few inches above the meat and bones. Beginning with cold water is extremely important for proper flavor extraction and clarity. Lastly, and this is important, never add salt to stock; leave it unseasoned until you use it in a dish.
Step 4: Slowly bring the stock to a simmer and skim away any scum that rises up. Never boil or stir; instead simmer uncovered and untouched for the clearest possible broth, skimming occasionally to remove any floating foam and fat. Cook low for three to five hours.
Step 5: The stock is complete. Remove the largest of the bones with tongs, then strain the stock through a fine chinois, sieve or cheese cloth. At this point it can be used as is, or reduced further to a demi-glace for more sparing applications (think bouillon cubes). When finished, cool the stock in an ice bath before freezing in cubes. Stock cubes stored in sealed containers will keep for up to a year in the freezer.
The best stocks are clear, full-bodied and flavorful, and deliver the liquid essence of the animals they host. Once you have stock on-hand, doors will begin to open. Add a roux of flour and butter for unbeatable homemade gravy. Braise a lamb shank in stock, and serve the cooking liquid as a jus. Sauté Arborio rice in oil and slowly add small amounts of stock for a creamy risotto. Mix a few cubes into chili con carne. Simmer stock with chicken, pasta and vegetables for chicken noodle soup. Or while resting a perfectly cooked piece of meat, consider making a pan sauce – an à la minute preparation worthy of a story in its own right.
Nathan Krishnamurthy is a trained chef, writer and food enthusiast – follow him on twitter @nathankrish