Have you ever watched a cold front blow in? The back of our house faces west and I can see the dark clouds creeping closer, dragged by chilly winds, from the window over the kitchen sink. It's an incredible view when the front is bringing with it a thunderstorm; lightening lights up our entire kitchen and west-facing bedrooms. I equally enjoyed watching today's gray, blustery cold front work its way our direction, pulling leaves off trees in the back yard with big mighty gusts. It just feels like fall around here. I kind of like it.
I'm sure you're tired of reading about *pumpkin recipes, so I have something else in mind for today's post: chicken stock. It's the backbone for so many wonderful recipes. Shouldn't it get some attention, too?
I don't necessarily think that making your own stock is a requirement for great cooking, but there are many reasons why it is important to me. First, and honestly foremost, is that commercially produced stock is often hard on my stomach. I'm sure it has to do with the preservatives required to make the stock shelf stable, whether it be in a can, box, or even a powder base. I just don't feel good after I eat it, and that's reason enough for me to make my own.
There's also flavor to consider. If you're not convinced that homemade stock tastes better, I suggest a little (un)scientific study. One of my favorite podcasts, Spilled Milk, hosted their own chicken stock taste test. You can listen to the podcast straight from their website or by downloading it for free from I-tunes. Spoiler alert: Molly and Matthew concluded that while there are some decent store-bought options, homemade chicken stock was the winner.
Now, I know there is some confusion about stock vs. broth. What's the difference? Are they interchangeable? How do I know what to make? The answer to all of these questions is the same--there does not appear to be a single source with an end-all-be-all answer to this question. The general consensus seems to be: when in doubt, choose stock over broth. Stock is generally made from the bones of chicken which gives the liquid a thick, juicy quality that you cannot get from only the chicken flesh. Also, a well-made stock that is allowed to cool to room temperature may have a slightly gelled quality. While this may be off-putting at first (it was for me), the gelling means that your stock is packed full of nutrients that are holding the liquid in this form. It means it's good for you.
And the most fundamental reason for making my own stock is because I believe it's the omnivore's duty to consumer the entire animal. While this is a much bigger discussion than I'm going to enter in today, I think the best way to thank that animal for feeding you is to purchase poultry that is humanely raised and make excellent, high quality foods with every part of it. We generally buy whole chickens, and if we buy pieces it is always on the bone, and after we cook the meat I save the bones in a zip lock bag in the freezer, labeled with the contents and the date. You could make stock with whole, raw chickens, but I have never found that my stock is lacking from not being simmered with meat.
It may take a little trial and error. Before you start, you'll want to decide if you to keep it simple or add additional ingredients. You can go either way--bones+water only or bones+water+vegetables+herbs+seasonings. I prefer the latter; I've never found that adding more flavor to my stock detracted from using the stock in future dishes. In fact, it likely saves me from having to adjust the seasoning when I use it in recipes.
You'll thank me when a cold front blows your direction that you have this stock ready to go. It makes chicken noodle soup a cinch to throw together and it's a great base for any other soup or sauce you crave to warm you up this fall.
So here is where I try to tell you a great method for making stock. I'll do my best, but feel free to consult other sources for great ideas in stock-making as well.
Making Homemade Chicken Stock
Start with a large pot. When it comes to choosing a great stock pot, depth is more important than width, so use one that is 16 inches or so deep.
To the pot, add enough bones (previously cooked or raw/uncooked) to equal as about as many bones as you would have from two 4 lb chickens. This may be a variety of bones from an entire roasted chicken carcass, the unused backbone from a spatchcocked bird, or leftover cut up chicken pieces (like wings, which are often unused in recipes). Also add to the pot two unpeeled, halved yellow onions, two or three celery stalks, torn in half to fit in the pot, two or three whole carrots, scrubbed well and either peeled or unpeeled, a whole head of unpeeled garlic sliced in half horizontally, a halved lemon, a small palmful of peppercorns, a few sprigs of fresh thyme, and a small bunch of fresh parsley.
Fill the pot with enough tap water to cover the ingredients by three or four inches. Set on the stove over medium-high heat and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer uncovered, only checking every half hour or so to skim off any gray or cloudy foam that may rise to the surface of the water. Let your stock simmer on low heat until it reduces by 1/3. This may take 4-6 hours. Occasionally taste your stock, checking for richness and flavor--you are looking for a distinctly chicken-y flavor--and near the end of cooking I stir in 2 or 3 tablespoons of kosher salt. You can omit the salt if you'd rather add salt when you use the stock later.
Remove from heat, let cool for 20 or 30 minutes. Pour stock through a mesh strainer into a large bowl or pitcher. Allow to cool down to room temperature. Stock can be stored in a variety of ways. Store large quantities of stock (which I prefer) by dividing into pint-size or quart-size freezeable plastic containers or sturdy zip-lock bags. Freeze. Or pour stock into ice cube trays for smaller portions. When frozen solid, put all stock-cubes into quart-size ziplock bags.
Always label your stock and include the date. Get into the habit of using the oldest stock first. It is not true that once frozen, food is good forever. While it breaks down much more slowly than if it were just in the refrigerator or at room temperature, even frozen food will start to lose its flavor and nutrients if left uneaten too long.
*Don't forget--Battle Winter Squash will be hosted here on October 31! Please join us!