Sunday, January 27, 2008

Chicken Stock

Make stock. It's one of the cheapest and easiest things you can do to make your cooking better. How cheap? Free. That is, unless you figure in the energy cost of running low heat on a stovetop burner for several hours and storing it in the freezer. How easy? About as easy as filling a pot with water and turning on the heat.

Homemade stock adds depth and richness of flavor to foods that just can't be matched by canned versions or, heaven forbid, by powdered or cubed facsimiles. It's loaded with wholesome goodness. When I make up a batch of this, I'm always astounded by how much delectable nutrition just as easily could have ended up in the garbage.

Use in any recipe calling for any kind of stock or broth. Substitute for water anywhere you'd like more taste and nutrition. For instance, we cook rice in homemade stock instead of water.

Most recipes I've found for homemade stock call for various seasonings and aromatics -- celery, onions, salt, pepper, carrots. Our theory is, why bother? You're going to be seasoning whatever you're cooking the way you want it anyway. Keep the stock just stock.

Also, most recipes I've found call for using a whole chicken or two, that you throw out after cooking the stock. Our theory is, why buy a chicken just to throw it out? Why waste the wonderful meat by rendering it unpalatable through hours of boiling? Why buy a chicken for stock when you probably already are buying the ideal ingredients -- the bones that come inside whatever chicken you buy -- and then throwing them away?

To take the conversation to another level, I believe taking the life of a living creature for food is a serious, profound business. I believe that using everything possible is one way to respect that life. That's why, for instance, we never throw a scrap of meat leftovers or cuttings away; we give them to the animals outside. It's one reason that we strain and save bacon drippings in a jar for later use. And it's a reason for saving bones for stock, a reason that for me goes far beyond its astonishingly rich, velvety goodness. Somehow the wonderfulness of the stock and the rightness of the act are facets of a whole to me. It ties in with my belief that the best food tastes the best -- flavor and eating experience is inseparable from how good it is for you and how good it is for the rest of the world and its beings.

Of course, starting with a backyard chicken would be better for all that. I have no doubt it would taste better, also.

Chicken Stock

Two zip-top gallon bags stuffed with chicken bones

Stockpot (see notes below)

About 24 cups (1.5 gallons) stock. These are more concentrated than canned stock. Each cup is equivalent to about two cups commercial stock. When using in a recipe, add more water to make up for that. (Like when you add a can of water to a can of condensed soup.) Generally speaking, the precise amount of stock you use isn't as critical as getting the liquid content of the recipe to add up.

I. Collect bones
Whenever you have chicken, don't throw out the bones. Keep a gallon-sized zip-top bag in the freezer and add the bones to it after your meal. Skin, cartilage, necks -- everything just goes in there. Not organs, though -- they would make the stock bitter.

When you have two of these bags filled up, you're ready. You can use fried, roasted, rotisserie chicken -- just about anything. The only bones I don't use are those from a slow-braised dish that cooked for hours. I figure the goodness of the bones has already stewed out into the original dish.

II. Make stock
Place the bones into a stockpot. Fill with water to a couple of inches from the top of the pot. Bring to a boil. Turn down the heat and simmer for several hours. Establish the lowest, slowest bubbling you can.

I start as early in the morning as possible, so I can simmer for at least ten hours. I turn off the flame two hours before I plan to go to bed. It takes at least an hour and a half for it to cool enough to handle easily.

The simmering requires virtually no maintenance. You can even leave the house, if you trust your stove flame to not blow out. If you use an electric stove, walking away from it is about as safe as leaving a crockpot going while you're at work. If you're going out for only an hour or so, and you're nervous about leaving the stove on, just turn it off when you leave and turn it back on when you return.

We use a Lincoln Wear-Ever 9-quart stockpot made of thick, restaurant-grade aluminum. It's light for its size and it only cost about 40 bucks, including the lid. We got it from a local restaurant-supply store.

III. Put away
Strain the stock into a large, metal mixing bowl, letting the bones collect in the strainer. You can do this in stages if you don't have a bowl big enough to receive all the stock.

Ladle your stock into small plastic containers. We use one-cup yogurt containers from the days when yogurt (a) came in 8 ounce servings instead of 6-ounce servings and (b) came with replaceable plastic lids instead of foil-only tops. However, 1-cup containers are easy enough to find at the supermarket.

Remember that water expands as it freezes; don't fill your containers to the rim. Leave about 3/4 inch from the top. Place lids on.

Carefully line up the filled containers in your freezer. We arrange ours on trays that we stack into makeshift shelves in the freezer.

Discard the bones. We put them in the backyard where animals come and get them. There are never bones or debris left in the yard a day or two later. Don't worry about choking any critters. The bones are so soft by this point, you can bend and tear them as easily as cardboard.

IV. Use
Move stock cups from freezer to fridge a day or two before you plan to use them. Or, as we do most often, grab one from the freezer and run it under a hot tap until you can unmold the contents into a saucepan for thawing on the stovetop.

You can leave some stock in the refrigerator so you don't need to deal with thawing it before use. As much as you anticipate using over the next ten days or so.

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