On the subject of stocks

As I was planning to post a simple soup recipe that calls for some chicken or vegetable stock, I thought I ought first to post some thoughts on various stocks, and some recipes, for anyone that has not prepared homemade stocks before. A good stock is the basis for all good soups and stews, a great many sauces, and various other slow cooked dishes. It can transform the bland into a rich and deeply satisfying dish. Whether one is preparing a vegetable stock, or chicken, beef, or fish stock, the basis will be certain vegetables, most typically carrots, onions, and celery; the mirepoix of the French or the soffritto of the Italians. Some dishes may be based on a prepared stock, whilst others may be built on a base of these stock vegetables.

The key ingredients for a good stock

The key ingredients for a good stock

I am in no doubt that the best stocks are homemade. However, supermarkets do now sell reasonable fresh stocks, and I do use these on occasions when I have run out of homemade stock. A cube of dried gunk or a bottle of some concentrated gloop, though, is not a substitute, in my view, for a fresh stock, whether homemade or shop bought. Stocks seem to be thought of as time consuming to prepare and not worth the effort, yet, although chicken and beef stocks do need to cook for a long time for best results, they need very little attention whilst they are cooking. They can also be prepared in large batches when one has some free time, poured into suitable sized containers and frozen. I find 500ml containers to be suitable for general use, but sometimes use a few small pots for adding to the occasional sauce. This is especially true of beef stocks – a reduction of 250ml beef stock and a glass or so of port, with a couple of juniper berries, and whatever meat juices are available, makes a fantastic rich, dark, and savoury sauce.

Far from being a chore, we are always excited when it is time to make a fresh batch of stock, as we know that a great soup or risotto is sure to follow. The latter is one thing I really love to make, but often shy away from in restaurants. They are so often adulterated with myriad misfit ingredients, when what they really need is a great stock.

Recipes for stocks often begin by adding the vegetables and other ingredients to a pan and covering with water. Whilst one can do this, I always prefer to sauté the vegetables first, as I believe this produces a better flavour. I like to cook them gently for about half an hour in total, starting with the carrots, then adding the onions, and finally the celery, before I add any water. It takes a little more time, of course, and maybe it is not essential, but this is how I always do it; perhaps consider it this way: which has more flavour, vegetables cooked over a moderate heat in a little oil or butter, or boiled in water?

The selection of ingredients for stock can be quite important. If in any doubt, then sticking to carrots, onions or leeks, and celery is best. The addition of, for example, garlic, herbs – other than the ubiquitous bay leaf – other spices, and strongly flavoured vegetables, will result in a stock that may not be ideally suited to many dishes. Of course, if the stock is being prepared for a specific dish, this is fine, but if prepared for more general use, it is perhaps best to keep to the less dominant flavours. Garlic and herbs can be just as easily added to the dish, so I do not see any good reason to put them into the stock. One thing that should never be added to a stock is salt. Stocks are often reduced when used in other dishes, and would then have too much salt. It is much better to salt the final dish than to lose control of the salt levels by adding to the stock.

First, then, to vegetable stock. This is, perhaps, the most versatile, provided one does not include any ingredients with overpowering flavours. I prepare vegetable stock infrequently, as I find chicken stock preferable for its richer flavour, but sometimes a vegetable stock is needed. I then tend to use carrots, onions, celery, and leeks. Celeriac is a suitable substitute for celery, and various other vegetables may be added. Many recipes call for fennel, but I prefer not to, as its anise like flavour is not ideally suited to all dishes. Tomatoes may be included, but will influence the colour, and I am not convinced that they add the sort of flavour I want. Mushrooms are also a possibility. They will add a rich, earthy note, but one is not generally looking for any ingredient to dominate, so moderation is needed. A few dried mushrooms are a good addition, and a little goes a long way. The colour of the finished stock will be affected by adding mushrooms, and it may be best to use champignons and remove the dark gills first. Overall, though, one cannot go wrong with just the basic stock vegetables. Various vegetable trimmings may be added to the stock, but not rubbish. If it is not of good quality, it no more wants to be in the stock than any other dish. One can pop trimmings into the freezer until there is enough to make a good batch of stock. I simmer vegetable stocks for an hour or so before straining.

Chicken stock is my favourite for soups, risottos, and general use. It is also virtually free – the carcases come from chickens we would buy anyway, and the vegetables from the garden, although so far I have rarely had celery or celeriac available and usually have to buy that. It also makes good economical sense to buy whole free range, or preferably organic, chickens as opposed to portions. Not only is it far more expensive to buy portions, one loses the chance for a virtually free meal. A quick chicken soup can be made from the carcase of a roasted chicken and a few vegetables for very little cost. Although I still fall into the trap of buying portions from time to time, I do prefer to buy a whole chicken instead. It sometimes costs little more than buying breast portions, and those from a whole chicken are often larger. Although it might take a while the first time, with a little practice, it takes just a couple of minutes to remove the breasts and the leg and thigh portions from a chicken, leaving a carcase and wings for the stock pot. I always look longingly at the wings, as these are my favourite part of a roasted bird, but then they are most excellent additions to the stock pot, too. If I ever need to make stock without having a carcase or two, I will look for chicken wings, although they are an expensive option to buy just for stock. I usually pop a carcase in the freezer until I have several ready, when I then make a larger batch of stock; it takes almost as much time to make a small batch as a large one.

If I have a whole roast chicken, I tend to make a quick soup with the carcase and a few scraps of leftover meat, rather than stock, but in any event I like to roast the carcases before adding to the stock vegetables. I stick to the usual carrot, celery, and onions, or occasionally leeks, with a couple of bay leaves and a few peppercorns. I always cook the vegetables first, whilst the carcases are roasting to a lovely golden brown. Roasting the carcases first will give a richer, darker stock, so if a light stock is needed for a particular purpose, then add the uncooked carcase to the vegetables instead. Chicken stock needs at least a couple of hours of simmering, and I like to cook mine for about four hours; after that, I think it is a case of diminishing returns. The stock should not boil, but simmer gently. If boiled rapidly, there is a chance of emulsifying the fats, and generally producing a substandard stock. A gentle simmer is all that is needed. I like to pour the stock into suitable freezer containers and, once cool enough, refrigerate over night. The next day, the fat can be readily spooned from the top of the stock, which has almost certainly jellified if cooked for four hours. The stock is then ready for use, or for freezing.

I do not make beef stock so often, and sometimes end up substituting chicken stock where beef stock might have been preferable. Large joints of beef on the bone are so expensive that they are something of a luxury item and we rarely buy them, so unlike chicken stocks, the ingredients are rarely to hand. They also need the most effort and longest cooking time. Beef stock is made in much the same way as chicken stock. Typically, beef bones and any trimmings are used, but I also like to add some oxtail. This makes a fantastic beef stock. You will probably need a local butcher for suitable bones unless you buy enough beef on the bone. The bones should first be roasted to a rich, dark colour, before adding to the vegetables. The vegetables can also be roasted, as, unlike with chicken stock, it is good to get a little colour on them for a rich, dark stock. The bones and vegetables need to be simmered for a long time to extract all of the flavours. I would think four hours would be a minimum, and, if possible, cooking over night would be ideal. If going to the trouble of preparing a homemade beef stock, it really is worth doing it well. I tend to freeze a rich beef stock in smaller volumes, so that I can add just a small amount to meat juices to enhance a sauce.

Naturally, one can make a meat based stock from various meats and poultry, but chicken, beef and, to a lesser extent, lamb and veal, are, I suppose, the most common.

Finally, to fish stock. I do not often make fish stock, but sometimes it is useful. Fish stock is usually cooked only for a short while – 30 minutes is enough. Longer cooking times are said to spoil the flavour, and also result in a cloudy stock. White fish is the most suitable, and oily fish are best avoided. Salmon and trout are said to be unsuitable, but one can sometimes make a useable stock from them, depending on what it is intended for. I have eaten various salmon based soups in Finland, for example, where such things are popular. The heads, bones, skin, and any trimmings, can be used, although the gills should be removed from any heads. The usual vegetables are suitable, although for fish stock, the milder and sweeter leeks are to be preferred over onions, and fennel, an unwise addition to general purpose vegetable stocks, in my opinion, is now a possibility, as it partners well with fish. As the stock will be cooked for such a short time, a fine dice of the vegetables would be beneficial.

With all stocks, whilst simmering, they should be skimmed as necessary, to remove impurities that will otherwise cloud the stock. They should also be strained through a fine sieve afterwards and, for a particularly fine result, through muslin, although I rarely bother. Stocks can also be clarified, typically using egg whites, although there are other methods, to remove further fine particulates. I would argue most strongly with anyone that suggested life was too short for making stocks, but I might be inclined to agree where excessive filtering and clarification is proposed, unless one really needs a clarified stock for a special purpose. For general use, straining through a fine sieve is sufficient, in my view.

The following recipes are just suggestions and make a reasonable starting point. Quantities are not critical; use what is available, adapting the ingredients to suit what is to hand and what the stock is intended for. Recipes differ, but this works for me.

Vegetable stock

Ingredients

  • 3 large carrots
  • 2 medium onions
  • 1 large leek
  • 3 sticks of celery
  • 2 bay leaves
  • A few peppercorns
  • Olive oil

Method

Scrub the carrots, but do not peel except where unsound, and roughly chop. Heat a little olive oil in a pan and add the carrots, frying gently for five or ten minutes. Peel and coarsely chop the onions. Add to the pan and continue to cook for another five minutes. Split the leek lengthways into quarters and wash carefully to remove any grit. Slice the leek and the celery sticks and add to the pan.

Continue to cook the vegetables until nicely softened but not coloured. Add the bay leaves and a few peppercorns and sufficient water to cover. Bring to a gentle simmer and cook for one hour or so, topping up the water if necessary.

Strain the stock through a fine sieve, cool and either freeze or refrigerate as needed.

Chicken stock

Ingredients

  • 3 chicken carcases
  • 3 large carrots
  • 3 medium onions
  • 4 sticks of celery
  • 2 bay leaves
  • A few peppercorns
  • Olive oil

Method

Place the chicken carcases in a roasting tray, drizzle with a little olive oil, and roast in a hot oven until nicely browned, 30 to 45 minutes. If using leftovers from roasted chicken, skip this step.

Meanwhile, prepare the vegetable base, much as per vegetable stock. Scrub the carrots, but do not peel except where unsound, and roughly chop. Heat a little olive oil in a pan and add the carrots, frying gently for five or ten minutes. Peel and coarsely chop the onions. Add to the pan and continue to cook for another five minutes. Slice the celery sticks and add to the pan.

Continue to cook the vegetables until nicely softened but not much coloured. Add the browned chicken carcases and any cooking juices, the bay leaves and a few peppercorns, and sufficient water to cover.

Bring to a gentle simmer and cook for four hours, topping up the water if necessary. Skim any impurities that rise to the surface of the stock from time to time, but do not be too concerned with the fat – that is easily removed when cooled.

Strain the stock through a fine sieve, cool and refrigerate over night. Remove the fat from the surface of the stock and freeze or use as needed.

Beef stock

Ingredients

  • 2kg beef bones
  • 1kg oxtail
  • 3 large carrots
  • 3 medium onions
  • 4 sticks of celery
  • 2 bay leaves
  • A few peppercorns
  • Olive oil

Method

Preferably have the butcher cut the bones into manageable pieces. Place the bones and oxtail into a roasting dish, drizzle with a little olive oil, and roast in a hot oven for 30 minutes.

Scrub the carrots, but do not peel except where unsound, and coarsely chop. Peel and coarsely chop the onions. Add the carrots and the onions to the roasting bones, and continue to roast for another 15 to 30 minutes until nicely browned.

Put the roasted meat, vegetables, and any juices into the stock pot. Add half a litre or so of water to the roasting dish and bring to a boil, scraping any residue from the bottom of the tray. Pour into the stock pot.

Slice the celery and add to the stock pot, along with the bay leaves and a few peppercorns, adding sufficient water to cover.

Bring to a gentle simmer and cook for four hours minimum, and preferably longer, topping up the water if necessary. Skim any impurities that rise to the surface of the stock from time to time, but do not be too concerned with the fat – that is easily removed when cooled.

Strain the stock through a fine sieve, cool and refrigerate over night. Remove the fat from the surface of the stock and freeze or use as needed.

Fish stock

Ingredients

  • 1 kg heads, bones, skin, and trimmings from white fish
  • 1 carrot
  • 1 large leek
  • ½ bulb of fennel (optional)
  • Butter

Method

Peel the carrot and finely dice. Melt a little butter in a pan and gently fry the carrots for five minutes or so, being careful not to brown. Split the leek lengthways into quarters and wash carefully to remove any grit. Finely slice the leek and the fennel, if using, and add to the pan. Continue to cook the vegetables until thoroughly softened but not coloured.

If using fish heads, remove the gills. Add the fish to the pan and sufficient water to cover.

Bring to a gentle simmer and cook for 30 minutes, skimming the surface as necessary.

Strain the stock through a fine sieve, cool and either freeze or refrigerate as needed.

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