It’s very seldom that you achieve the platonic ideal of stock. There is an idea of a clear, golden liquid that conveys many layered savoury depths, and brings a touch of magic wherever you use it,
Reams of cookery writers have written hymns to the power of stock. Anyone trained in the traditions of French cooking, from Joel Robuchon to Michael Ruhlman, will have learnt all about stock as the absolute foundation of French cuisine, the essential component of all meat cookery at least. But even home cooks like Nigella Lawson are converts to this idea.
I fall somewhere in between. I hate food waste, so the idea of extracting every last drop of flavour and nourishment from a chicken carcass really appeals to me. I follow Nigella’s suggestion of freezing chicken bones, and when I have two or three chickens worth, I put them all in a large pot of cold water, bring it to the boil, simmer for about an hour and a half, then add chopped onions, carrots, a stick or two of celery, a few peppercorns and bits of thyme and parsley if I have them around, and simmer for a further hour.
What this produces is fairly flavourful and good for soups and risottos. But it’s not what you think of as beautiful stock – the clear, golden liquid you might see in a consomme or tortellini in brodo.
I know that you should keep stock bubbling very slowly, but the importance of how slow this should be didn’t really sink in until I made ham stock for Heston’s pea and ham soup, using the recipe in Heston Blumenthal at Home. The recipe suggests that you cover the ham with water, add onions, carrots and leeks, bring to a simmer, then place in an 85C oven for 5 hours. This very slow, long cooking produces a liquid that stays well below boiling for the entire duration but still extracts deep flavours.
When I took the ham out of the oven after this 5 hour stint, the liquid was so clear I could see all the way to the bottom of the pot. It helped that, to ensure the gammon wasn’t too salty, I had brought it to the boil, poured the water away, and then cover it with fresh water to make the stock. This helped remove the scum and bits of floating protein that will always accumulate when you boil raw meat.
A few days later, I rescued the bones from two especially fat pheasants we ate pot-roasted for New Year’s Eve from the freezer, and made stock from them. After the ham experience, I took the lid off, and after bringing it to the boil, kept the heat as low as possible. You can see the cooking in the (rather noisy) video below. It was barely possible to see a single bubble over the course of a minute. The reward for this was a beautiful, clear golden stock. I think this calls for a risotto.
To really show off your stock, make risotto – this really captures the flavour you’ve painstakingly brought in. It also makes great soups (although water will almost always do, especially for vegetable soups), provides liquid for curries, gravy, bolognese sauces. If you’re going to make stock regularly (and if you eat roast chicken, it’s not difficult), don’t be precious about it. Use it whenever you see the opportunity. It’s silly to wait for a perfect risotto to use your stock, when you could use it to improve things, even just a little, throughout the week.
Making good stock
- You don’t need the very best ingredients, but neither should you use only compost materials. Make sure the vegetables are clean, and that most of the skin and fat have been removed from the bones.
- Stock is all about long and slow. Doing this in the oven is easier, but requires you to have an ovenproof pot with a lid big enough to make this work. Chicken bones want at least two hours, preferably three.
- Either keep the vegetables in large pieces, and add them at the start, or chop them into chunks and add to the pot with an hour to go.
- Strain through a fine sieve, or layer of damp cheesecloth to remove any particles. This also means you can add herbs and peppercorns straight to the pot without tieing them into a bundle.
- Don’t season your stock. You might want to reduce it, so only add salt when you use the stock, not when you make it.
- Reducing the stock will concentrate the flavour and make it easier to store. After you have strained it, pour back into a clean pot and boil fast to drive off water.
- Stock freezes really well – it’s the best way to store it. Use either strong freezer bags, or rigid takeaway soup containers. With freezer bags, you can easily get small holes once the bag is frozen, so be sure to defrost it in a container, in case the bag leaks.