I can’t help but shake the odd feeling that my food silently judges me whenever I use inferior ingredients. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a complete snob about quality, but I know what’s good and what’s not. Those cans of Swanson’s Chicken Broth, for example, are passable, but nowhere near what they could be as far as chicken stock goes. And every time I have to use one of those insipid cans, I can just feel my food crinkling its nose in a perfect imitation of Alex Guarnaschelli as she destroys the hopes and dreams of yet another chef on Chopped. So I decided I would devote a day this past weekend to making my own stock.
Having had this idea in mind for a while, I saved the carcasses of two roasted chickens, and supplemented with an extra back and a few necks I picked up for a cheap price from my butcher. I also bought all the ingredients for a mirepoix (a fancy word for onions, carrots, and celery, known as a soffritto in Italian), as well as a bunch of parsley. With all of my ingredients assembled, I did meticulous research on making stock. As far as recipes go, they were all fairly similar: use spare chicken parts, a mirepoix roughly chopped, garlic, and a few herbs and spices to accent it. I opted for parsley and thyme as my herbs, both fresh. I contemplated a bay leaf, but it would be too much work to root around in the spice cabinet for a bay leaf, and I already had the parsley and thyme on hand and I figured that they were good enough. I supplemented with a small handful of whole black peppercorns. This is a pretty standard bunch of ingredients to go in a chicken stock. Some people salt it, although I subscribe to the school of “let me control my own damn salt level when I’m making the dish”, although I may be sacrificing unctuous chicken flavor in the name of sodium control; I will never know. Although people will debate me about the amount of water to put in the pot along with the other ingredients, the most practical thing is to cover all the ingredients by about 1 inch of water. Since the exercise is not to reduce the stock at all, we don’t want to put in too much water. The water needs to be as intensely flavored as possible without reducing, which means added only the amount necessary and no more. Yes, you will have more stock if you add more water, but it won’t be as flavorful. It’s basically an infusion, with all of the ingredients adding their own flavor to the liquid they are submerged in. The flavor slowly leeches out at low temperatures (explaining why we’re not cranking the heat; it would not make it go faster, it would lock in the flavor by cooking the ingredients), so we want maximal flavor in the pot, not only from the chicken, but from the other ingredients that inform the flavor of chicken.
But now onto the part that most people are scared of: cooking procedure. With all of my ingredients in the pool, I turned the stove onto medium. Apparently, if you bring the stock up to a boil quickly, the ingredients will cook instead of releasing their juicy goodness. It’s a slow tempering method, I guess, that is best for extracting maximum flavor. Yes, I probably could’ve put it on low, but we’re talking about an 8 quart stock pot almost full to the brim; if that thing was on low, I would be sitting up until midnight babysitting it (not that it would be much of an inconvenience, me staying up until 3 am playing minecraft on a regular basis anyway). So medium it was, until it came to a simmer, at which point it was turned down to low. Like I said before, the object is to flavor the water, not reduce the stock. Therefore, it should only be bubbling at a light simmer. Now don’t kill me, but I honestly don’t know how long it was on the stove. I put it on about a half hour before dinner, and ducked back in every now and again to skim, but I had a few beers and completely lost track of time. My best estimate is somewhere around an hour and a half. By then, the liquid was distinctly chicken colored, and it tasted like the start of an amazing soup. I figured I was done at that point. Really, we’re not following a precise science; it’s all about getting maximal flavor from the ingredients. Some would have you simmer the stock for hours and hours, which I believe to be past the point of diminishing returns. Yeah, five hours probably makes a really good stock, but one and a half is pretty good too, certainly better than a can of Swanson’s. I was happy with where I was, so I turned off the heat and let it cool a bit. Oh, and about the skimming, this is very important. Foam will collect on the top of your stock; this is not good eats, so take a ladle and skim the foam off the top. You can skim the fat too, like I did, but it isn’t as necessary, as you will see during the next step. The foam and the fat that gathers on top is referred to as schmaltz and can be used for various other purposes. I, for one, just discarded mine, as my main goal was the stock.
I strained my stock and let it sit in the fridge overnight to allow the fat to coagulate on the top of the stock. Unfortunately, I did not have a bowl big enough to accommodate about 5 quarts of stock, so I had to use multiple bowls which I then poured back into my empty stock pot. You should let your stock cool for a while at room temperature so that it can cool slowly. Be careful though, because chicken products can go foul quickly if left out for too long, so get that stock into the fridge after about 2 hours at room temperature. Funny thing about chicken fat, it looks almost identical to lemon jello when coagulated. This coagulation will help to skim the excess chicken fat, as we don’t want any of that in our stock. I took a spoon and skimmed the fat off my now cold pot of stock. In retrospect, I should have roasted some potatoes in it, or maybe make some matzah balls with it, but alas I threw it away. After laddling the chicken stock into 1 cup ziploc containers, I stored them in the freezer to solidify, after which I scooped them out into big ziploc bags. Yes, it sounds like the cheater way to do it, but stock won’t keep for as long in the fridge, and I don’t know about you, but it takes me quite a long time to go through 5 quarts of stock. When in need of stock, it’s fairly easy to just heat up the frozen stock brick in a small saucepan.
This process can be replicated with any number of meat scraps and flavor agents to make any number of stocks. Add shrimp carcasses and fish heads to make a fish stock, or even make a mushroom stock using mushroom stems and other mushroom scraps. And once you have your stock, the possibilities are endless. I’m planning on making some amazing soups over the next week while I have my wisdom teeth out, as well as maybe trying my hand at a risotto. But really, I think we’ve achieved our goal here. By making our own stock, we don’t have to feel as if our food secretly hates us for using the canned stock, and we can feel proud again about the quality of our ingredients, because we put a whole day into making that stock dammit! Like William Wallace may have said if Braveheart took place in a kitchen, “They may take our stock, but they’ll never take our freedom!” Okay, maybe I’m misquoting him just a bit, but roll with it, because I guarantee that this stock is the path to your culinary liberation from cans of fake ingredients.