Making Chicken Stock

This is a long post, but it’s an important one, so take the time to read it. I promise there are pretty pictures, and some helpful advice. I’ve highlighted my actual steps in bold, for you to pick out in the future.

Stock is made by cooking bones, and typically vegetables, is water. The end product is a liquid that is flavored by the bones and other ingredients, and also contains dissolved proteins from the bones, connective tissue, and any attached muscle. Gelatin is the most important of these proteins, primarily for it’s thickening properties [more on that later]. These dissolved proteins, and the other nutrients that accompany them into the water, give rise to the conventional wisdom of serving stock or broth to someone with a cold; stock is a liquid concentrate of the essential nutrients and proteins found within bones and meat. Making your own chicken stock, while time consuming, is a great way to enhance the flavor of your everyday cooking. There are too many advantages to homemade stock to rely solely on commercial products.

The basics of stock making are really quite simple, despite the wide array of recipes, instructions, and tips found on the Internet or in cookbooks. Cover bones with water, and cook until the bones are soft, typically 4-8 hours depending on the type and size of the bones. Traditional French stock calls for mirepoix (a 2:1:1 ratio of onions, carrots, and celery) and a bouquet garni (a combination of thyme, parsley, and bay leaf), and perhaps some garlic and peppercorns. Other recipes call for ginger, leeks, rosemary, mushrooms, or chiles, depending on the purpose of the stock and the desired flavor profile. The choice is yours, based on what flavors you like, and what you have available to you. I really enjoy French flavors, particularly thyme, so I tend to follow a traditional French stock recipe (as described above) with a little extra thyme in it. I also use whatever extra produce I have in the fridge or freezer (e.g. this time I threw in some frozen leek greens).

To obtain enough chicken for a big batch of stock, you can save your bones and carcasses from various dinners, or you can find a local restaurant supplier and buy chicken parts. I found a supplier that sold 40 pound boxes of chicken backs for $20, and since I have a chest freezer, I bought two boxes.

Stock making will take about the same amount of time, whether you are making a small batch in a 2-quart pot, or a large batch in a 20-quart pot. If you have the storage space, I recommend buying a large stockpot for such occasions. Remember that aluminum is a reactive metal; therefore it shouldn’t be used to make highly acidic things like tomato-based sauces, otherwise the aluminum will leech into the sauce and ruin it’s taste, while also discoloring your pot.

To make chicken stock this time, I grabbed about 12 chicken backs out of the freezer, trimmer off the big pieces of fat, and covered them with water in a 20-quart stock pot. To remove as much fat as possible, I let heat and buoyancy do the work for me: heat the water gently so it doesn’t boil, and use a ladle to carefully skim the fat that floats on top of the water. Once the fat was removed, I added the other flavoring ingredients: 5 peeled and quartered onions, 7-8 large peeled and split carrots, one small bunch of celery cut in half, frozen leek greens from 1 leek, a small handful of parsley and thyme sprigs, 4-5 bay leafs (mine are old, so I have to use more to make up for the lost flavor), a head of garlic, ~15 whole peppercorns, and ~1/2 tbsp kosher salt (more on that later). This was all covered with boiling water from my electric kettle (to avoid lost time due to reheating cold water) and left to simmer.

Traditional cookbooks sometimes make a great deal about not letting a stock boil in order to obtain a completely clear stock. This really doesn’t matter for the home cook, unless you are making an aspic (think meat-flavored jell-o) or a soup with clarified stock as the base. You can always clarify your stock later by using a combination of ground meat and egg whites. The cloudiness of un-clarified stocks is due to the large concentration of dissolved proteins, which absorb and scatter light, preventing the clear qualities that are sometimes desirable. By re-cooking your finished stock with extra protein (i.e. the ground meat and egg white), the proteins act as a magnetic sponge, pulling the proteins out of the stock and holding onto it, allowing you to carefully ladle out a clear liquid that would make Escoffier proud. But like I said, who care? What matters is taste, not your classic French culinary technique.  However, there is one reason to not let your stock boil: fat emulsification. A rapid boil will break any remaining fat into tiny droplets that can become suspended in the stock and are therefore very difficult to remove. While I don’t think you need to be worried about a little bit of fat in your chicken stock (fat is flavor, after all), it’s always good to keep your ingredients as pure as possible. If you want chicken fat, filter the fat that you skimmed off earlier, and stick it in the fridge.

My stock was simmered very gently for about 4 hours, or until the bones (primarily the ribs and spine) were falling apart or separating easily.

It’s not very pretty, but it’s the liquid gold within that we are after. Professional kitchens use gigantic stockpots with spigots near the bottom, allowing them to empty the liquid right out of the pot, just like you would empty water out of a big cooler by popping open the spigot. That would be great, but since we don’t have one of those, I’ve found that using a spider-strainer to remove the solids into a heavy-duty trash bag is the easiest way to get rid of the big solids. Next, use a fine-meshed strainer or a colander lined with a few layers of  cheesecloth, and filter the stock into a clean pot. Don’t forget to put a pot under the colander! You are not draining pasta, so don’t dump your stock down the drain! This time I used a big colander and lined it with two cloth diapers, which are washable, and work great! Do yourself a favor and go to Babys-R-Us and buy some (not the pre-folded kind), or steal them from your baby…when he’s not using them anymore, and you’ve washed them really, really well…

Now we want to get this stock cooled down as quickly as possible. Remember the discussion about all the nutrients and proteins in stock, and how it’s great for you when you are sick? Well unfortunately, bacteria love stock too. Think of it this way, chicken stock is incredibly similar to the liquid that scientists use to grow bacteria in a lab, and bacteria grow really well in it! I don’t want to scare you away: stock can probably be left to cool at room temperature, as long as you separate it into smaller containers, and the cooling doesn’t take more than a few hours*. I like to be safe, rather than sorry, since I don’t know where this stock is going to be used, and I don’t want to run the risk of making anyone sick, especially Logan. I’ve found that the quickest way to cool a bunch of stock is to put the entire pot in a sink full of ice water, and stir both the stock and the surrounding ice water. Convection in the water and stock (a.k.a. movement) will result in a much more rapid cooling than if you simply left it alone.

Once the stock is cool (I usually wait until the ice has melted and the side of the pot is barely warm), portion it out into smaller containers for freezing. You do have the freezer space, right? The stock will only last for a few days, maybe a week, in the fridge, due to the potential bacteria-feast, so you’ll want to freeze the rest. I typically freeze the stock in large 4-cup containers, although this time I’m also going to freeze some in ice-cube trays. That way I will have much smaller quantities easily accessible for whenever I want to add a little more flavor to something.

Beyond the flavor of homemade stock, which arguably might not taste much different to you than commercial stuff (it depends on your palate, or taste-sensitivity, and what you used), there is one thing that neither canned nor boxed stock can offer: lots of gelatin. Remember how I said that aspics are essentially meat-flavored jell-o? Well, good quality homemade stock has it’s own jell-o-like properties, and this is all due to gelatin. Gelatin is the result of cooking collagen, which is one of the most abundant proteins in connective tissue, and is not particularly edible or appetizing. Collagen makes meat tough and hard to eat; gelatin makes meat fall apart in your mouth and makes you want to eat more. Think of really good pulled-pork or a long-braised chuck roast. Cooking bones and the accompanying connective tissue allows the collagen to transform into gelatin, providing “body” (a.k.a. thickness) to the stock, and to whatever you add your stock to. So even if your homemade stock tastes pretty similar to what you can buy in the store, you are still ahead by a mile due to the thickening-power, delicious-inducing, awesomeness of your homemade stock!

One last note on salting your stock: there are good reasons for and against adding salt to your stock. If your stock doesn’t taste that great to you, try adding a small pinch of salt to a ½ cup of stock. It will make all the difference, and give you a better idea of what your stock will taste like when you actually cook with it (because you will use salt when you cook, right?). Therefore a great reason to add a little salt to your stock is to enhance its flavor. This is why salt is added to everything: salt makes food taste better. The only problem with adding salt to your stock is the potential for future concentration. Unlike water, you can not easily remove salt from your stock. If you want to reduce your homemade stock into something more flavorful, say a demi-glace (really concentrated meat stock), and you’ve already added salt to the stock, then you’re headed for disaster. When you reduce the stock by using heat to evaporate water, you are concentration the flavors of everything in the stock, including the salt that is already there. If you add a pinch of salt to a gallon of stock, then you reduce that down to a ½ cup of demi-glace, then you’re going to have a very salty and unusable demi-glace. If you work at P.F. Chang’s, that might be what you’re going for. If you enjoy having functional kidneys, then it’s probably not what you want. So use your own discretion when adding salt. I rarely reduce my stock, so I add a little bit of salt to this batch. Like the other flavorings that go into your stock, it’s up to you!

Take the plunge and make some stock. You’ll be happy that you did!

*Disclaimer: Any time I told you to ignore the published advice of a governmental agency, it’s still your choice to do so, therefore I’m not responsible in the statistically unlikely event of something detrimental happening.

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