There are few things a person can do where a minimal input of effort and resources yields an undeservedly fabulous output. Chicken stock is one of those things.
Basic chicken stock only requires some leftover chicken bones and some water – add nothing else and it’s still worlds better than the sodium soaked stuff you can get in a can from the grocery store. Kick in a few veggies and add-ins and you’ve got a stock that will make you kick yourself for not trying it sooner.
NOTE: No matter how you go about it, chicken stock is going to require chicken. A tiny bit of planning ahead here will pay off. When you roast a chicken, save the carcass (and if possible the roasting juices, although more about that later). Throw it all in a resealable plastic bag and toss it in the freezer. Roast another chicken? Throw its carcass in the bag too. You don’t like to cook chicken, but you get rotisserie chicken all the time? No problem. Chicken stock does not discriminate between home cooked bones and store bought ones. You don’t cook a lot but you eat out all the time? I have been known to ask a waiter to pack up the bones so I could make stock, and they have complied without batting an eye.
CHICKEN STOCK 101 – THE ABSOLUTE, BARE-BONES (NO PUN INTENDED) BASICS
- Bones from 2 to 3 chickens
- Clean, room temperature, water – about 5 to 7 quarts (If your tap water tastes like chemicals or you wouldn’t drink it, don’t cook with it. If necessary, buy some tasty filtered water and use that instead).
- A pot
- A spoon
- Put the bones in a pot and cover them with water. You need enough water to cover the bones by a good few inches. You may also want enough water to top off the stock as it cooks if you need to skim off the top often.
- Cook over medium heat until it barely starts to boil. As soon as it starts to bubble, turn it down so that it is barely simmering. You want to see just a few bubbles rise to the surface now and then. NOTE: This is important! If you boil the bones, the soup will look cloudy and won’t have a nice, clean, chicken taste. (I’ve heard it has something to do with the higher heat causing the proteins to bind in an unhelpful way, but don’t quote me on that). That’s also why you start off with cool water instead of hot water.
- After half an hour, skim off any scum or fat that’s floated to the top.
- Keep the stock at that barely-simmering level and let it cook for a couple of hours, until it tastes like chicken stock. If necessary, skim off the top occasionally.
- Strain the stock through a fine mesh strainer and refrigerate.
- The next morning, remove any fat that’s congealed on top, and use or freeze the stock.
Yield: About 4 – 5 quarts depending on how much water you start with and how long you cook down the stock.
That’s it – six steps and you have a perfectly delicious chicken stock ready to be used or frozen. If, however, you want to get an even better return on your investment I suggest …
CHICKEN STOCK 102
- Carcasses of 3 chickens, or carcass of one chicken and a couple of pounds of chicken wings, or any combination of bones and chicken wings. NOTE: Adding chicken wings will give your stock a fuller flavor and a silky texture from the gelatin in the wings, but you will also have more fat to skim off than if you use bones alone. Don’t forget to rinse the raw chicken wings before adding them to the stock.
- 5 to 8 quarts of clean, room temperature water
- An onion, washed and quartered through the stem end.
- A stalk or two of celery, washed, leaves trimmed off, and cut in half
- 6 cloves of garlic, rinsed but not peeled
- A few scallions, washed and cut in half
- 10 black peppercorns
- One strip of lemon zest
- Several sprigs of flat-leafed parsley, washed
- Put the bones, and wings if you’re using them, in a pot.
- Cover bones (and/or wings) with water by several inches.
- Barely bring the pot to a boil over medium heat. As soon as it starts bubbling, reduce the heat so it is barely simmering. (See the notes to the Chicken Stock 101 for information about why you want only a low simmer).
- After half an hour, skim off any fat or scum that’s risen to the surface. If you took off a lot of the liquid along with the fat or scum, you can add a couple of cups of water.
- Add the vegetables, peppercorns and parsley. Why don’t you add the vegetables at the beginning? They’ll bob to the surface and make skimming the soup more difficult. Since most of the scum will rise the surface during the first half hour of simmering, wait until you’ve skimmed it off to add the vegetables.
- Bring it back to that very low simmer, and cook the stock a couple of hours. I usually simmer it for between one and a half and two and a half hours.
- Let it cool a bit and then strain it through a fine mesh strainer. Many recipes suggest pressing down on the solids so you can get all the flavor out. It’s a good idea, but be aware that it may cause a cloudier stock.
- Refrigerate the stock.
- The next morning, remove any fat that’s congealed on top of the stock.
- Strain the stock again through a fine mesh strainer – if possible line the strainer with dampened cheese cloth. The stock’s ready to use, refrigerate for later, or freeze.
Yield: About 6 quarts of stock, depending on how much water you start with and how long you simmer the stock.
-When I make stock, I try to make it as simple as possible if I don’t know how I’ll be using it. There are, however, lots of add-ins that are fantastic. For example:
- If I cook leeks, I freeze the tough outer leaves instead of discarding them and add them to stock when I cook it.
- If I know I’m using the stock for a dish with Asian flavors, I’ll use more scallions and add a slice or two of ginger.
- Dried or fresh herbs such as thyme or marjoram help make a delicious stock. Be careful of stronger herbs like rosemary or sage because they can overpower the finished stock.
- Other vegetables can be added. Mushrooms (fresh or dried) deepen the flavor of stock and a tomato or two can brighten it up. Lots of people like to add a scrubbed carrot or two.
- One of my favorite things to add to stock is the leftover pan juices from roasting the chicken. They add concentrated chicken flavor and a lovely smooth texture to the stock.
-You may notice that I don’t add salt. You’re right – I don’t. I don’t think you need to. First of all, the chickens were probably seasoned with salt when they were originally cooked, so the bones may have some residual salt still on them. Secondly, I may want to reduce the stock later to concentrate its flavor – if I’ve already added salt, the concentrated stock may be too salty. Also, I’ll taste the finished soup, stew or sauce in which I use the stock, and, if necessary, salt it then. If the stock already has salt in it, I lose some control over how much there is in the finished product.
CONTROL THE FLAVOR: Sometimes you want a light stock to provide a subtle background flavor. Other times, you want a stronger, more assertive flavor. If you want a deeply flavored stock, you have a couple of options. The first is to reduce the stock after the final straining by putting it back in the pot and cooking it at a low simmer so that some of the water evaporates. The second method is to roast the bones before putting them in the soup pot. To roast the bones, preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Put the bones in a roasting pan that will hold them in a single layer. Roast the bones, checking them and shaking pan to move them around a bit every 10 minutes, until they’re nicely browned. It may take 30 – 45 minutes. When they’re roasted, you place them in the pot and continue with the recipe. You can even deglaze the roasting pan with a little water and add that to the stock as well.
STORING: If you won’t be using the stock right away, you can store it. My own rule of thumb is that if I think I’ll be using it within a week, I’ll store it in a covered container in the fridge. You can also freeze stock for longer storage in ice cube trays or in resealable plastic bags. If you’re freezing in bags, I strongly suggest labeling the bag (including the date) and laying them flat on a cookie sheet in the freezer until they’re frozen solid so that the bags don’t adhere to whatever ice cream you’ve got in there.
Application: So now that you have this fabulous stock, what can you make with it? Add it to sauces or poaching liquids. Cook your rice or your pasta in stock instead of water. Speaking of rice, if you’ve never made risotto with homemade stock you’re in for a treat. Use it as a base for stews or, of course, get out your pots and start making soup. Try substituting stock for water in black bean soup, vegetable soup and butternut squash soup - enjoy!