Friday, January 21, 2011

Taking stock of stock

I use chicken stock.  Correction, I use a lot of chicken stock.  Actually, stock is the only thing you can guarantee will always be in my house.  I may not have bread, butter, or milk, but I will always have some stock laying around.  You know at the end of Julie and Julia when she places the box of butter by Julia's picture?  Well if that were me it would be some chicken stock (and butter).  And up until this weekend it was always boxed stock from the grocery store, but the times have changed my friends.

Chances are if you watch many cooking shows (I'm looking at you Barefoot Contessa), you've heard them mention something about the superiority of home cooked stock to its grocery store counterparts.  And if you're anything like me you think something along the lines of, "Yeah yeah yeah.  Homemade stock is much better.  We get it.  However, some of us don't have that kind of time."  But that's where I was wrong.  (Write that down; I don't say it very often.)

Here's the beauty of making chicken stock.  You simply keep the "trash" pieces of various vegetables and chicken bones in a gallon bag in the freezer.  Then when you fill up the bag you simply add water and simmer the heck out of them.  Because chicken stock is made with very common kitchen ingredients, it's really just a simple way of recycling what would otherwise be trash.

A misconception about making stock is that its difficult.  False.  Stock does require a long time to cook- I let mine simmer for about 7 hours-  but after the first 1/2 hour you can basically ignore it, except for stirring every hour or so.  If you have any Lazy Sundays on the horizon, it's the perfect time to let a pot of happiness simmer away on the stove all day.  And did I forget to mention how fantastic it made my entire house smell?

You can find detailed and specific recipes elsewhere on the internet, but I kind of like the "kitchen sink" approach.  The only thing I read that's important is keeping about a half/half ratio between your vegetables and your bones.  I also had some duck bones in there this time leftover from a recent and oh so delicious duck dinner.  Roughly chop whatever you decide to use and cover about 1 inch with water.  Simmer away.  I think you could get away with as few as 3-4 hours or anywhere up to 8.  Ideally you want to cook the bones to the point that you can crush them and release the gelatinous marrow, which adds a velvety texture to foods that just can't be recreated using the processed stuff.

My ingredients included:

  • celery
  • an entire onion roughly chopped with the skins still on
  • 3 large carrots roughly chopped
  • Fresh thyme and oregano (I use the term fresh loosely, since it was actually once fresh herbs that had started to wilt, so I threw them in the freezer bag too.)
  • Chicken and duck bones
  • Whole peppercorns and whole cloves
  • Water to cover
In the beginning...there was vegetables, water and chicken bones.

Hour 1
Hour 3
Hour 5
Hour 7
Once you stock has finished simmering, pour it into a colander with a bowl underneath to drain out all of the liquids from the solids.  Drain again through a cheesecloth to remove the remaining pieces.

Homemade stock doesn't keep long very well in the fridge, you know the whole no preservatives thing.  Now you may be thinking I'm crazy for spending 7 hours cooking something that's going to go bad in like a week.  And that's where you'd be wrong.  (You don't need to write that one down.)  You can preserve this liquid happiness simply by freezing, where it'll stay good for about 2-3 months, although I'm not expecting it to last more than 3 weeks in my household.  See earlier comments about my love of stock.  However, I froze it in ice cube trays so thawing it will be a snap, and I'm now guaranteed to have fresh stock whenever needed.  Fabulous.

And the final taste test?

Not only is there an obvious difference in color between the Swanson Low Sodium Chicken Stock (on the left) and my home made version (on the right), they smelled completely different.  The processed version had this almost gross fake chicken smell to it.  And because I was afraid that my opinion was tainted by 7 hours of simmering, I had an unbiased third person do the sniff test too, and he completely agreed.  When I actually used the stock (for some soup I made) the difference in taste was easily discernible. 

I think homemade stock and I will have a long, happy life together.

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