Pretty Dishes

Chicken Stock
December 5, 2010, 12:55 am
Filed under: Recipes

Planning and preparing the recipes for my French Thanksgiving took a few days to complete, as will the retelling here in a series of posts. Once I had decided on the final menu and gathered all of the ingredients, the first step in putting it together was making my very first from-scratch chicken stock.

You’re probably wondering, why go to all the trouble? Under normal circumstances, I wouldn’t. The majority of recipes taste perfectly fine with store-bought stock/broth because they use a relatively small amount and/or are largely flavored by other ingredients. (I buy mine in bulk from Costco: Pacific Natural Foods’ Organic Free Range Chicken Broth.)

But I was hoping to achieve a show-stopping onion soup, and that demanded an exceptional broth. I knew there was little hope of achieving this if I didn’t make it myself, plus I was excited at the challenge. I could not get the outstanding soup from Les Halles out of my head, so naturally I consulted the Les Halles Cookbook for the recipe.

Onion Soup Les Halles calls for dark chicken stock to impart a deep, rich flavor. I learned from reading Anthony Bourdain’s inspiring and thoughtful discussion about stocks (in the cookbook’s front matter) that “dark” versus “light” stocks simply require the additional step of roasting the bones and vegetables before simmering.

Although it’s not quite “simple” as it requires some extra preparation and at least another hour in an already all-day process. But before I could even begin roasting, I needed to acquire some chicken bones.

I wasn’t expecting to not be able to find bones for purchase somewhere. I assumed that some grocery stores and surely most butcher shops would have at least frozen bones bagged for sale for aspirational home cooks such as myself. I’m sure local restaurants have a separate bulk source for their stock bones and bits (or maybe they buy everything the local shops have, which is why there is little left for the consumer?). I made a few calls and had no luck, though I didn’t do an exhaustive search all over town. (If you know of a market that does sell them, please share!) So I improvised: I bought a variety of bone-in chicken cuts (thighs, drumsticks, breasts with ribs) as well as a whole cooked chicken from the deli counter.

Unfortunately that weekend before Thanksgiving I was home alone with no one to cook for and several pounds of chicken meat that needed using so I could get to the bones underneath. This meant that I spent Friday and Saturday preparing various chicken dishes that could serve as lunches the following week. The dogs also benefited from my cooking marathon (they hardly left the kitchen with all of its wonderful smells). Finally I had stripped the bones of their meat and I was ready to get them in the oven Saturday evening.

Once I had all of the bones in a pile it became very obvious I did not have enough. I couldn’t bring myself to return to the store for more whole chickens to pick apart or worse, for more raw meat. I just figured I’d end up with a slightly less strong chicken essence but that the stock would certainly be good enough. (I was losing some enthusiasm by that point.) I also followed Bourdain’s insider tip of tossing the bones with some tomato paste and a sprinkling of flour for color and heartiness.

Into a lightly oiled pan the coated bones went. In a separate baking dish were the onions, carrots, and celery. Bourdain notes that the vegetable volume should not exceed a third of the bone volume, but if I’m being perfectly honest, I was at about a fifty-fifty ratio. I justified this as necessary for additional flavor since I knew I was lacking in the chicken department.

The pans go into a 350-degree oven until the bones are browned and the vegetables are caramelized. This took roughly 45 minutes. I was pleased enough with the results and planned to finish the stock the next day.

On Sunday morning I combined the bones and vegetables in a very large stockpot (the thing is huge—it must be at least 6 gallons. I found it at Goodwill a few weeks ago and was very happy to have it on hand!); tossed in thyme sprigs, bay leaves, and whole peppercorns; and covered it all with 2 1/2 gallons of cold water. I watched it simmer away, skimming as needed, for nearly five hours. Most recipes recommend anywhere from four to ten hours; if I had had more bones I might have left it on longer, but after five hours it seemed like mine had given all they could, plus the water level had reduced by about half.

I tasted the stock several times during the process, especially as I was deciding to stop simmering and strain it. It seemed too watered down for what I was expecting, so I worried it was a failure. I was disappointed that it seemed to be holding a distinct tomato scent and flavor also; I must have put too much paste on the bones. Still, overall the stock was decent (at least as good as store-bought broth), and I was getting impatient to be done with it all. I removed the large chunks from the pot and then strained the stock through all five colanders I own, each one with progressively smaller holes. For the final pass I lined the sieve with cheesecloth to be sure and weed out even the finest particles.

In the end I had a little more than a gallon of stock. I needed a quart for the onion soup as well as several cups for use in some of the other dishes. I put a large container in the freezer and kept the rest in the refrigerator. Letting it sit for a few days did it good, it seems, as the flavor was better by the time I used it. (Spoiler alert: The soup was really spectacular, and I was very proud. Even with my errors in stock-making, it was definitely one of the best homemade soups I’ve eaten.)

So would I do it again? Yes. Definitely.

But knowing now what issues can arise, I would do a few things differently, of course. First of all, I have already started a collection of bones in the freezer so that I will have some around next time, though I still would like to find a source for ready bones since I’m not exactly piling them up every week. Related to this, it really isn’t worth going to all the trouble just to make a small batch of stock, so the more bones I have also means the more stock I can make at one time, which means fewer hours spent by the stove. It will still have to be a special occasion or a very lazy weekend at home for me to put in the effort.

I will also scale back the amount of tomato paste; instead of coating the bones I think I’ll just use my hands to lightly rub each bone with a fine film. Otherwise, I’m considering additions to the stock such as leeks and garlic, probably a small amount to test out and build from.

All in all, it was a great learning experience that turned out quite decently and has inspired me to give other stocks a go. I don’t know what the next one will be, but I’m positive it will be an even smoother process and an even better result next time.


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