In praise of stock

It’s often said that good stock is the basis of good soup – and stews, and risottos, and many other things I love making, and so it is. But I’ve battled with finding a decent one. Oh, apart from Marigold’s vegetable bouillon – and even that is a bit salty for me (I don’t care for taste of the reduced salt version). In my past life, I used to bring stock cubes back from France, but that’s no longer a realistic option and, let’s be honest, it was a bit daft even when I was using the Eurostar as an extension to the Northern Line.

Recently all sorts of stock options have become available, even in my local supermarkets, but I’m still not thrilled. There are fresh stocks, coming in at about £2-3 for 300-500 ml; fresh gels at roughly the same price for a smaller quantity, but they’re more concentrated; improved cubes – I don’t really need to make my own, do I? Oh yes I do:  how appealing does this lot sound?

‘Water, Glucose Syrup, Salt, Sugar, Flavourings, Lower Sodium Natural Mineral Salt*, Yeast Extract, Chicken Fat (2.1%), Carrots, Vegetable Fat, Leek, Parsley, Gelling Agents (Xanthan Gum, Locust Bean Gum), Garlic, Chicken Powder (0.2%), Colours (Plain Caramel, Mixed Carotenes), Maltodextrin, Carrot Juice Concentrate, *Contains naturally occurring Potassium’.

That’s, by the way, a chicken stock gel, but probably the 2.1% of chicken fat and the chicken powder (???) gave the game away. And why the need for four forms of sugar: glucose syrup, sugar, caramel and maltodextrin? AND, and, and, remember the rule of ingredients lists – they’re in quantity order. So there’s more glucose syrup, salt and sugar than chicken or vegetables. Hm. Think I’ll make my own.

stock remainsBut doesn’t it take ages? That was my objection before I started, and I soon discovered that though it is a long process – and one that can be, er, fragrant – it can easily be fitted around anything else I’m doing, because 99% of the time I can just leave it to do its thing.

Another objection was that I might not have enough bits and pieces and I didn’t want to end up buying things specifically for stock – after all, part of the aim was to be economical as well avoid the chicken powder, locust bean gum and maltodextrin I didn’t particularly want to add.

That was easily addressed.

I like a roast chicken, but I love a good one. So I pay decent money and don’t have roast chicken all the time. That’s my choice, and it means that I use flavour-packed, healthy chicken. It would be criminal to throw out the remains, but one chicken isn’t enough for a decent quantity of stock – so I pick over the carcass, get rid of as much fat and skin as possible (the birds love it), and freeze the bones until I have enough.

And then I make my stock, often combining making it with cooking something else like a carrot soup which will give me other left-overs: carrot peelings, the ends of celery sticks and leeks. OK, the remains can look like something rather unpleasant, but the stock – wow, the stock.

So here goes. This isn’t an organised recipe, really, but it is seriously worth trying – and I’ll follow it in the next posts with a couple more soups I made with the start of the stock ingredients.

Chicken stock

A heap of chicken bones, the result of two or three roasts, picked over and frozen
Ditto of carrot peelings (wash the carrots first) and ends
Ditto leek – also carefully washed – or you can use an onion instead
Ditto celery…
Water

And that’s it. I might add some parsley from the garden in summer, or maybe a sprig of thyme in winter – but I go easy on the additions because they can become emphatic when frozen, and this stock is going to be frozen. That’s also why I don’t add any seasoning; the dishes eventually containing the stock can be seasoned when they’re being cooked.

I put the vegetables and the frozen chicken bones in a large casserole, cover them well with lots of water and stick the casserole on the hob. I bring it to the boil and then leave it simmering for a couple of hours over a really low heat. Of course it could go in a stove or indeed on one – I’ve a friend who simmers her stock casserole on her woodburner, but that assumes the existence of a woodburning stove with enough room above it for a casserole and a family who don’t mind the smell, because there’s no doubt that boiling up bones does smell. Not offensively, or at least I don’t find it offensive – just, um, unappealing. I don’t skim my stock at this stage; if I’ve done a good enough job of picking over the bones and washing the veg, I find I don’t need to. Then I go and do something more interesting.

When I go back, the veg are all soft and the meat has fallen off the chicken bones. This is the draining stage and is when the debris looks truly horrible. I get a large bowl and a large sieve, a bigger sieve than I think I need since my first attempt which left boiled bones on the floor, and empty the casserole into the sieve. I prop the sieve above the bowl on a couple of jars and just let it drain while I go away and – you guessed it – do something more interesting.

Then I remember, possibly an hour or so later, and give the sieve a final shake. (All the bits go in the food recycling bin; I don’t put cooked stuff or bones in my compost bins.) The bowl – now full of cold stock – is covered with cling film and put in the fridge overnight.

My fridge is cold (and quite new – my old one got tropical, ahem, but I’m more careful now) and when I take the bowl out the following morning, a layer of fat has formed on top. If I’m very careful lifting the bowl I can manage not to disturb it, and it’s consequently quite easy to remove. Then I pot up the stock into freezer containers. I use a ladle which holds 100ml comfortably, so I know that a freezer box has, say, 300ml in it. But I also fill little 100ml tubs, which are phenomenally useful. And tasty.

(Of course, the long, slow cooking that stock requires can seem uneconomic, but I don’t make stock all the time and, when I do, I make shedloads – enough to keep me going for a couple of months at least. It’s so flavoursome that I don’t need to use a lot, which is why the 100ml tubs are so good. They give a dish a depth of flavour without overwhelming everything else. Right, I’m making carrot soup – where are those bones?)

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2 thoughts on “In praise of stock

  1. I save chicken carcasses in the freezer until I have lots and make a massive stock too. Sometimes it gets frozen in an organised fashion, this time I had a horrific cold so I made vast amounts of chicken and tomato soup and it all went. Otherwise I use the Knorr concentrated liquid chicken stock, which as least has chicken meat and fat top of the list of ingredients (after water, bah!)

    1. I hope your soup got rid of your cold – I’m hoping it works on toothache, but suspect I may be wrong there. I’ve only used the Knorr things once (a friend of mine has worked with them on recipes, so I thought I should0, but I suppose water might come top in any ingredient list of my own. Hm – or maybe not…

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