Wednesday, August 25, 2010

homemade chicken stock

mirepoix of food co-op carrots and red onion, and store bought celery

With all the soups I've been covering in light of my current diet, I figure a post on chicken stock is long overdue. This might be slightly crazy, but in the last year or so, I've been pretty much exclusively making my own stock from scratch. I am well aware that canned stock is one of the most universally accepted cooking short cuts available to the home chef, but I am pretty fully committed to homemade stock. It tastes better, for one, and as an added bonus it's not loaded up with sodium and other additives. The way I see it, if I'm going to be making a long simmered soup or luscious risotto, I'm putting a lot of time and love into that dish. Why would I want the base of all that to be some processed, watery stuff from a tin can?

Plus, stock is really easy to make. You have to chop up some veggies, but all the odds and ends can go right into the pot, which saves you time of peeling carrots. Also, you don't have to worry about things being cut evenly or whatever, since you're going to be cooking all this for a really long time and it will all inevitably turn to near-mush, even if some of it cooks slightly faster or slower.

To make chicken stock, you need only a few things: chicken bones, carrots, celery, herbs and water. Obviously the least straightforward ingredient is the chicken bones. The trick is to save the bones from another chicken dish, like a delicious roast chicken or even a rotisserie bird from the supermarket. Alternatively, you can be a bit more labor intensive about it...

One of my favorite dinners that I ate growing up was my mom's simple breaded and pan fried chicken cutlets. My mom would buy chicken breasts and bone them herself, cutting them into cutlets and whacking at them under wax paper until they were uniformly flat. The little chicken scraps became chicken nuggets, and the medium sized ones were chicken fingers. It was only upon watching Super Size Me that I even realized that fast food chicken nuggets, which were my go-to order on the rare occasions that friend's moms took me to McDonalds, were such a terrible Frankenstein food.

While boning a chicken breast is a little messy and can be tricky to manage for a first timer, these added steps do have their upside. Whole chicken breasts are generally cheaper than pre-butchered cutlets, and my mom claims to like the look of them better as well. I guess maybe the pre-cut cutlets have more surface area exposed to discolor or whatnot. Anyway. That's what my mom does, and now that's what I do too. And, like my mom, I too wrap up my chicken bones and freeze them for stock!

The one thing that is tricky about stock is that you need to have at least a couple of hours for it to cook, and ideally you'd want to keep your stock simmering for up to eight hours. These days, I generally content myself with 5 or 6, but I have made perfectly good stock in only two hours. The longer you cook your stock, the more concentrated the flavor becomes, so set aside as much time as you possibly can.

Once you've found the time to make stock, the rest is easy. You begin your stock with a classic French mirepoix: carrots, onions and celery. You can use all carrot and celery ends, and even the feathery carrot tops, since it will not be eaten. Though it's not strictly necessary, I like to brown them in butter or oil a bit before continuing. If I have carrot tops, I add them after this step.

Then I add my chicken bones. These can be cooked or raw, and you can even add them straight from the freezer. Then you fill the pot with water, and add your herbs, also called a bouquet garni. Generally this is comprised of parsley, thyme and a bay leaf, but I almost never have thyme and generally forget the bay leaf, so don't fret too much if you are short of herbs.

chicken bones and veggies

One thing you don't need to worry about is seasoning. Leave the salt and pepper to the eventual end product of soup or risotto. This broth will cook down and get reduced, and so if you add salt now, you run the risk of it getting overly concentrated and ruining your end dish. For now, just focus on steeping those bones and veggies.

Once the pot is full, bring the liquid up to a simmer. You don't want to boil your stock outright, or it will turn cloudy. Just let it simmer away for however many hours you have at your disposal. If the top starts to get scummy or foamy, just skim that right off with a spoon.

For the most part though, you can leave your pot alone. You can watch a movie, read a book, clean the bathroom, do your homework... I've even been known to run a quick errand or two, although you really shouldn't stray too far from the kitchen when the stove is on. Your active cook time is done, and all that's left for you to do is to strain out the solids in, oh, about 5 hours?

You can store the stock in the fridge for a couple of days, but if you aren't going to use it right away, freezing it is your best bet. If you like, you can put it in ice cube trays and then transfer those to a zip lock bag, so you have smaller portions around for when you only need a little bit of stock. Otherwise, a larger container will do, and you'll be set for your next big soup or stew.

If I haven't convinced you of the merits of homemade stock, I'd like to remind you of the saying "he comes from good stock." It means that a person's good qualities reflect well on their family and upbringing. Of course, there are exceptions, where people rise above humble beginnings, or fail to live up to the advantages afforded to them. Far be it for me to say that no one has ever made a crappy soup from homemade stock, or that you can't make a delicious soup from commercial stock in a pinch. That being said, I believe the maxim still applies. Dishes that are made from real homemade stock have an extra depth of flavor that can't be faked. If you take lots of shortcuts, you can taste them, just like you can tell when a well made soup comes from good stock.

So put on a pot of chicken stock after work, or on a Sunday when you're lounging around in pajamas. It takes very little active effort, but pays off with big flavor!

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