Making a good stock may be all about reduction,
but it has nothing to do with “trickle down”.
Every few months I invest in a day of contemplation in the kitchen. And that day usually starts with opening the freezer door and contemplating the fact that I’ve got enough carcasses in there to give the Donner Party a run for their money.
Now before you go thinking that this blog is getting too dark for your tastes, let me assure you that I speak of chicken carcasses. Whenever I roast a chicken, I wrap the remnants in clingfilm and stuff them in my freezer, ready for when I need to make chicken stock. So every few months, when my current supply is about to run out, I invest a day in making a fresh batch.
I’ve been making my own chicken stock for a few years now, and of all the foodie habits I’ve picked up, it’s possibly the most useful and rewarding. Useful, because not only has it taught me about the patience necessary in learning to respect the processes of cooking well, but it’s also taught me to make use of the bits I might otherwise throw away. It’s also useful because it gives me that time, when I can’t stray too far from the kitchen or for too long, to indulge myself in fabulously foodie contemplations. As for the rewards, they’re perhaps like dividends; not so obviously immediate, but all the more rewarding when they do come home to roost.
Investing the Time
Now I use the term “invest” advisedly, because making a good chicken stock (or any stock, really) does take about a full day from start to finish. It’s not that making stock is difficult, or even that you have to pay it close attention throughout, but it does take a very long time to cook- about seven hours- and you do have to be around to skim from time to time, and then to sieve, and then to skim again, and finally to pour into suitable containers and freeze. Making stock is a bit like a day spent doing laundry; most of the time you’re not actually needed, but you do occasionally need to fluff and fold.
So why do I do it? Why do I give over a whole day to cooking something I’m not even going to eat that night, or the next night, or might not even use for weeks to come?
Well like I said, it’s an investment. That day will probably yield about 12 cups worth of chicken stock, which may not seem much. But those 12 cups will more than cover gravies for Thanksgiving and Christmas (not to mention any other roast chicken dinners in between), perhaps a risotto or even two, or , maybe an emergency chicken soup for a sick flatmate or friend,and most certainly a fabulous poaching liquid for chicken breasts. A poaching liquid that is not only recycle-able, but that even improves with every use. Excellent dividends indeed.
Which leads me to an excellent example of investing in stock. When I was but a college junior, before I could even call myself a foodie, I spent a summer working at an upmarket deli in Washington DC named Food & Co. One of my allotted tasks there was to poach chicken breasts. That process involved taking huge amounts of amber jelly from a tub in the fridge, bringing it up to heat,and then poaching the chicken breasts for about 10 minutes. The first time I completed the task I was about to pour the liquid down the drain when the owner (a wonderful woman named Elisabeth Siber) shrieked in horror and threw herself between me and the sink.
“I’ve been working on that stock for YEARS!”, she cried. “Do you have ANY idea what that stock is WORTH?”
It turned out she had been nurturing that stock, and using it time and again to poach more and more chicken breasts, which not only gave that bland avian white meat incredible flavor, but also served to deepen the flavor of the stock itself. Which would, in turn, yield yet more flavorsome breasts. Talk about protecting your capital. And it’s worth noting that she was by no means the only culinary professional to follow this practice. In fact the opposite is true. Probably the single most highly valued foodstuff in any decent restaurant kitchen is the stock. It ain’t there on sale or return, nor is it a high-end seasonal ingredient. But it’s the base of any good sauce, or soup, or risotto. It’s in fact the flavor backbone of such a wide variety of dishes that it is a good stock on which most chefs depend. And so they husband their stocks with extreme care. After all, a professional stock can take five days to prepare.
Creating Culinary Value
So compared to five, what is one day? Especially when just that one day turns your culinary liabilities- that leftover chicken carcass, that last onion, those straggly bits of parsley, and that aging carrot that have been cluttering up your fridge- into fabulous liquid assets. The only real financial outlay I ever encounter when making stock is having to buy celery, which although unpleasant, is certainly not expensive. If, unlike me, you can actually abide celery in any other context, then you probably already have some anyway! And the process of making the stock- simmering that huge pot gently for five hours or so, and then sieving it and simmering it again for another hour at a higher heat to reduce it- may leave you with less than you started out with, but if the quantity of your stock has diminished, it has actually intensified greatly in flavor. It has far greater value than when you started. We’re talking going from culinary penny to epicurean blue chip here.
And you can diversify. I usually only make chicken stock because it’s it’s such a great all-rounder. But you can make vegetable stock with any leftover legumes you’ve got hanging around. Try mushroom stock! You can make beef, lamb, pork, or even ham stock from any meat you cook that still has bones. All you need is water, heat, those veg and herbs and seasoning and patience, and you can make culinary capital out of almost any gastronomic investment you’ve already ( made.
Yes, you can buy pre-made chicken stock (although that famous canned low sodium chicken broth that American tv cooks sing praises to is not readily available here in the UK, where the Oxo cube still reigns supreme). But why spend instead of investing? Your freezer may be small (mine is, and I share it with two others), but isn’t it better to stuff it with what you’ve made rather than what you’ve bought? After all, as a frozen asset home made stock thaws beautifully. So you can share.
Because that stock in which I’ve invested a day is all about shares. Yes, I cook for myself, and yes, I make stock for myself because I love that I can . But I know full well that when I’m glorifying in my little pots of gold at the end of the stock-making process, I will be sharing them with people I love. They will become the gravies at Thanksgiving and Christmas as well as sauces at dinners in between. Or it may become soup to share or give away. Making a good stock may be all about reduction,but it has nothing to do with “trickle down”.
So I am more than happy to invest a day, every few months, in making stock. And that day – when I have to be nearby to skim from time to time, to watch the vociferousness of the bubble and maybe turn the burner up or down a tad under the pot – that day gives me that day of contemplation I first mentioned. That day we all need from time to time, when you contemplate what you’ve got, and what you’ll make of it.
And shouldn’t we all invest a day, now and then, in taking-if not making- stock?