Stir in some stock knowledge


If you’ve ever asked yourself why restaurant food tastes better, there’s a couple of reasons. Naturally, chefs are paid professionals- years of honing techniques and skills in their craftsmanship produces better food. Also they use an absurd amount of butter.

More fundamentally and crucially, however, is that restaurants make stock. Stock is the foundation for many dishes and sauces that adds not only a base of flavor upon which one can build a dish’s profile and increase complexity, but also body.

All great cuisines use some form of stock. The Japanese commonly use Dashi, a stock based on kombu (kelp) and bonito (dried flakes of tuna) in order to impart some serious umami (a savory taste).

The Chinese (especially Cantonese) commonly use a Master Stock. Once a base is made, meat and vegetables are cooked and is used repeatedly. This constant addition of ingredients builds layers of flavor by adding complexity to the stock.

Theoretically, it means that one can keep a Master Stock indefinitely. There are rumors out there of Master Stocks hundreds of years old, passed down from chef to chef, kind of like keeping a sourdough culture alive.

While the idea of having a stock that has been around for years is dubious from the food safety aspect, it nevertheless underlies the crucial role stocks play in making great food.

Use it in place of whenever water is called for, be it making a sauce for a piece of protein, mac n’ cheese, tomato sauce, etc. Or simply cook whatever you want in it instead of just using boring old water. Heck, make risotto, basically rice and stock – immensely satisfying and easy.

Today we’ll look at what is considered a “classic” stock taken from the pages of generic Western based cooking, meaning, a French approach because it is the easiest, and I think the most versatile.

Start off with some kind of animal bone, like chicken. This can be a fresh carcass or the leftovers of roast you had the other day. It doesn’t matter whether it was a Wal-Mart bird or something you made at home (good for you if you roasted it yourself!).

What we want is the good stuff in the bones, the gelatin. This is what gives stock body, and in fact, a stock once refrigerated should be semi-solid, like a meat jello of sorts. You can definitely use beef, but chicken is easiest. An even better alternative is turkey bones, which have a great intensity.

Water is important since it naturally comprises most of what you’re making. Start with filtered water if possible. Don’t neglect this – some high-end Japanese restaurants will import bottled Japanese mountain spring water for their dashi. They know that if you add rubbish into your stock it will taste like rubbish.

Next is mirepoix (pronounced “meer-PWAH”), a mixture of about 50 percent of onions, 25 percent carrots and 25 percent celery. This is where you can use the trimmings if you’re peeling carrots or the end bits of the celery stalk. Just make sure to wash the end bits as you don’t want dirt in your stock.

The stems of mushrooms are also a good addition, and if you want to make a vegetarian stock, replace all the meat with mushrooms.

Acid helps in extracting gelatin, so a little white wine optional but helpful.

When it comes to herbs and spices, a bouquet “garni” is a traditional bundle including parsley, rosemary, thyme and bay leaves tied around a section of leeks, which acts as a tea bag of sorts. Use whatever you have, about a stalk of each for one chicken carcass. Add also a small handful of peppercorns.

So, obtain a pot of relevant size, and chop smallish but roughly all your ingredients for faster extraction. Naturally make sure it all fits. Fill up the pot so that water just about covers it all. Add about a cup or so of white wine if using. Don’t salt the stock as this is just a base and with reduction, could become overly salty.

Slowly bring this to a simmer, and importantly don’t let stock boil. Very simply, when you boil stock all those good scents that you smell are aromatics escaping the pot. Keep it contained until you actually cook with it. You might want to skim any scum that rises to the top, which is generally unpleasant tasting.

Cook the stock down until you get a desired concentration, roughly 45 minutes to an hour.

Strain the liquid and cool it down as quickly as you can. I like to then separate them into small Ziploc bags that I can freeze for individual portions.

Deploy as needed and improve all your food.

One final comment on stock cubes: yes, they are better than nothing but unfortunately overly salty and just an MSG bomb. They also taste rough, and you can sort of tell that it’s a stock cube. A decent alternative is the Tetra Pak stocks that you can buy in the soup aisle. But remember- they are never as good as homemade.