Making Stock: Nothing Takes the Place of Homemade Stock, Darn It

IT’S HARD TO explain why I derive such a sense of security from knowing that I have a big bottle of stock in the refrigerator. Stocks are the very fond de cuisine—the foundation of all French cooking—without which a proper sauce is unthinkable. I never make sauces more elaborate than revved-up pan drippings, and I don’t plan to start. But I do like things to taste good. Stocks can be invaluable substitutes for or enhancements of pan drippings, and soups are the category of food I hold dearest. With stock waiting, I know that I can have a great meal using whatever I find at the market.

Stock is not as nutritious as your grandmother would have you think. It provides few vitamins unless it contains lightly cooked vegetables, and you can get an equivalent amount of protein and minerals from a packet of gelatin dissolved in water, though the protein is inferior. But it is uniquely satisfying, as any grandmother would agree. Even the sedate encyclopedia Larousse Gastronomique says that stock “has an action, so far still shrouded in mystery, similar to that of coffee and chocolate, which, from the moment it is ingested, creates the sensation of well-being.”This mysterious action makes logical stock’s place at the end of Chinese meals and its use in some restaurants as a stomach-settler between courses, where sorbet is usually offered as a palate-cleanser.

Consomme was once the measure of a chef. A large kitchen had several kinds of stock, some brown (made with browned bones and vegetables), some white (made with unbrowned), some poultry and veal, some beef, some game, some fish, some vegetable. The stock was tailored to the dish whose sauce it would make. “Stock" is the translation of bouillon and refers to water boiled for a long time with bones and meat to extract gelatin and flavor, often with vegetables added for more flavor. A consomme is stock that is simmered with chopped meat, vegetables, and egg white. The protein in the egg white and meat attracts any particles clouding the stock, most of them protein and most of them flavorful, and is skimmed off to leave a clear liquid; the meat and vegetables added with the bland egg white serve to replace lost flavor and enhance the stock.

Even if you’re as uninterested in saucemaking as I am, to have a good soup you need good stock, and the only way to get it is to make it. Canned chicken soup and beef consommé, which nearly everyone relies on when a recipe calls for stock, are almost always too salty. Some canned soup is unpleasantly metallic. None has the gelatin that gives thick soups body and sheen; although manufacturers don’t reveal how they make chicken soup, it appears that most rely on skin and meat for flavor and don’t bother with bones for gelatin. A panel assembled by Jenifer Harvey Lang for her book Tastings found the flavor of four canned chicken soups (Swanson, Campbell’s, Manischewitz, and College Inn) and Knorr-Swiss chicken-stock cubes acceptable, but they are really best used as flavor-rechargers in a pinch. Stock cubes are especially salty and offer no body at all. (The erudite and curmudgeonly John Thorne promises another view of stock in his newsletter Simple Cooking, which is always worth heeding; a year’s subscription costs $12, at P.O. Box 622, Castine, Maine 04421.) I don’t propose to ban canned soup and cubes, considering how often I resort to them to flavor the liquid in an emergency stock or a fast vegetable soup. But I don’t need to in winter, when the thought of spending a few hours making a rich stock is inviting. Now might be the time to find out how much better soups taste with homemade stock.

NOT JUST ANYTHING can go into stock. “In the matter of stock it is above all necessary to have a sufficient quantity of the finest materials at one’s disposal,”Auguste Escoffier wrote at the turn of the century in his Guide Culinaire. “The master or mistress of a house who stints in this respect thereby deliberately forfeits his or her right to make any remark whatsoever to the chef concerning his work.” Elizabeth David, in French Provincial Cooking, called the instructions of Mrs. Beeton to Victorian Englishwomen that everything should go into a stockpot “the absolute negation of the principles of good cooking.” Many unexpected things, however, can go in. Don’t be squeamish about sweeping bones from the plates of guests into a stockpot. Infectious bacterial and viral agents will be killed in the simmering or boiling of stock. Restaurants, you might be relieved to hear, buy bones for their stock, if only to ensure a regular supply.

The stock that I would suggest starting with is an all-purpose white poultry and veal stock that will serve admirably as a background for most soups and can even serve for most sauces. Fish and vegetable stocks belong to other phyla. Fish stocks are messier to assemble but quicker to cook. Vegetable stocks are harder to make into a rich, muted background, but you can find ingenious recipes for very good ones in the Greens Cook Book, by Deborah Madison with Edward Espe Brown.

The bones to rescue as soon as the guests leave, then, are chicken, turkey, game birds including Cornish hens, and veal (cooked meat won’t contribute much flavor, so throw it out). Pork bones give stock a flavor that is too strong and sweet to use as a background, but you might like it—many Chinese restaurants use a chicken-pork stock, for example. Ham bones are too salty, but for certain soups (split-pea, for instance) make wonderful stocks. Duck bones can also upstage other ingredients in an allpurpose stock. Lamb drowns out everything, although if you like sauce-making, a lamb stock is invaluable for sauce for lamb. Whenever you buy chicken breasts or veal scallopine, ask for the bones and trimmings. You’re paying for them anyway, and after accumulating them in a bag in the freezer for a time, you’ll be ready to make a stock.

If you’re buying bones, the best are veal shin and knuckle (knee). Veal bones release much more gelatin than beef bones, as they are not yet mineralized, and eight times the gelatin that meat does. Chicken backs and necks are the most common waste bones, and if you’re lucky they will be very meaty. A few giblets add flavor, but too many will make a stock bitter and high-tasting, so one or two sets will suffice for two quarts of stock. Never add the liver, which will make stock disastrously bitter. Beef marrow bones, frequently called for in recipes for white stock, can add flavor and, to a lesser extent, gelatin. One or two will suffice.

All bones should be split, to expose marrow and hasten the release of gelatin. If your butcher is too busy to oblige, whack them with a cleaver. This process can be far more therapeutic than kneading bread, as it is overtly violent. Even big veal bones can be split surprisingly easily, as long as you start swinging the cleaver high above you; often the bone travels back with the knife on the upswing, which is fine. Turn the bones over and hack from the other direction to finish difficult cuts. Clear the room before you start, and don’t walk in the kitchen without shoes until you’ve swept or vacuumed, because splinters nearly as sharp as glass shards fly from the board and lodge in far corners. Chicken and turkey hones are better behaved but still provide a satisfying challenge.

Bones don’t contribute much flavor, as I found when I made a stock out of just bones. It tasted terrible—weak and bony—and didn’t improve much when I simmered a slew of vegetables in it. Meat gives flavor, and the older the meat the better. It’s certainly not impossible to make a good stock from young fryer chickens, which are what you’ll find in supermarkets. Fowl, which is tough and stringy if cooked any way other than simmering, is far better but hard to find. If you can buy parts separately, try for backs and settle for wings and thighs. A better compromise is fresh turkey parts, which are cheap and give very good flavor.

Much as I love chicken stock, a stock or soup tastes more rounded if it has a bit of veal in it. Veal is “at once succulent and anonymous,” in the words of Richard Olney, whose wonderful French Menu Cookbook was recently re-issued. “Its flavor is soft, deep, and voluptuous without being marked by the eccentricity of individual character; it is the perfect vehicle for other flavors, lending body and support without altering or obscuring their primitive qualities.” Cheap cuts of veal are shank, rib tips, and neck, but they’re not always easy to come by; veal shoulder is relatively cheap and most butchers can provide it.

Last winter I went out and bought a stockpot after surviving for too long with a six-quart pot. It’s four gallons, the smallest size that I could find in a restaurant-supply store, and it’s made of stainless steel—aluminum pots quickly discolor from chemical reactions and can leave off-tastes in food. I don’t use this pot for anything besides stock, and it was expensive, so I won’t say that you can’t go on living without one, but it makes large quantities of stock (more than two quarts) practical. Any pot used for stock should be higher than it is wide, to minimize the liquid required to cover ingredients, and to slow evaporation. The quantities I’ll give, for two quarts of stock, will fit into a six-quart pot, which I assume everyone has, for pasta: four pounds of meaty poultry bones and giblets, one veal knuckle or one pound of veal shin bones, two pounds of chicken parts, and one pound of veal. These are, of course, approximate, and are offered as an idea of proportions.

WASH ALL the bones and meat. If you have found more veal bones, which give off much more scum than chicken bones, and you have room to use them, it is worth blanching them first by covering them with water, bringing it to a boil for three minutes, and draining the bones. Much of the scum will rise to the surface, making subsequent skimming easier. (A brown stock starts with these hones browned with a bit of fat in a hot oven for between forty minutes and two hours. I think that this browning makes the flavor generic—you taste the browning, not the individual meats—and results too often in a burnt taste. You can darken the color later by blackening an onion over a gas flame and adding it to the stock.) Cover the bones with three quarts of cold water and bring it to a simmer. The water should cover the bones with about an inch and a half or two inches of headroom, and there should be the same space between the surface and the top of the pot.

The almost invariable directions are to start skimming and to keep skimming. The goal of skimming is to make the stock transparent and pretty. The scum is albumin, a kind of protein, and it’s good for you. If the scum that rises to the surface in the first fifteen to thirty minutes is left unskimmed, it will coagulate in the stock and cloud it. This is no tragedy unless you plan to serve a clear soup. Reading Italian recipe books, i became curious about the possibility of paying less attention than I had previously done to skimming stock. Ada Boni and Fernanda Gosetti, grande dames both, say that only the gray ring around the inside of the pot need be removed. After experimenting, I think that you don’t have to do much skimming; the unpleasant gray-brown of the scum does seem to collect and dry on the sides of the pot, from which it is easily wiped away with a wet paper towel, and the rest of the foam is re-incorporated into the stock. Skimming is in any case an irritating chore that I am happy to dispense with whenever possible.

A clear stock is admittedly preferable for any soup without cream or pureed vegetables, though, and keeping a stock clear isn’t much more complicated than skimming for the first fifteen to thirty minutes of simmering, which I find bearable when necessary. Use a sieved skimmer or a slotted spoon to remove only the foam, or a ladle if you mean to remove as much fat as possible before the stock is chilled. The stock will be strained at the end, and the white foam that comes to the surface after the initial skimming will go back into the stock with little effect on the clarity. Skimming is made easier by adding a bit of cold water, which encourages protein to coagulate and rise to the surface, and makes fat congeal.

Although fat is easily removed after the stock chills and hardens, it can also be removed with a spoon or ladle during cooking. A frequently given reason for skimming is that fat will otherwise be irrevocably trapped in the stock, and won’t rise to the surface even when chilled. Harold McGee, the author of the invaluable On Food and Cooking, finds this implausible, as there is not enough protein of the kind that is attracted to far in a stock to bind with a significant amount of it. I made two stocks using identical ingredients, skimming one with a mesh skimmer, which removed scum but little fat, and simmering it lightly, and leaving the other unskimmed and boiling it hard. The boiled stock was cloudy, but I recovered nearly half again as much fat from it. Even if the skimming did remove more fat than I thought, the unskimmed stock was actually less fatty when degreased and reheated than the skimmed stock. Don’t withhold fat from the stockpot to make degreasing easier (unless it is lamb or beef fat, whose taste is too strong)—it is a prime carrier of flavor, and you really can remove it later.

Another iron rule of stock-making is never to boil hard, also aimed at preventing the scum and fat from being reincorporated into the stock. Once you have skimmed a stock for the first fifteen to thirty minutes, however, boiling shouldn’t cloud it. Boiling will increase not only the extraction of flavor and gelatin but also evaporation—you’ll have to add water more frequently—and the loss of aroma molecules. The price of speed, then, can be a loss of flavor. If you wish to leave the stock unattended for a while, keep it at a slow simmer.

After the first half hour you can add vegetables and seasonings if you wish. I say this offhandedly, because as much as I love the taste of vegetables in a stock, I have come around to the views of Escoffier, recently echoed forcefully in Barbara Kafka’s Food for Friends, that vegetables have no place in stock—they have a place in the soup or the sauce made from it. Stock doesn’t have to taste like soup, and you might not choose to taste every one of the vegetables and seasonings traditional for stock in the soup or sauce you decide to make. Most persuasive for me, stock doesn’t keep for nearly as long when vegetables are added. The flavors can intensify unpleasantly if you reduce the stock. This problem is worse with salt; stocks are never salted.

If you do want to flavor the stock now, the traditional vegetables would be, for the quantities given of bones and water, a large celery stick, one large or two small carrots (more will make the stock too sweet), one or two leeks, with all of the green tops, two peeled and halved onions, each stuck with one clove, a very ripe tomato if you like, and mushroom parings if you have them. Any member of the cabbage family, such as broccoli or cauliflower, will be too powerful; turnips will be too bitter. A small parsnip can substitute for parsley root, a standard European addition to stock that is generally unavailable here. The traditional spices are six whole white peppercorns (whole because cracked pepper can make a stock bitter, and white because it’s a white stock), a small bay leaf, three or four sprigs of parsley, and a pinch of dried thyme. Dill cooked for more than a few minutes will make the stock bitter. If you are skimming carefully, add all this after the first half hour or you’ll skim out half of it. (Don’t bother to wrap the herbs in cheesecloth, as many books instruct—everything will be strained out at the end.) The vegetables themselves, especially the leek tops, tomato skins, and mushroom parings, attract scum to the surface and should be lifted out first after the stock is cooked.

Wondering whether the good vegetable flavor I so much like could be obtained only by long cooking, I conducted a second experiment, making one stock in the traditional way, simmering the vegetables, with the meat and bones, for three and a half hours, and another using a method that Peter Kump, of Peter Kump’s New York Cooking School, developed in his cooking classes: chop the vegetables into roughly half-inch dice, drop them and the seasonings into the stock, cover the pot, and let the vegetables simmer for the last twenty minutes of cooking. Several food experts couldn’t tell the difference in flavor between the two, and neither could I. This method also produces edible vegetables. If you decide that your idea of an all-purpose stock includes vegetables, this is how I recommend adding them, and you can do it either at the end of the first cooking or when you’re ready to use the stock.

It’s hard to put a time on stock. One way to time it is by doing all the household chores you’ve postponed for months. Veal bones need at least four or five hours to release a significant amount of gelatin. You can have the maximum gelatin and flavor if you follow Escoffier’s directions to boil the bones first for twelve hours (even four to six will help—or you can put them on to simmer the night before) and then add the meat and, if you like, vegetables. The dissolving bones inevitably cloud the stock, though. The French often re-boil veal bones after making a stock. Jacques Pepin, in his profusely illustrated Art of Cooking, which is the most important teaching cookbook published in many years, gives directions for the remouillage: boil the bones for twelve hours above the four for the stock. Pepin uses the secondary stock for thickening sauces or for starting new stocks. Chicken bones need only three or four hours altogether, so a good rule of thumb for a combination stock is four hours simmered or two to three hours boiled hard. Chicken stock can taste very good after one and a half hours of hard boiling, a standard Chinese technique, but it will be much more gelatinous and richly flavored if you give it longer. (With enough fresh meat and the furtive addition of canned stock or a stock cube, you can have usable stock in under an hour, especially if you first grind the meat in a food processor and chop the vegetables, preferably by hand; if you want the stock to jell, a packet of gelatin will do the trick.)

Strain the finished stock through a conical strainer or a colander lined with wet cheesecloth. Press on the solids firmly to release more liquid, but not urgently, if you want clear stock. If you have put in vegetables early in the cooking, they will have nearly no flavor, with the exception of the carrots, which will still be vaguely sweet. Young chicken is completely exhausted by being cooked in stock, but veal and fowl stand up better, especially if the stock was simmered rather than boiled, and you can shred the meat into a soup or chop it for a salad or grind it for a pasta filling.

The combination of protein and minerals in stock makes it a perfect breeding ground for all kinds of bacteria (laboratories frequently grow specimens in beef broth), so it should be cooled and refrigerated as soon as possible. This is easy in winter weather: put it by the window, and when it reaches room temperature, refrigerate it immediately. In warm weather you can put a jar or bowl containing the stock into a larger bowl or pot of cold water, and keep running cold water around it. Refrigerate the stock uncovered until cold; if covered, it can start to ferment and sour. Boiling stock before serving it will kill any bacteria that might have grown during slow cooling, but once the bacteria ferment there is no saving the soured stock. The cap of solidified fat at the top will preserve the stock, just as paraffin preserves jellies, so don’t remove it until you need to use the stock. If you can’t wait the eight hours before the fat solidifies, spoon off the fat that rises as the stock cools to room temperature and blot the surface with paper towels.

THE PROBLEM OF how to store this hard-won stock is vexing. Keeping it in the refrigerator not only takes up space but also requires frequent re-boiling after the fat is removed, lest it attract bacteria and turn sour. This is tedious and inconvenient. Stock keeps indefinitely in the freezer, and the ideal is to have many pint-sized freezer containers and a lot of freezer room (you can remove frozen stock from the containers and store the cubes in a bag).

I’m not going to suggest what everyone else does: reducing stock to glace de viande, or meat glaze, which is easily frozen in rubbery cubes. There is an undeniable thrill to boiling down stock so far that it changes color and becomes a viscous syrup that if tasted “seals your lips shut,”in the words of the food authority Paula Wolfert; after all, the gelatin content is nearly as high as in glue, which was often made principally from calves’ feet. Most articles on stock tell you that a bag of cubes of meat glaze, made in an ice-cube tray and popped out, is frozen gold, and that so equipped you can make any sauce. Certainly, meat glaze gives body (all that gluey gelatin) to a sauce, and depth, but when the stock is reduced so far, it begins to caramelize and takes on much the same flavor as if you had browned the bones at the outset. A beautifully pure veal glaze, however, can help many sauces, and one is available from Summerfield Farm, in Virginia, a producer of veal and lamb from animals raised by humane methods (SR4 Box 195A, Brightwood, Virginia 22715; the telephone is 703 948-3100).

The gold I want is the clarity and smoothness of a white stock, and I don’t have much freezer room. I experimented in reducing a rich turkey stock and decided that past the halfway point it can’t be successfully reconstituted. By the three-quarter stage it tastes like the jelly from a roast chicken, which can be delicious for a gravy or a sauce but is too strong for a soup. So I recommend reducing the stock to half and freezing it in several containers. Given a decent amount of freezer room, you can go for months before buying bones and spending another afternoon making stock. □