Saturday, January 11, 2014

Taking Stock

Ever get stuck in conversation with someone who insists on explaining every tiny detail to you -- even after you've made it clear you already understand the topic?  I don't know about you, but this trait drives me bonkers.  I run into it especially at my physician's office, where no amount of reassurance seems to convince them that I don't need basic terms explained to me in a babysitting tone.  Since the number one rule of my day job (and by extension the rest of my life) is to always presume competence in others, I suppose I'm more sensitive to it than I would be otherwise.

At the same time, I also hate when I'm trying to learn something new and the instructions list some step that sounds like it should be the most obvious thing in the world and yet I have no idea what it entails. Nothing makes me lose faith in myself and my abilities faster than when, as a beginner, I'm made to feel like there's something I "should" know but don't.

When speaking to any kind of an audience it can be difficult to find that middle ground.  I'm certain I screw it up sometimes.

So if making your own stock is something you've got a handle on, go ahead and take a lap.  We'll see you in the next post, no hard feelings.  For those that are wondering what I mean when I say I usually have chicken/vegetable/beef stock on hand and whether it's something that can be made at home, this post is for you.

First off, let's get a handle on the wording.  Many times, without really meaning to, I use the words "stock" and "broth" interchangeably.  Broadly speaking this is probably fine, since both are the result of boiling down stuff you've got left over around the kitchen.  On the other hand, if we're being nitty-gritty about details there is a difference:

  • Stock is the "heavier" of the two.  Stock is used as a flavoring.  It can be used to add some oomph to things like rice, curry, mashed potatoes, stuffing, gravy, etc. When making stock, the idea is that it's not usually flavored and it's definitely not salted.  There are a lot of different definitions out there -- some say that stock uses bones whereas broth is runoff juices from whatever you're cooking, others say the difference is in length of cooking or in whether or not you use herbs.  But when you get right down to it, the difference is intent: if you're using it as a flavoring, then you naturally want a strong flavor without added salt, and that's a stock.  
  • Broth, by comparison, is lighter and is the end product in itself.  Broth is used to make soup or something else where you want to taste the broth as the end-product, meaning it's lighter than stock and it's usually salted/flavored.  You can make broth out of stock by watering it down and adding flavorings.  Making stock from broth, however, means adding meat or veg to it and boiling them down; in essence starting over, like making strong coffee out of weaker coffee.  If your grocery store has both for sale at a similar price, buy the stock since it's a greater value for your money.  You can always water it down yourself if you're making soup.

Now, if you use the words without distinction or if you use broth to make risotto instead of stock, you are doing nothing wrong.  Really.  It's okay.  The only reason I took a moment to discuss the difference here is so that you'll know why what we're making has such a super strong flavor and why, if you're going to use it for soup later, you might find yourself adding water.

Okay, all that background out of the way, I'm about to throw at you the single easiest (and most useful!) thing you've ever made.  Seriously.  I use stock in place of water in almost every recipe I have.

Added bonus:  we're gonna use the slow cooker for this.

Making Stock in the Slow Cooker

Okay, here's what you need to know:  kitchen scraps + water + 8 hours on low.

Seriously, that's the recipe.  Let's step through it, shall we?  You can make this with anything you have lying around.  Beef, chicken, and veg are the most common, although seafood stock is good for chowdah if you've got fish scraps lying around.  I even made duck stock once.  It's all about what you have on hand.

My butcher has beef bones for sale most weeks.  Many grocery stores do, though you might have to hunt for them or ask.  I got six bones for two bucks.  That was probably way more than I needed.  If you roast a turkey or chicken, the leftover carcass will work.  Or if you're vegetarian/vegan, just stick to veggies.  It's cool, the process remains the same:  kitchen scraps + water + boiling long enough to leech all the flavor and nutrition into the water.

Some people, if they buy raw beef bones, will roast them first.  Since I'm about to boil these for the better part of a day I'm not really interested in drawing the process out, though it would result it a different flavor.  It's an option, anyway, if you feel like it.

Next: water.

I added as much as I could fit in the pot, though if I were smarter I'd have added the veggies first and the water later.  It all worked out in the end.

When it comes to veggies, the "trim," or scraps, are the easiest and cheapest way to go.  That is, things like the root end of the onion that you cut off, or the stem top of a pepper, the ends of a carrot, the bottom or the leafy bits of a celery stalk, the bottom bit of lettuce that is too tough to put in a salad.  That kind of stuff.  Just make sure it's clean.  As it turns out I had a number of whole veggies that were just about to go bad, but please please please don't think that you have to go out and spend money on fresh veg just to boil it to death.  The idea of stock is that it's cheap, easy, and is the cooking equivalent of recycling.

I've made the mistake of using fruit before (e.g. lemon peel in a chicken stock).  I'd advise against it, if only because stock is used in savory dishes and 9 times out of 10 fruit or citrus notes can ruin the dish.  Just imagine your mashed potatoes tasting like oranges and you'll see what I'm getting at.

I also threw in some thyme, rosemary, bay leaves, and peppercorns.  Not necessary, and if we're going by a purist's definition of stock then I've just ruined everything.  As long as you don't add salt (it'll make your dishes run the risk of being too salty later) you're doing just fine, I'd say.

Put the cover on, turn the pot to low and leave it to do its thing.  8 hours is the minimum, let's say.  It'd be nearly impossible to overcook it since that's pretty much the point anyhow.

The other big advantage to using a slow cooker -- other than the ease of use -- is that very little of the liquid evaporates off.  When making stock on the stovetop I always find I lose quite a bit of liquid since it's boiling for several hours.  

I came back to mine 12 hours later.  Gorgeous, eh?

But let me warn you: we are not done yet!  We're going to put this aside for a few hours to cool to room temperature, then put it in the fridge.  DO NOT put the hot pot directly in the fridge -- you'll risk shattering either the pot or your fridge shelves due to the sudden change in temperature.  And if there's anything you don't want, it's a few quarts of boiling hot liquid and shattered ceramic/glass all over you and the inside of your fridge.

Once it's room temp put it in your fridge and let it sit for at least 8 hours.

Here's why we go to this extra step:

See all that white stuff?  That's fat.  And if we didn't go to this extra trouble, all that would be ending up in your arteries.  If you're just making vegetable broth you could probably skip this step, but for anything animal-based you definitely want to do this.

Happily, it comes off usually pretty easily.  I peeled it off the top with a spoon.

That took care of most, but not all of the little fat chunks:

Next step is to strain it.  I use a fine mesh strainer.  Be sure to put a bowl underneath to catch the broth.  It'd be heart-breaking to get this far into the process only to dump the stock straight down the drain... not that I'd know or anything...

And then just carefully pour the cold contents of the pot through the strainer.  Make sure your pot underneath is big enough to hold all the broth.

Now, if you've used scraps you probably are willing to just toss out this stuff at this point.  Since I used whole veggies I fished out some to use in soup and in stir-fry later.  It's totally up to you.

Let it sit for a few minutes to let the liquid drip out of the scraps.

Not a bad looking stock, eh?

But there's still some stuff floating around in it, can you see?  Bits of fat and bone marrow and spice and what have you.  (Sorry for the reflection, it was an especially overcast day and I was fighting with lighting.)

So here's how we handle the last little floaties, if you want.  Do you have to?  No.  I just like to because then I don't have to think about it when I go to use the broth for cooking.

I take an old flour sack towel (anything without fuzz will work, even a clean old tee-shirt) and lay it over a sieve.  Again, with a bowl underneath to catch the broth (do not forget!!):

I find stock doesn't really stain the cloth too badly, though obviously you don't want to use your good towels for this.  Any time I'm at the dollar store I'll pick up a pack of flour sack towels just because they're so handy.

It'll strain through slowly, like coffee through a paper filter, so just pour a little at a time and wait for it to strain through before doing the next splash.  It took about 2-3 minutes for me.

Here's what's not ending up in the stock:


And that's it!  Again, just to recap, what we did was take kitchen scraps, add some water, boil it for a good long while, and strain it.  Try to stick to one type of meat at a time, don't pick any veggies with a really strong flavor or... pungent... chemical properties (broccoli, brussels sprouts, and asparagus are a few examples).  No.  Salt.  Do not salt.  Just say no.  Everything else is up to your tastes!

I like to freeze mine in 1-2 cup portions.  One batch in my slow cooker produces about 8 cups of stock, give or take.  If you make more than one kind of stock, just be sure to label properly so that you can tell the difference when you go to use it:

Next up:  Never-Fried Beans.

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