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Culinary Lesson #29 - Stocks

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Homemade stock is a topic I've wanted to research for a while now, just to clear up a few questions of my own.  I've made enough stocks through work alone to generally know what works and what doesn't, but there's always been a few gray areas.  While I definitely have a better understanding of them after reading countless different sources, I've learned that this is an area in the culinary field that everyone seems to be an expert on, yet the guidelines given on how to make stocks are all over the board.  So understand that the guidelines below, although fairly solid, have some wiggle-room due to differences between respected sources.

So before we get into how to make your own stock...let's first cover what the difference is between stocks and broths.  Now you'd think that with such common terms, there'd be simple definitions.

Not so much...

Some people feel that stocks use bones and vegetables whereas broths use meat and vegetables.  Others feel strongly that stocks use bones and/or meat along with vegetables, but don't get seasoned.  Once a stock is finished, reduced, and seasoned, it turns into a broth.  So broths can be served as a finished product, whereas a stock is a base for a wide range of dishes and sauces.  A third definition that I found deals with the amount of time that the liquid is allowed to simmer.  Broths only take a couple hours, whereas stocks take roughly six hours.  Just for kicks, too, I decided to look both terms up in the dictionary.  Needless to say, the dictionary didn't have definitive answers either.  So what's one to do?  Accepting the fact that there will be always be home cooks and chefs out there who disagree with some or all of what I think, I've decided to stick with the following descriptions for stocks and broths from this point on:

  • Stocks are made from simmering vegetables with bones (although meat is sometimes added as well for added flavor) and are more concerned with the final texture rather than the taste.  To properly allow the bones to form gelatin from their collagen, the process takes roughly 4 to 6 hours for a small batch, or up to overnight for larger batches.  The final product, once cooled, has a gelatinous consistency if done correctly, and is not seasoned.
  • Broths are made from simmering vegetables with meat (although bones are sometimes added to give the broth a smooth finish) and are more concerned with the final taste rather than texture.  The process usually takes only a few hours, although the end-product is often reduced even further for a more concentrated flavor.  In addition, the final product, once cooled, has a similar viscosity to water and is seasoned to taste.

So with that behind us, let's talk about how to actually make a stock.

The first step is to pick your ingredients.  A mirepoix is a must, and a common ratio of the vegetables is 2 parts onion to 1 part celery and 1 part carrot.  Additional vegetables and seasonings can include leeks, garlic cloves, fennel, bay leaves, whole peppercorns, fresh thyme, and fresh parsley.  It's all up to what you're going for, and what your personal tastes are.  If you're just making a vegetable stock, you're done.  If you're making a poultry or beef stock, add the bones with the other ingredients.

Lastly, add enough cold water to cover everything, and then some.  Note that starting with cold water is specified for a reason (or two).  First, cold water has less impurities than hot water, making for a more pleasant tasting stock.  Second, and more importantly, certain favorable flavors are extracted from the bones and vegetables at lower temperatures and over long periods of time.  If you start with hot water, you aren't giving your ingredients a chance at releasing these great flavors; rather you're locking everything in.

The next step is to add some heat to the party.  It's tempting to crank the heat to high to hurry up the process, but all this is going to do is emulsify the impurities that are released with the rest of the stock.  Once emulsification happens, your clear stock will now be cloudy.  So be kind to the stock, and always keep it at a gentle simmer.  This way the impurities stay at the stop and the remaining stock stays underneath.  If you happen to have a thermometer on you, this can easily be checked as a simmer occurs at roughly 185° F whereas a boil occurs at 212° F.

So we're starting with cold water rather than hot, and increasing the heat to a simmer rather than a rapid boil, where the ingredients will have time to do their magic.  So far, so good.

The next question I had is how long to cook your stock.  I'm aware that it depends on the volume you're looking at (a home stock versus a restaurant stock), so there's no definite answer.  What most people can agree on though, is that vegetable stock takes the least amount of time, poultry stock takes longer, and beef-based stock takes the most amount of time. For the home cook, the following simmering times are what you want to shoot for:

  • Vegetable and Fish - 45 minutes
  • Poultry - 3 to 4 hours
  • Beef and Veal - 6 to 8 hours

As the stock is simmering, occasionally use a fine mesh strainer to skim off and discard of any impurities floating at the top.

When your stock is ready, gently pour the stock through a fine mesh strainer lined with cheesecloth.  To cool safely, fill your sink or a cooler with an ice bath, and place the pot of stock in the middle, stirring often.  Additionally, you can add frozen water bottles to the stock to speed up the cooling process.

And now the moment of truth.  If the stock looks clear yet gelatinous once cooled, you've made the perfect stock!  To freeze your stock for a later day, use ice trays or heavy duty ziplock bags to your advantage.

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