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The Way to Great Homemade Stocks

Fine Cooking Issue 48
Photo: Scott Phillips
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Good stock is a real treasure for cooks. And while making your own takes a little time, it isn’t difficult. You just put poultry, meat, or fish bones (or no bones, if making vegetable stock), aromatic vegetables, and herbs in a pot, add cold water to cover, and simmer. The proportion of ingredients can vary widely, and you’ll still get good stock. But what does matter are good techniques—frequent skimming, simmering (not boiling), and proper cooling and storing. I’ll describe the techniques here and explain why they work.  

To start, choose the right cooking vessel. A tall, narrow pot is good because it maintains a nice, slow evaporation, so you don’t have to constantly add more water.

Bony, jointy pieces make a stock gel

For full-bodied, gelatinous meat stocks, choose parts of the carcass that are rich in collagen. Collagen is present in connective tissue (joints and tendons) and in bones. As these parts simmer, the collagen denatures (unwinds) and combines with the water, forming gelatin.  

Veal bones are great for stock because younger animals have more collagen than older ones with mineralized bones. As you would expect, parts with many joints and bones, such as chicken necks and backs, are particularly good for making gelatinous stock. If there’s meat clinging to the bones, all the better.  

Blood on the bones tends to make a stock cloudy. Soaking them for 20 minutes before making stock will remove the blood.  

For brown stocks, roasting the bones before simmering adds caramelized flavors. I roast the bones in a low-sided pan in a 400°F oven until the bones begin to brown. I then add chopped onions and keep roasting and turning them until the bones and onions are a deep brown.

Soft, ripe vegetables leach out more flavor

Choose aromatic vegetables like onions, leeks, celery, carrots, and possibly garlic. This is a good opportunity to dig into your vegetable bin for the oldest, ripest vegetables (soft is fine; moldy or decaying is not). These have softer cell walls and contribute the most flavor. They’re sweeter, and many of the vegetables’ insoluble pectic substances, which hold cells together, have changed to soluble pectins, which dissolve and allow the cells to fall apart.

Start with cold water

Plunging vegetables into boiling water causes the surface starch cells to swell. This is a good thing when you want to keep flavor in the vegetables, but for stock you want to leach out the flavor, so cold water is best. I’ve demonstrated this by boiling two equivalent sets of vegetables side by side. One batch began in cold water, the other in hot. The stock with the cold-water start had a deeper color, and its flavor was more intense (as determined in a blind taste test).

A cold-water start is important for the bones, too. When you add bones to boiling water, some of the proteins immediately coagulate into very fine particles that cloud the stock. But when you heat them slowly in cold water, the proteins tend to coagulate in clumps and float to the top. Skim off these foamy coagulated proteins frequently to help prevent a cloudy stock.  

Don’t cover the pot. You want to encourage slow evaporation so flavors can intensify.

Simmer but don’t stir

While the bones and vegetables are cooking, it’s important to keep the liquid at a simmer, not a boil. Boiling will cause the fat and water to form an emulsion, producing a cloudy, greasy stock. And don’t stir, as this, too, will cause some emulsification of fat and water. You want all the fat to float to the top when the stock cools so that it can be scooped off. Once the stock is completely defatted, you can let it boil without fear of cloudiness.  

Chicken stock is usually simmered for 3 to 5 hours, beef or veal stock for 8 to 12 hours, and fish stock for 30 minutes at most. The range of cooking times is mainly due to the size of the bones, but there’s also a difference in collagen. Fish bones aren’t just thinner and smaller than chicken and beef, but fish collagen also decomposes much faster.

Cool quickly and completely

Most foods should be refrigerated immediately after cooking, especially stocks, whose nutrients and moisture make an ideal medium for bacterial growth. Refrigerating stock requires extra care because it’s essential that it drops through the bacterial danger zone (40° to 140°F) quickly. One way to do this is to chill the stock in shallow, uncovered containers—less than 3-1/2 inches is good. In a deeper container, the stock would stay in the danger zone for hours.  

A faster, more efficient way to cool stock quickly is to use an ice bath. Set a pot or metal bowl of strained stock inside a larger pot or in a stopped-up sink. Fill the larger pot with ice water. Stir the stock as it sits in the ice water so it cools down even faster. Then you can refrigerate the stock, remove the congealed fat layer on top, and store it in the refrigerator or freezer. (It’s handy to freeze stock in smaller containers for when you need just a small amount.) The stock will keep for five to seven days in the refrigerator or three months in the freezer.  

Always reboil stock before using it. I let it boil for about five minutes, enough time to get it to a rolling boil and kill any lurking bacteria. If bubbles appear in a refrigerated stock, it has fermented, so discard it immediately.

Ingredients for stock

For every gallon of finished meat or poultry stock, use:
8 lb. bones
6 qt. water
1 medium onion, or 1 small leek (including dark green part), coarsely chopped
1 medium carrot, coarsely chopped
1 large rib celery, coarsely chopped
4 sprigs parsley, 1 sprig thyme, 1 bay leaf,
1/2 tsp. cracked black peppercorns

For every gallon of finished fish stock, use:
10 lb. bones
5 qt. water (or 4 qt. water and 1 qt. dry white wine)
1 large leek (white part only), coarsely chopped
1 large rib celery, coarsely chopped
1 medium parsnip, coarsely chopped
4 sprigs parsley, 1 sprig thyme, 1 bay leaf, 1/2 tsp. cracked black peppercorns


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