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A Go-To Stock Recipe For Realistic Home Cooks

You'll need a large pot to make homemade stock. Credit: iStockphoto

You'll need a large pot to make homemade stock. Credit: iStockphoto

Most cooks I know either have stopped making stocks or broths to use in the kitchen or never got in the habit in the first place. As one of the few still bucking the tide, I admit that “Three cheers for the dear old stockpot” is not a message I expect to go viral anytime soon. But maybe some people could start seeing homemade stock as a practical option if we could shed a few hoary assumptions about what it entails.

Recipes for poultry, meat and fish stocks in today’s general-purpose kitchen bibles almost invariably surround the lead role — chicken, beef or whatever — with the same supporting characters: onion, celery, carrot and a bouquet garni of parsley, thyme and bay leaf. The idea is that when simmered for some time, these elements will fuse into a subtle whole greater than the sum of its parts, like the actors in a theatrical ensemble.

True enough. But what nobody tells you is that these standard aromatics actually limit the usefulness of the finished whole. They’re guaranteed to taste dead wrong in any kind of cooking outside a certain Eurocentric range. Heretical though it may sound, why not treat simple foundation stocks as something closer to solo instead of ensemble performances?

A stock recipe for foods from all cultures

My own rethinking of stocks started many years ago, when I began noticing the clash of sensibilities between basic European stocks (French, Italian and other) and the flavor palette of many or most world cuisines.

Tasting soups or soup-stews in Indian, Japanese, Thai and above all Vietnamese, Korean and Chinese restaurants, I realized that first-rate stocks are integral to many different cuisines — but that the particular interfusion of sweetness and herbal notes in standard Western-style soup-stock aromatics is glaringly misplaced in any other context.

For a while I took to making up batches of stock for use in specific Asian cuisines. It was an eye-opener that I recommend to any really curious cook. But no one can regularly splurge on the time and money needed for such productions. On the other hand, anyone can occasionally manage a batch of what I call “stock for realists.”

What militates against realism these days is a dimwitted supposition that stocks made from scratch represent monumental exploits of yesteryear, no more suited to today’s home kitchens than the odd brontosaurus shinbone. Well, by stock-for-realists logic, the point is not the role that stock played in the Ritz-Escoffier era or your great-great grandmother’s domestic routine, but the role that it can play in the here and now.

Any cook can regularly ensure a supply of decent, eminently useful stock in the freezer through one of two very simple strategies. Neither involves any added seasonings beyond two or three trimmed scallions (or one trimmed leek) and, if you like, a couple of slices of fresh ginger.

Stock technique No. 1

For Stock No. 1, buy a bunch of the cheapest meaty, or somewhat meaty, bones you can find. A useful default ingredient for chicken stock is backs, sold in packs in some supermarkets. Wings are a good addition (though pricier than they used to be); if you can find chicken feet, they add plenty of gelatin for pennies. Beef stock is unavoidably more expensive. I usually end up with knucklebones and meaty neck bones, possibly supplemented with a piece or two of bone-in shin. In either case, all you do for realist-style stock is plunk the main ingredient in a pot with the scallions and optional ginger, add about a quart of cold water per pound of bones and bring it to a gentle simmer, skimming off any scum from the top as necessary. With supermarket chicken parts, you’ll have a respectable stock in one hour, though you’ll extract more flavor in two hours or longer. With beef, plan on about three hours, or up to four or five for maximum flavor. The pot can be left to tend itself while you do the laundry or Sudoku.

Stock technique No. 2

Stock No. 2 is equally hassle-free but yields a double dividend: a somewhat better-flavored stock for saving, and cooked meat for various purposes. In this case, you want to start with something good enough to be eaten in its own right. You will need one or two whole chickens (preferably cut up in parts, though you can throw them in as is) or a cut of beef like brisket or boneless chuck that benefits from long simmering. Flanken or short rib is good, too.

Again, you simply put the chosen meat in a pot with about a quart of cold water per pound, add the scallions and optional ginger and let it reach a gentle simmer. This time, however, you want to remove the star performer at its peak of flavor. Lift out the chicken just when tender; I’m assuming everyone’s capable of checking after 45 minutes and allowing as much more time as necessary, depending on the size and age of the bird. There will be much variation with different beef cuts also, from as little as 1½ hours (when I’d start testing) to as many as 4 hours.

Whichever method you opt for, the procedure for stock is the same: Carefully strain it off from the solids into a clean vessel, let cool to room temperature and decant into 1-pint or 1-quart containers for freezing. The surface layer of fat is most easily removed if you first put it in the refrigerator overnight.

Sans seasoning reasoning

I can already hear doubting Thomases complaining that stock made by either of these methods is bound to be “pale” and “underseasoned.” Well, that’s just the point. This is stock meant to receive the appropriate seasonings at the point of eventual use, not before. But I assure you that it will lend straightforward depth to any soup, sauce or braised dish. Certainly it won’t have the richness of stock made by browning the chicken or beef before adding water, and will lack the overtones contributed by doses of aromatics. Instead, its flavor will be light and clean — virtues too often disdained by gourmets. Its neutral quality is exactly why it can flexibly suit many different contexts, including ones where canned broth or the heavily flavored stocks now being sold in cardboard cartons would stick out like sore thumbs.

In sum: It’s a perfect resource for the kind of cook who’s equally happy making Thai soup-noodles or Belgian waterzooi, but can use some practical strategizing in the stock department.

A final postscript: Meat or poultry cooked for my second version of stock will face prevailing foodie prejudices against plain “boiled” anything. I find that just saying “poached” instead does wonders. So does serving the chosen item piping hot with coarse salt, freshly ground pepper, good mustard or horseradish and maybe some capers and pickles. And let’s not forget the Act Two charms of homemade chicken or beef hash, not to mention chicken salad.

Top photo: A large stock pot. Credit: iStockPhoto

Zester Daily contributor Anne Mendelson is a freelance writer and culinary historian who has written for various newspapers and magazines. She is the author of "Stand Facing the Stove" (a biography of the authors of "The Joy of Cooking"; Holt, 1996) and "Milk" (Knopf, 2008). The past recipient of honors including a fellowship at the Cullman Center of the New York Public Library and the Oxford Symposium's Sophie Coe Prize in Food History, she is currently working on a book about Chinese food in America.

  • eresly 5·13·13

    In sum: It’s a perfect resource for the kind of cook who’s equally happy making Thai soup-noodles or Belgian waterzooi, but can use some practical strategizing in the stock department.

  • Jurie Horneman 5·19·13

    Thanks for this post. If you want to make boiled beef sound interesting I recommend looking into the Austrian dish Tafelspitz, which in Vienna at least is considered a refined delicacy, and is served with an apple-horseradish sauce, a chive cream sauce, and various side dishes. Also, in the better restaurants you can choose from several bits of beef you want boiled.

  • Jurie Horneman 5·19·13

    I regularly make chicken stock and I consider it an easy step which makes my soups taste better, but knowing which kinds of stock are useful for which dishes is still slightly out of my reach, so this blog post was educational.

  • Anne Mendelson 5·19·13

    Thanks, Jurie! I love Tafelspitz. But it’s hard to find butchers in this country who know anything about that particular cut from the rump.

    • Jurie Horneman 5·20·13

      Please don’t get me started on different meat cuts 🙂 It’s impossible to get short ribs here for instance – I know someone who did it by standing next to her butcher and telling him how to cut… I’ve toyed with the thought of making a website equating cuts in different countries to each other.

      But even within Austria one can get different forms of boiled beef that are not all officially Tafelspitz, so I kind of assume it should be possible to approximate it in other countries. I know it’s served in some parts of Germany, even though I thought it was a Viennese cut.

  • Anne Mendelson 5·20·13

    You’d think that with all the fashion hype about butchering, there would be more attention to different national ways of going about it.