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Everything You Need to Know about Stock-Making
A stock by any other name...
Would be a richly flavored liquid that forms the base for a myriad of soups and sauces.
A stock's flavors are derived from simmering bones, vegetables and seasonings in water for a specified period of time. The standard vegetable mix is a mirepoix: 2 parts diced onion, 1 part diced carrot, and 1 part diced celery. Chicken bones are often used in at-home stock-making, while restaurants often use veal because of its high levels of collagen.
When bones are simmered over a period of time, the collagen (a type of protein found in connective tissue) dissolves and mixes with other proteins to form gelatin. The gelatin, which, believe it or not, is the same gelatin used to thicken desserts, is what gives stock a more luxurious mouth-feel than, say, plain water. The gelatin content in stocks is also the reason that some stocks (the really good ones with the highest gelatin content) look like Jell-O after refrigeration.
7 Steps to Flawless Stock
In another of my hubs (How to Stretch a Bird: Make one Chicken Keep on Giving) I give a recipe for Lazy-Man's Homemade Stock. That recipe will certainly get the job done, but it will not deliver the Jell-O look.
Below are the steps to making stock really, really well. Read them, practice them, and then make stock-making your own. It sounds like a lot at first, but eventually your own process will become a no-brainer every time you roast a chicken...or fish...or...well, you get the idea.
Step 1: Begin with Cold Water
You should start with cold water because starting with hot water results in a cloudier stock.
As cold water heats up, any impurities attached to the bones will rise to the top, making them easier to skim off. However, if the water is hot from the start, the impurities are more likely to remain distributed throughout the stock, creating a cloudier stock that is more difficult to clarify.
Step 2: Simmer, Don't Boil
You want to bring the stock just to a boil (mainly because this is an easy, visual way to make sure the stock has reached a high enough temperature to kill off any potentially harmful bacteria) and then immediately reduce to a simmer (approximately 185 degrees F).
Boiling the stock causes the fat and impurities to be trapped throughout the liquid, creating an undesired cloudiness.
At a simmer, there may be some tiny bubbles around the edges, but you will not see the large, rapid bubbles you would see at a boil (212 degrees F).
Step 3: Clarify by Skimming
If you start with cold water and avoid boiling, you should see an occasional yellow-ish foam on the surface of the stock. These are the fats and impurities from the bones, and they have no place in a well-made stock.
To remove, simply skim off the foam with a spoon or ladle, trying not to take too much of the actual stock along for the ride. I like to check for the foam frequently and have a cup or container of some kind on hand to hold the skimmings as I go.
Step 4: Straining
This is a critical step that is easy to neglect.
Obviously, the liquid stock must be separated from the solids in the pot after cooking. However, if the solids are agitated too much during this process, the stock can become--you guessed it--cloudy.
In order to prevent this blunder, start by checking for and skimming off impurities one final time. Take the pot off the heat and ladle the stock into a fresh pot or metal container, making sure not to stir as you go. Finally, strain the stock through a fine sieve. You can score extra points by lining the sieve with cheesecloth.
If this seems like an awful lot of work just to avoid cloudiness, and at this point you are seriously considering just dumping the whole mess over a colander, what can I say? Sometimes I am lazy, too. But don't wreck all your hard work on this perfect stock if you've come this far--just check out my Lazy-Man's Homemade Stock.
Step 5: Cooling
Stock, as with so many of the things we eat, is a potentially hazardous food, which means that it has the potential to harbor bacteria that cause food-borne illnesses. In order to reduce the chances of this, it is important to keep stock out of the temperature danger zone (41-135 degrees F; the range of temperatures in which bacteria like to set up camp), which means stock must be cooled quickly.
The best way to do this is to set up an ice bath (ice + water) in a large container or even the sink. Place the stockpot in the ice bath, and stir occasionally to ensure even cooling. For cooling purposes, it is best that the stock is in a metal stockpot/container because, as a conductor, metal allows for the speedy transfer of heat and will not insulate or trap heat like plastic can.
Step 6: Storing
Stocks can be stored in the refrigerator for up to a week or in the freezer for up to six months.
Whatever stock you plan to use within a week can go straight into an airtight container in the fridge.
When freezing, I prefer to ladle cooled stock into ice-cube trays and then transfer the cubes into gallon bags once frozen. This makes it much easier to portion out stock later on. However, if you do not have ice-cube trays or space in the freezer to set them up, you can freeze the cooled stock directly in airtight containers.
Step 7: Fat-Cap Removal
If this sounds gross...well that's because it is. But at least it's easy!
Even though you were extremely careful during your stock-making process to skim off fat and impurities, it is likely that some fat will have evaded you. No worries. After refrigeration, the leftover fat should rise to the surface and bond together, making it easy to scrape off (or degrease) before reheating. If you scrape off the fat-cap and discover a translucent, jelly-like substance beneath, congratulations! You have just made a very high-quality stock.
A World of Variation
Now that you know the basics of stock-making, you must decide what kind of stock to make: white or brown, beef or chicken, fish or vegetable.
White Stock -v- Brown Stock
White stock is your basic, everyday stock. It is lighter in color and can be made from chicken, veal or beef. It requires fewer steps to make than brown stock and is your best bet when a milder flavor and lighter color are preferred. It is a main ingredient in veloute sauce (white stock + roux) and many soups.
- To achieve an even lighter color, substitute parsnips for the carrots in the mirepoix. Add leeks and mushrooms for extra flavor.
Brown stock is made by roasting the bones of chicken, veal, beef, or even wild game before simmering. Roasting caramelizes the sugars in the bones, yielding a richer color and flavor.
- The bones should be roasted in a single layer at 375 degrees F for 30 minutes or till deeply colored but not burnt.
- After the roasted bones have been transferred to the stockpot, the roasting pan should be deglazed to capture extra flavor. Add water to the hot roasting pan (just enough to completely cover the bottom) and use a wooden spoon or heatproof rubber spatula to scrape up and incorporate any roasted bits that have stuck to the bottom of the pan, stirring till all bits are dissolved. This richly-flavored liquid is called fond and should be added to the stockpot with the rest of the simmering water.
- The mirepoix (diced onion, carrot and celery) may be caramelized as well. I like to do this step first, right in the stockpot, before I add the water, bones, and seasonings.
- Brown stock may also contain a tomato element. This is added diectly to the pot and can be in the form of paste, puree, canned, or even fresh tomatoes. Generally, only a small amount is used, especially when using a more concentrated product such as tomato paste.
Brown stock is used in many soups and is also the main ingredient in espagnole, or brown sauce (brown stock + roux).
Chicken or Beef?
Stocks may be made from a combination of different types of bones, and different types of bones need to simmer for different amounts of time for flavor maximization.
- A purely chicken-bone stock should simmer 4-6 hours.
- If there are beef or veal bones in the stock, the stock should simmer 6-8 hours.
When Things Get a Little Fishy...
Fish stock is made from the bones, heads, and shells of fish and crustaceans. It is important to use the bones of lean fish (think tilapia) rather than oily ones (think salmon) because fish stock should be delicate, and oily fish produce too intense a fishiness.
- Fish stocks can achieve full flavor simmering for a mere 30-45 minutes. However, the vegetables should be very finely diced so that they have a chance to release their flavors as well.
- If a fish stock contains acids such as lemon juice and white wine, it is called a fumet.
For all the Herbivores out There...
There is vegetable stock.
Vegetable stock will have weaker body because it contains no gelatin. However, it can be very flavorful and should not be overlooked.
- Great choices of veggies for your stock include parsnips, leeks, garlic, fennel, turnip, tomato, and of course the standard mirepoix.
- Veggies to avoid (in most recipes) include bitter greens, broccoli, asparagus, and other very strongly flavored vegetables that might overpower the stock.
- Use starchy vegetables (potatoes, corn) only if you desire a cloudy, starchy stock.
Seasoning Your Stock
My general philosophy when making stock is "Throw it all in there!"
However, you should be aware of these three tried and true techniques with names just fancy enough to be good.
- In a standard sachet d'epices (that's "bag of spices" for those of us without deep knowledge of the French language), a couple whole cloves (the spice), parsley stems, black peppercorns, a bay leaf or two, thyme, and garlic (if desired) are placed on a piece of cheesecloth, tied up with twine, and plopped into the simmering stockpot.
- In a bouquet garni, the cheesecloth is omitted, and the items are simply tied up with twine. I have yet to figure out how to include the peppercorns and cloves in this scenario.
- The oignon brule (burnt onion) is a cute trick for flavoring and adding color to brown stocks and soups. Simply cut an onion in half, char (or deeply caramelize) the cut sides, and use a clove to pin a bay leaf to the onion.
These methods make it easier to remove the solid seasoning agents from the soup after they have imparted their goodness; however, if you are going to be straining everything out anyway, I would personally save these techniques for soups or recipes that do not require straining.
One more thing: you may be wondering why salt is never mentioned--after all, it is the single most important thing in any kitchen. Stocks should never be salted because they are an ingredient, not a final version. If you add salt to your stock, it will be much harder to control the salt content in your final recipe.
Bonus Tips and Tidbits not Covered above
If you are going to be a true stock-making aficionado, here are a few more things you might like to know:
- If you add bacon to a regular mirepoix, it is called a matignon
- A remouillage is a stock made by adding fresh water to the solids left after straining another stock.
- Sort of a cross between a vegetable stock and a fumet, court bouillon is a liquid (some combination of water, wine, citrus juice, and vinegar) that is flavored with vegetables (usually mirepoix) and seasonings. It can be substituted for water when poaching savory items.
- When stock is cooked, uncovered, until it reduces by 7/8ths and becomes very thick, it can be used in small amounts to add flavor to soups and sauces and is called glaze.
- Unlike stocks, broths are flavored with meat instead of bones and are considered finished dishes. Stocks generally replace water as the simmering liquid in broths.
I hope I have answered any and every question you might have related to stock-making, but if not, leave your question below, and I will do my best to deliver you the answer!