For my money, the big question in home cooking is, “How do I get on a roll?” Anyone can make a great dinner one night. A productive home cook makes good food every night. This entails a system, a way of running a kitchen. Though I don’t have things figured out, I’m pretty sure making stock is part of any successful system. Here’s how I’ve made stock-making part of mine.
Choosing the right equipment
The most important considerations are convenience and cost. Fancy isn’t necessary. High-tech isn’t necessary. Even well-made isn’t absolutely necessary.
The simplest kit consists of a pot and a storage container. I started out with a budget 5-quart stock pot from Target or Macy’s. Amazon suggests I paid less than $20. I still store my stock in store-brand containers from Target.
I see two main ways to upgrade from the cheapo stock pot. One is to buy “set it and forget it” technology, i.e. a slow cooker. Amazon lists some for less than $40, and I’m sure patience is rewarded with promotions both online and in the store. Slow cookers are nice because they can be run overnight. If I’d bought one with manual control, I could have used it as a water bath for low-temperature cooking. Many people are interested in plain vanilla slow cooking so there are many recipe resources available. The primary drawback with some models is that the cooking vessel itself can be a pain to clean. I would scour reviews for information if that sort of thing bothers you too.
Another is to buy technology that reduces cooking times, i.e. a pressure cooker. I think pressure cookers are the “killer app” for stock making. Not only do pressure cookers make stock-making less of an “event” — having something on your stove for several hours is an event in my book — and more of an easy thing to do, but they may also be more flavorful and aromatic (see here). The former is important because it encourages me to experiment with stocks more often. These reasons, among others, may be the reasons why restaurant chefs like Tom Colicchio and Michael Voltaggio are turning to pressure cookers more frequently. The drawback to pressure cookers is that (the right kind, see previous Cooking Issue link) are expensive. My Kuhn-Rikon put me out about $220. Note, upgrading to a bigger pot is also an option, but I don’t feel that’s useful for most home cooks, at least ones with small families.
The only upgrade I can’t live without is my fat separator. When I cook stock I like to remove the fat immediately, using the fat separator to both portion out the stock and remove the fat. It’s possible to remove fat with a ladle or scrape it after refrigeration, but the former is annoying and the latter only defers a chore. The price and convenience — cleaning in the dishwasher included — makes a separator a no-brainer.
The easiest ingredients to collect are aromatics. Most are long-keeping, accumulate naturally, and are useful beyond stock-making. Items like celery that I only use for stock require a little monitoring. It’s possible to use vegetable trimmings, but I haven’t figured out a system for this yet.
Meats can be more problematic due to issues of cost. After all, if it’s only about extracting an essence and not consuming the meat, it’s a waste to buy a really nice cut. Chicken parts are the easiest to collect. Chickens are small, relatively cheap, and butchering yields carcasses. Less common, at least for me, are stocks requiring beef and pork. Beef stock I use for heartier soups and stews; pork I combine with chicken for Asian dishes. Because I don’t butcher cows or pigs — for obvious reasons — I have to buy parts specifically for stock. Beef I haven’t yet figured out. “Manager’s special” ground beef is priced right, but there are no bones. Adding chicken bones may solve the collagen problem. I’ve recently discovered meaty pork neck bones at the large Asian (Vietnamese?) grocery in Worcester. The price is right. Maybe I’ll find my beef solution there.
From recipes to ratios
As long as I’ve chosen something culturally appropriate — no thyme in a stock destined for Chinese egg drop soup, no cinnamon or star anise in a stock meant for beef bourguignon — basically any recipe from a reputable source has worked. The trick has been to taste the final product, such as a soup or stew, mindfully so I can make adjustments the next time I prepare the stock for that application. Eventually
I find it easy to break down stock recipes this way:
- Water vs. protein: By protein I mean meat plus bones. There is a trade-off between yield and intensity of flavor. Yield and water proportion move in the same direction; intensity of flavor moves the opposite way. Heartier dishes go with more intense stocks.
- Meat vs. bones: There is a trade-off between intensity of flavor and cost. Bones are both less flavorful and less expensive than meat. Since chicken is relatively cheap, a lot of recipes posted online specify chicken parts that can actually be cooked and served for dinner, such as wings and legs. Since beef is relatively expensive, a lot of recipes from these same sources specify beef bones.
- Meat vs. bones: The flip side is that bones provide collagen, meaning body and cost move in the same direction.
- Aromatics vs. protein: I almost certainly have the nomenclature wrong, but I include almost anything that isn’t a featured ingredient as an aromatic. It puts smells front and center in my cooking. The topic deserves its own post. In any event, how strongly perfumed I want the stock depends on the application. If I’m going to reduce it heavily, then I’ll go easy on the aromatics since I find it hard to predict what the final product will be like. If I’m going to serve it almost as is as a soup, I’ll be less shy.
- Aromatics vs. aromatics: Aromatics determine which parts of the world I’m supposed to think of when I cook with the stock. So what I’m talking about here are the pairwise proportions of each aromatic. This is actually the most fun part of cooking stock, as I’m learning how deeper flavors are built from the ground up. Recipes are a huge help in matching aromatics to cuisines.
- Deeply roasted vs. unroasted: Browning intensifies and changes flavors. The heavier the final dish, the more I’ll brown my stock ingredients.
I thought this would be the easiest part, but it’s not. Making stock is easier because no one eats it right after it’s made. It’s an ingredient for another dish. It’s easy to forget about it. Learning new dishes seems to me the hardest part. Here are the outlets that work for me: brothy soups and stews and curries.
Brothy soups rely on the stock and aromatics to do the work. (In contrast, a pureed vegetable soup relies on the featured vegetable to propel the dish.) If I were to give advice, I would start by pulling simple brothy soup recipes from cookbooks and experimenting with those until the underlying logic becomes clear.
Stews don’t rely as heavily on stock. Though stock is often used as a main cooking liquid — hence, trying out some basic beef stews is a good way to start — my feeling is that stews create a stock from its ingredients in the course of long cooking and the meat is re-flavored with the sauce that has been cooked. What I prefer is to cook the proteins separately using my immersion circulator and cast iron skillet and build the sauce in a saucepan, relying on the stock I’ve cooked to provide the protein flavor. My approach to curries is similar.