Thursday, January 27, 2011

Chicken Stock

Today's post will be a brief tutorial on making chicken stock in a home kitchen.  The picture below has nothing to do with chicken stock.  It's just that the process of making chicken stock doesn't make for very attractive pictures.  So I thought before I launched into today's post that I would share a picture I took a few mornings ago.  Winter can be a long and difficult season (even if you like the food)--its joys few and far between.  For me, one of the pleasures of this time of year is the early morning sky.  The muted colors of the pre-dawn sky, visible through the silhouettes of the barren trees, is a sight lovely enough to compensate for many of the more dreary aspects of this dark season.

Now, on to chicken stock... 

Whenever I buy chicken, I always try to purchase the whole bird rather than just the parts I might need for a specific dish. If you are not purchasing your chicken this way, you should consider it. It is not difficult to cut up a chicken. If you don't know how, I'm told that most grocery stores will do it for you if you ask them when you purchase a whole bird. But why not learn to do it yourself? (Perhaps this would be a good topic for a future post...) Parts not immediately needed can be individually wrapped and frozen—you will be laying in a supply of meat for future meals.

For me, the main benefit in purchasing whole birds is that it allows me to prepare my own chicken stock. Whenever I cut up a chicken, I place the carcass (cut into 2 or 3 chunks) into a freezer bag. I usually add the wings, or a portion of each of the wings, to the freezer bag as well. Wings have a lot of cartilage which contributes body to the stock. When my frozen stash of chicken bones and trimmings has reached about 4 pounds, I make a batch of stock.

Besides making the very best soup, homemade chicken stock is useful for so many different things. It adds body and depth to certain pasta sauces, and it provides a flavorful cooking medium for braised dishes or a unifying agent for moistening a vegetable medley. It can be used for grain pilafs, risotto or polenta. It is also a handy liquid for deglazing a pan in which you have browned a chicken breast, pork chop or steak—the deglazings then providing the foundation of a nice impromptu sauce. One of the many reasons that homemade chicken stock is good for all of these things is that it typically has no added salt. If you want to reduce it to concentrate the flavor, you don't need to worry that the resulting reduction will be too salty. Homemade chicken stock is also missing a whole host of additives that are found in commercial "broths"—it only contains the things you put into it.

So what should you put in a basic chicken stock? Not surprisingly, mostly chicken. Everything else that goes in is just a supporting player—present to round out and enhance the flavor of the chicken. You shouldn't discern the strong presence of carrots, celery or bay leaf, for example. Just remember when adding other ingredients, you aren't making vegetable or herb are making chicken stock.

The standard background ingredients added to chicken stock are onions, carrots and celery (called mirepoix). Garlic cloves, leeks (just the green, or the whole leek), parsley stems, thyme sprigs, bay leaf and black peppercorns are frequently added to the mix. But all of these have a much lesser role even than the standard mirepoix and should be used sparingly. You should not add old or decaying vegetables, or trimmings and peelings of vegetables that really belong in the compost pile. Just as your stock will taste of the good things you add to it, it will also taste of the bad things you add to it.

At the bottom of this post is the recipe that I give out in my classes, but I don't pull it out when I make stock—and you don't need to either. Making stock is easy. For a medium sized batch, choose a 6 to 8 quart stock pot and fill it about 3/4 full with the chicken carcasses.

Cover with cold water by an inch or two. Bring to a gentle simmer. Use a ladle to carefully skim away all of the foam that rises to the surface. Initially this foam will be an unappetizing brown or beige color. As the production of foam begins to dissipate, the foam will become paler and paler in color. The foam represents blood, fat and other impurities present in the carcasses. If not skimmed away, these impurities will boil back into the stock, making it cloudy and muddying the flavor.

the impurities begin to come to the surface

after a while, they are a lighter color

the bowl of skimmings--if you are tempted not to skim, think of this awful stuff being part of your stock...

While the chicken bones release their impurities, cut a peeled onion, a peeled carrot and a stalk or two of celery (ends trimmed) into largish chunks. When I make stock I strive for a mix of mirepoix that is half onion, a quarter carrot and a quarter celery.

If you do not have any celery, don't run out and buy it just for stock. Many chefs do not add it at all and it should be used sparingly—it has a very strong flavor and if too much is used you will be able to distinctly taste it in the finished stock. To this, add a smashed clove or two of garlic, a sprig or two of fresh thyme, a few peppercorns and a small bay leaf. Be careful with the bay. Like celery, it is strong and can be bitter. If necessary, break a larger leaf in half. If I have parsley or leeks on hand, I add some parsley stems and chopped leeks, or just a portion of the green of the leek.

When there is no longer any foam rising to the surface of the stock,

add the prepared vegetables, herbs and spices. If you have removed a lot of the water while skimming away the foam, add some boiling water to restore the level of liquid in the pot. Return the contents of the pot to a simmer. The vegetables will initially produce foam as they give off their impurities. This too should be skimmed away.

The stock should be cooked at a very gentle simmer—just one or two bubbles, regularly punctuating the surface of the stock is sufficient. If simmered or boiled hard, any fat given off by the chicken will be emulsified back into the stock. Hard simmering will also pound up the vegetables and any meat remaining on the bones into little bits that will cloud the stock. As the stock simmers, keep an eye on it. Occasionally skim away any more foam and any apparent fat. If you are not simmering the stock too hard, don't worry about skimming away all of the fat now, it is easily dealt with when the stock is cold.

How long you simmer the stock is up to you. Chefs are all over the map on this, but I think the general consensus is somewhere in the 2 to 4 hour range. I usually shoot for about 3 hours. This produces a nice flavorful, lightly gelatinous stock.

When the stock is done, carefully pour it through a large, fine meshed strainer into a clean container. If you don't have a large enough strainer, pour the stock first through a colander and after discarding the contents of the colander, strain the stock again through a fine meshed sieve. Whichever way you do it, make sure that you allow the bones and vegetables to drain thoroughly—you shouldn't press on the solids because they will disintegrate or turn to mush and cloud up the stock—but you can jiggle the sieve or colander a bit to make sure there aren't any pockets of trapped stock.

Cool the stock as quickly as possible. It is worth taking the trouble to fill up a sink with ice water to make an ice bath. Setting the container of stock in this bath of icy water and stirring occasionally will help the stock to cool rapidly.

For food safety reasons, you should aim to get the stock cooled below 70° F within 2 hours—something easily within reach if you use an ice bath.

after about 35 minutes in the ice bath

After the stock is as cool as my ice bath will get it, I like to transfer it to the refrigerator where it will continue to cool and where any fat in the stock will rise to the surface and solidify. The next day, this fat is easily lifted away and discarded. At that point you will have a virtually fat free stock.

Package and freeze your stock in containers appropriate for your kitchen. If you tend to use 1/2 cup portions of stock, then freeze it in half cup containers. Some people might only use their stock in large quantities and might want to freeze it in pint- or quart-sized batches. In my home kitchen, it works best to freeze the stock in one cup portions. I use zip lock sandwich bags, pressing out as much air as possible before sealing.  I then lay the bags flat in a half-sheet pan (rimmed baking sheet) to freeze.

When you thaw the stock, bring it to a full rolling boil before using. Once you begin to make and freeze your own stock, you will wonder what you ever did without it.
Basic Chicken Stock

4 lbs. chicken bones or legs, wings and backs
1 onion, peeled and quartered
1 carrot, peeled and cut into chunks
1 or 2 stalks celery, cut into chunks
1 clove of garlic, smashed
1 bay leaf
4-5 peppercorns
3-4 sprigs of thyme

Rinse the bones or chicken pieces well. Remove any large pieces of fat. Place the chicken in a large pot and add just enough cold water to cover the chicken by an inch or 2. Over medium high heat, bring the water to a simmer, reduce the heat so that the stock is just bubbling gently. Skim the foam and fat that come to the surface, and discard. Add the vegetables and aromatics. Continue to simmer and skim for another 3 or 4 hours. Add hot water as necessary to keep the chicken and vegetables covered.

Strain the finished stock. It will keep in the refrigerator for 4 or 5 days and will keep frozen for about 4 months—boil for a few minutes before using. Makes 3 1/2 to 4 quarts stock.


Christy said...

I know your focus is on the preparation, presentation, and taste of food, but chicken stock is also very healthy, even capable of healing and boosting immunity. :) Thank you for your thorough explanation. I learned a few new things.

Paige said...

Yes...I think it is. I am not an expert on nutrition, but I know that there is probably a reason that a bowl of chicken soup makes you feel better when you're under the weather.