By Jesse Griffiths
Photography by Carole Topalian
Of all the fundamental kitchen staples, stock remains one of the most mysterious and myth-shrouded. But the fact that more people aren’t combining essentially two items, bones and water, to make a nutritious, simple and delicious cornerstone of home cooking is probably because of a vast underestimation of how easy it really is (and you don’t even really need the bones). Begin by repeating this mantra during stock-making to declutter the mind and set yourself free: “It’s better than water.”
Any flavor that’s not off-putting, when incorporated into water, will add more depth to your cooking and create a base note in a soup, or a more visceral flavor structure to a sauce. This is primarily achieved by extracting flavor and gelatin from bones, then supplementing with vegetables and herbs. Start with the bones. We often use leftover roasted chicken bones or ham hocks to make stock, and traditionally, the leftover Thanksgiving turkey carcass is used to make a stock (or gumbo). Any bones will do, but large bones, cut to expose the most marrow and surface area, will yield a richer stock. Stock does not have to be segregated—feel free to mix chicken, turkey and rabbit bones together, though bones from richer meats (like beef and lamb) should probably be kept together. Fish bones and shellfish scraps, like shrimp shells, marry well. If you’re buying bones, be sure to get high-quality, pastured-meat bones from a reputable supplier. Feedlot toxins can collect in bone marrow, and the good stuff—grassfed meat bones from local ranchers—is inexpensive anyway.
Step 1. Gather your bones. Collect bones and meaty scraps over a period of time—freeze them until you’re ready to make a big batch of stock that will last a couple of seasons—or simply buy a few pounds of beef marrow bones or flounder bones.
Step 2. Select your vegetables. We use vegetable scraps in our stock. Of course, you can go to the farmers market and buy pristine, locally grown vegetables—or you can use onion skins, celery leaves, carrot peels and corncobs to stretch the nutrition and economy from your purchase with little noticeable difference. Herbs are good, too. A bay leaf is indispensable—especially a fresh one (or four)—but dried will do. Thyme is good, as is parsley. Amounts? Whatever you have on hand. In the spring, the stock we make contains young onions, sweet carrots and celery (or their skins and peels), and maybe a parsnip if we’re lucky. A more austere summertime stock uses corn, onion and garlic. In winter, cabbage leaves, green garlic, carrots and turnip peels produce a subtle broth that suits the season. The point is to use what you have and what’s in season.
Step 3. Choose spices. Black peppercorns add a peppery flavor. Experiment with Szechuan peppercorns, juniper berries (especially with poultry stock and meatless stocks) and the judicious addition of spices like clove and coriander. A little goes a long way. Do not salt the stock; consider it a blank canvas that can be painted later, as needed.
Step 4. Add water. Use filtered water, or water you would happily drink. Pack the bones, vegetables, herbs and spices in a large pot and cover with cold water by a couple of inches. A little wine can be added for a gentle acidity and richer color—opt for white wine with poultry and fish and red wine for meats. Go easy on the wine. In the stock, I mean.
Step 5. Simmer. Bring the stock to a simmer, not a boil. Do not boil the stock. Do not boil anything except pasta, for that matter. Simmer. That means a constant, gentle bubbling. As foam rises to the surface, carefully skim the stock to clarify it and develop a cleaner flavor. How long does stock cook? The answer is generally for as long as you can stand. If you only have two hours, then so be it. Four hours is great for poultry stock, but beef, game, bison and lamb can go longer. Fish stock needs only an hour at a simmer. Now your house smells great.
Step 6. Strain. Allow the stock to cool slightly, then strain it through the finest strainer you have or a piece of cheesecloth. Be careful—this is hot.
Step 7. Store. At this point, the stock can be reduced by further simmering until its volume is reduced by half or more. This reduced stock is stronger and takes up less space if freezer real estate is at a premium. Reduced stock may also be reconstituted with water to make the base for a soup. As is, reduced stock is perfect for pan sauces and gravies. It can be frozen in ice trays and then parceled out as needed—one cube of dense, meaty goodness at a time.
Poultry bones, like chicken, duck, quail, turkey (also rabbit)
Vegetables (carrots, celery, corn, garlic, leeks, onions, parsnips, turnips)
Herbs (bay, parsley, sage, thyme)
Spices (cloves, juniper, pepper)
Simmer for 2–6 hours.
Fish bones and shrimp shells from non-oily, white-fleshed fish
Bones must be impeccably fresh.
Vegetables (carrots, celery, corn, garlic, leeks, onions, parsnips)
Herbs (bay, parsley, thyme)
Spices (coriander, fennel seeds, pepper)
Simmer for 1 hour.
Meaty bones and scraps (beef, bison, game, goat, lamb, pork)
Vegetables (carrots, celery, garlic, leeks, onions, parsnips, turnips)
Herbs (bay, parsley, thyme)
Spices (clove, juniper, pepper)
Simmer for 4–10 hours.
Vegetables (cabbage leaves, carrots, celery, corn, leeks, onion,
Herbs (bay, parsley, thyme)
Spices (clove, coriander, juniper, pepper)
Simmer for 1–2 hours.