Just because money is tight–and let’s face it, it pretty much fits all of us these days–it doesn’t mean that you have to skimp on having good things come out of your kitchen. And, when you have a chance to turn things that would normally end up in the trash and turn them in gold–liquid gold–with only an investment of a few dollar’s worth of herbs and vegetables and your time.
Homemade stock is a cornerstone of making the best soups and sauces, and there is no way to compare canned broth to the flavor profile and richness that comes from making your own. I don’t think it’s a difficult thing to make, but when you’re making a large batch, there is time involved, and the straining can get a bit messy. Trust me, though, it’s worth the trouble.
First thing, you have to have your chicken. I have a habit of buying whole chickens, because I like keeping the carcasses if I roast them whole, or if I use them for anything else, I cut out the backbone, wing tips, and save the neck, which goes into the ziploc bag I keep in the freezer for this reason. Sure, it’s extra work, but buying a chicken whole is cheaper than buying them butchered. If you just want to just make the chicken stock without waiting to gather enough chicken bones in your freezer, become good friends with your local butcher–things like backbones and feet are exactly what you want in your stock, but no one really buys them. You should be able to broker a good price for the stuff he might be tossing out anyway.
By the way, the reason you want all those bones and feet for your stock, and not full, meaty pieces (other than it being entirely wasteful, since the long simmer time is going to render the meat inedible) is all the collagen hanging around in the joints and bits of skin. That collagen is what gives stock its rich mouthfeel; it’s why a good chicken stock, when chilled, will set like jello.
Next are the vegetables. Today’s word of the day is mirepoix, and it’s what’s going into the stockpot. It’s a culinary term for the classic French combination of the aromatic vegetable combination of onions, carrots, and celery. There is an actual, true ratio for mirepoix, which is 50% onion, 25% carrot and 25% celery. For a little variation, leeks can be used for up to half of the onion.
Notice I haven’t mentioned any other vegetables. In a classic version of chicken stock, there are no other vegetables–you may find tomato in beef stock, and parsnips in place of carrots in fish stock, but that’s it. This also means NO GARLIC. I’ve seen so many stock variations putting garlic, and it just burns my biscuits. Garlic has the ability to turn stock bitter. Don’t do it, kids. Leave it to when it’s time to make soup or a sauce for adding garlic.
Now, let’s talk about herbs. If we were in a fancy French kitchen, then we would be putting in a bouquet garni; a combination of fresh thyme sprigs, parsley sprigs, bay leaf and peppercorns either wrapped in a leek leaf or tied up in cheesecloth. I use those herbs, but I don’t worry my pretty little head about tying them up into anything. Considering everything gets strained out at the end of the day, I don’t bother wasting my twine.
I have a very simple ratio to use for stock, which is easily multiplied and foolproof:
1 pound chicken bones and trimmings such as feet, necks, wing tips, etc.
1 pound mirepoix
1 bouquet garni (5-6 sprigs each thyme and parsley, 1 bay leaf, 1/2 tsp. black peppercorns)
2 quarts water
Granted, when I make chicken stock, I do about 4 or 5 times that amount, and will produce about one-and-a-half gallons of stock once everything has simmered and been strained.
Everything goes into the stockpot. It’s a good idea to use one big enough that you can bring everything to a boil without it spilling over. When I’m making a large batch like I do, I don’t chop up my vegetables all that much–everything just gets scrubbed or peeled and cut in half. Once everything is in the pot and covered with water, the flame gets turned to high and brought to a full, rolling boil. Once that happens, the flame gets turned to low, and the stock is left to simmer for 6-8 hours. At this point, it’ll look like this (caution–it’s not pretty):
See? I told you it wasn’t pretty. The delicious chickeny smell that fills the house definitely cancels out the ugly.
At this point, it’s time to strain the stock. I do it in a 2-step process, where I strain everything through a colander, catching all the large pieces; then the stock that is strained through a chinois to catch all the small fragments. I will often simmer the stock for another hour or more after straining to reduce it slightly–it’s not necessary, but freezer space is in short supply, and if it means just one less container, it’s a big help.
I also have an ice cube tray just for the purpose of freezing a few batches of stock cubes. It’s perfect for when I’m making something that needs a little pan sauce, and this is just perfect to have on hand–I won’t need to defrost a bunch of stock when I can throw a few of these cubes in the pan and be done with it.
Once my stock is wrapped up to store (I put them into 1-quart containers), I pack them away in the freezer, and they’re good for 3 months. I’ve got my batch ready for when it starts to cool down; I know I’m ready for some Roasted Butternut Squash Soup, that’s for sure.
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