A perfectly executed consommé is almost entirely devoid of fat—although I prefer just enough fat floating on the surface to make it look like there is a sprinkling of gleaming jewels adorning the broth. It will taste powerfully of whatever it is made from, and of course it will be crystal clear.
It is that clarity that is so difficult to achieve—in life, in writing, and in soup.
My first encounter with a truly great consommé was as a boy in a French restaurant in New Jersey my mother and stepfather took me to; I can't remember the name. I remember being unimpressed with the simple bowl of soup set in front of me, until I drank some. All I can remember after that is an overwhelming sensation of beef. It was beefier than any beef I'd ever eaten, and to this day the only beef broth that beats it is from a Japanese soup house in St. Paul, Minnesota called Tanpopo.
For years, I'd known how to make consommé, but never dared try it. Consommé seemed impossibly difficult, and, more importantly, expensive. And this may be why few restaurants make it anymore. Yet it was at a restaurant where I first learned the technique. Any of you who ate at Grange's Duck Dinner last November will remember that Chef Michael Tuohy and I did dueling consommé courses.
Mine was a classic duck consommé with duck liver ravioli.
Holly A. Heyser
It was a triumph, a masterpiece. But I failed Chef Tuohy, Chef Dennis Sydnor, myself, and my guests by forgetting to salt the consommé before service. I still feel nauseous thinking about it.
Back home, I made the dish again. And again. Now I think I've nailed it, and this version is even better than the one we made at Grange. Walk with me for a bit, and I will show you how to make magic with bones and broth.
You will need several days to make consommé, but most of the time you can be doing other things, and you can store the broth in the fridge for several days if you get busy. Ideally, you start on a weekend and finish the consommé either during the week or even the following weekend. Sound like a lot of work? It's worth it.
First, you need to make duck stock. I wrote a long piece about making wild game stock several years ago that will help newcomers to homemade stocks. (Incidentally, if you want to make this consommé with venison or beef, you will need to make beef or venison broth first.)
Once you have your stock you must chill it in the fridge, preferably overnight or up to several days.
Now you must make a raft. A wha? A raft. You'll see why it's called that in a minute. Remember I said how hard it is to achieve clarity? This is where the raft comes in. Nowadays I hear there are high-tech hydrocolloids you can use in modernist cuisine to clarify broths, but for centuries the answer has been egg whites.
Holly A. Heyser
Egg whites are primarily protein and water, but it's the proteins we're looking for. Put egg whites into a liquid and heat it and the proteins will form a molecular mesh that will act like a magnet, attracting the suspended solids that cloud your broth. The egg whites will rise to the surface of the liquid, drawing all the solids with them. Once strained, the liquid will be clear.