Boning up on making a good stock

From two essential recipes come a myriad of tasty dishes

May 09, 2007|By Amy Scattergood | Amy Scattergood,Los Angeles Times

Imagine a beautifully nuanced sauce built from a stock you've made in your own kitchen, coaxed from bones and aromatic vegetables and herbs. Imagine the slow pot, the beautiful machinery of a recipe, the way a dish can be assembled by degrees: stock from bone, sauce from stock, and from that sauce a dish to crown a perfectly realized meal.

Yet a sauce is only as good as the ingredients used to make it. Which, for many sauces, means that a sauce is only as good as the stock that serves as its foundation. The French word for stock -- fond -- in fact means foundation.

Why make your own stock when you easily can buy it? Because canned stock often is laced with salt or additives, and even the best-quality frozen ones usually don't have enough gelatin to distinguish them as really good stock. Because a pot of spectacular stock made on a slow weekend can fill your freezer and be a terrific timesaver later. And because making stock can be a soothing, contemplative experience, an occasion to consider the marriage of ingredients, fire and time.

There's a reason making stock is the first thing taught at culinary school. So many of the dishes -- and sauces -- that become a cook's signature depend on them.

The two most essential stocks in any kitchen are a basic chicken stock and a brown-meat stock, traditionally made from veal bones. With these two, you can create a matrix of recipes -- soups, braises and sauces -- that use the stocks as a basic building block.

Start with the bones, which you can get from your butcher or, if you ask, many grocery store meat counters. Chicken stock is usually made without roasting the bones, for a subtler flavor. (You can, however, roast them if you want richer flavor.) For a classic stock, use a ratio of 5 pounds of bones to 1 pound of mirepoix (diced carrots, celery and onions) and 5 quarts of cold water.

For a veal stock, roast the bones first and then the mirepoix (so the vegetables, which cook more quickly, don't burn). It's important to roast both thoroughly: The more caramelized they are, the more flavor will be in your stock.

Put the roasted bones into a large stockpot, add cold water -- the cold is important for the proteins to coagulate evenly -- and slowly bring to a simmer. Once the vegetables are roasted, add some tomato paste and cook the mixture for a few minutes on the stove top to caramelize, then add this to the stockpot, too. Deglaze the vegetable-tomato paste pan with red wine and add the liquid to the stockpot, along with a bouquet garni and some peppercorns. Bring the ingredients in the stockpot to a simmer. Once the stock is simmering, lower the heat to maintain a bare simmer (make sure it doesn't boil), and start skimming, as foamy-looking impurities rise to the surface. Skim until the liquid is pretty clear (being careful not to skim out the mirepoix). Cook at a bare simmer for about 8 hours, skimming occasionally as needed.

For chicken stock, bring raw chicken bones and, if you can get them, chicken feet (which add flavor and increase the amount of gelatin), mirepoix and a bouquet garni plus cold water to a slow simmer, then simmer on very low heat for about 4 hours. Both the chicken and veal stocks can cook longer than these suggested times: up to 6 hours total for chicken; up to 48 hours for veal, though you'll have to add more water.

Deeper flavor can be achieved this way, but such long cooking isn't necessary for a good stock.

When you get the hang of the basic technique, you can -- and should -- play with it. For chicken stock, throw in lemon grass, fresh ginger, cilantro, a handful of Thai chiles. For veal stock, add leek tops, garlic, a bouquet of celery tops, whatever herbs you find in your garden. Stocks are helpful in using up vegetables that might be past their prime or leftovers from your freezer. Just make sure that you never treat your stockpot as a garbage bin -- and that you resist any urge to add salt.

When the stock is finished cooking, strain it and cool it as quickly as you reasonably can, ideally in a big ice bath in your sink. You want to make sure that the proteins cool quickly. Then refrigerate the stock.

When the stock is chilled, you can easily remove the layer of fat that's risen to the surface. The stock will have the consistency of Jell-O, from the gelatin in the bones. Divide it among smaller containers, and refrigerate or freeze it for use later.

Amy Scattergood writes for the Los Angeles Times.

Basic Chicken Stock

Makes 3 1/2 quarts -- Total time: 1 hour, plus 4 hours simmering time

5 pounds chicken bones (if possible, include 1 pound chicken feet), rinsed in cold water (see note)

3 sprigs parsley

2 sprigs thyme

1 bay leaf

1 (3-inch) piece leek, green or white part, cut in half lengthwise

2 cups chopped onions

1 cup chopped celery

3/4 cup chopped carrots

1/8 teaspoon whole black peppercorns

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