I recently ran out of my homemade beef stock, so my day off today is a perfect time to whip up a new batch. Making your own stock or broth can seem intimidating in the beginning – I know it did for me! – so I thought a little summary post might be worthwhile.
If you’re reading this blog, you probably have at least some idea why making your own stock is preferable to buying it at the store. The basic idea of stock is easy. Sometimes when reading about making stock, it sounds like you need to be a master chef just to make the stock itself – that’s not even discussing the skills needed to make the recipes that use the stock! But here’s my secret: I can’t cook worth a damn. Making stock is so easy, even I can do it, and that means you can too! This post got a bit rambly, but I promise, all the tangents are about options for making this easier, not harder!
Part the First: Preparation
First off, I suggest training yourself to look at your meal preparation and grocery usage differently before you actually start in on a batch of stock, unless you want to just straight-up buy all your ingredients (which I don’t, usually). Plenty of “scraps” are actually the perfect basis for stock. Did you grab a rotisserie chicken at the grocery store for a quick dinner? Do you have a mess of bones and a weird bag of organs from your Thanksgiving turkey? Did you get some fancy bone-in steaks for a special anniversary dinner? Those can all be used for stock! (Except the turkey liver. But the neck? That’s gold. Save it.) Start a large ziplock bag in the freezer for all those random bones – one for beef, one for poultry.
Lots of stock recipes start by instructing you to roast the bones. This can be really daunting for the novice stock-maker, because it makes things look much more complicated than they really are. Now, don’t get me wrong, roasting the bones is well worthwhile. (Maillard reaction, it’s a thing. Chemistry is delicious.) But here’s the secret: look back at the last paragraph. Notice anything? That rotisserie chicken is cooked. Your turkey has been roasted. You probably seared those steaks nicely, even if you like them rare.
Could you re-roast the bones that were inside the chicken and turkey and get an even better flavor out of them? Probably. They’ll get more benefit because they’ll be roasted directly rather than while covered in meat, leading to more direct browning. But if you compare your roasted-in-the-bird bones to raw, you’ll definitely notice that they smell richer and more flavorful. I’m officially giving you permission to go with that.
There are also plenty of things you can do to make roasting the bones less of an undertaking. For instance, you could give everything a good hard sear instead of a slower roast, if you need to do it on the day you plan to make the stock. Or, roast them ahead of time. You can roast the night before and make stock the next day, or simply roast them on a cold night and freeze them for making stock later. If you roasted the bird (or the beef roast, or whatever) yourself, carve the meat and then pop the bones back in the oven while you eat to brown a little more. But in the end, you’ve got a bunch of at least partially-roasted bones, and its time to make stock!
Part the Second: Stock Time!
So you’ve got your bones, they’re all roasted and ready to go. Start by putting them in a large pot, preferably one that is tall rather than wide. Tip: if your bones are picked super-clean of meat, add a bit of meat as well – preferably cooked or seared, again for those Maillard benefits. Your bones will give lots of good stuff to the stock, especially gelatin which makes it velvety, but a bit of meat will really boost the flavor. There are a couple of ways to approach this. First is to take the opportunity to kill two birds with one stone by making stock AND cooking your dinner in the stock pot. You could use some stew meat in the pot for the first part, to cook it, then pull out the meat chunks and have them for dinner with some noodles, potatoes, or other accompaniment. Or add some chicken breasts, then pull them out and make chicken salad from them. This is of course a great tip, but takes some planning and coordination, which I generally lack. If you are me, instead you would check and see if you have any leftovers that are in danger of outstaying their welcome. Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t think you should compromise on the quality of your stock ingredients. Never use meat that’s gone bad or that you wouldn’t be willing to eat. But also, don’t bust out the most expensive cut of steak in your freezer just to beef up your stock (heh, heh). I’ve been known to pull out a steak that got a bit freezer-burned, cut off the worst of the damage, and toss it in the stock pot, and my stock turns out delicious, thankyouverymuch. You can be frugal and still come out with a quality product.
Cover your bones and meat generously with COLD water. Starting with cold water will allow for maximum flavor extraction, and also removal of elements that compete with the good stuff for space. Make sure you use plenty of water, since you’re also going to add veggies. Turn on the heat and let the pot slowly come up to a simmer while you prepare your other ingredients. Try not to let it boil (although it’s not the end of the world if it does, just pull it down to a simmer asap). There are two more components to your stock: vegetables and aromatics.
Let’s tackle the veggies first. Traditionally you’ll want to start with celery, carrots, and onions. This is called mirepoix, because gods forbid we don’t have a fancy French word for every damn thing in the kitchen. Technically a standard mirepoix is 2 parts onion, 1 part celery, and 1 part carrot (it’s easiest to figure this out by weight with a kitchen scale), but I typically just use plenty of each, heavy on the onion. Once again, you’ll want to use good quality ingredients, but with a healthy dose of frugality. If you typically eat only celery hearts, buy the whole head instead, and use the more flavorful outer stalks for your stock. Save the leaves and tops when you trim your celery for the stock pot too. Use the larger, tougher carrots as well, as long as their flavor isn’t too bitter. Another confession – I’ve taken just-sprouted onions, and removed the baby stalks to put the rest of the onion in the stock pot rather than waste it. Just cut all the veggies into rough chunks, nothing fancy. You don’t even need to peel the carrots, just give them a little wash.
You can certainly supplement with other veggies, but don’t skip out on the core three. Leeks, parsnips, turnips, and even mushrooms all go well in stock. (And we’re not even discussing vegetable stock – that’ll be another post!) Some sources also recommend that you add a tomato (or some tomato paste) for a brown stock of beef, veal, or duck, to add color, flavor, and a touch of acidity. If you are feeling ambitious, and you want to do things strictly by the book, you can also roast the veggies. But in the spirit of this post, I will repeat: it’s OK if you don’t. Your stock will still be way better than storebought. I would rather have great homemade stock that isn’t soul-sucking than skip making my own because I felt like a failure for not roasting the veggies.
Before you toss in your prepared vegetables, go ahead and check on your stockpot. It may not even be simmering yet. If there’s any foam on top, skim it off with a spoon and discard it. Add your veggies, and now let’s discuss aromatics.
Aromatics are basically herbs and spices, and their primary purpose in stock is purely flavor. Again, even more so than with the vegetables, you have some core traditional elements, and some options. Namely, the core flavors are going to be bay leaves, thyme, parsley, peppercorns, and garlic. How much to use depends on how big a batch of stock you’re making, and how much you like the flavors of each. A tip regarding parsley: you can use the leaves for something else, and just use the stalks in your stock. They’re packed with flavor and usually end up being discarded.
In addition to these, you can add other components like rosemary, fennel or fennel seed, juniper berries, oregano sprigs, cloves, mace, and others, depending on what will complement your meats. The main thing you do NOT want to add is salt. Your stock, once it’s made, is a blank slate. It can go on to be used for soups, sauces, cooking liquid for other foods such as rice, braising liquid for the crock pot, all kinds of things. Some of these uses might call for the stock to be significantly reduced, thus concentrating the flavors immensely. You can always add salt later when you know what you’re making with your stock.
Add your chosen aromatics to the pot, and skim any more foam that’s accumulated. Once the stock comes to a slow simmer, reduce the heat. Keep an eye on it for the next 30 minutes or so, and skim off any foam that rises to the surface. This is actually important, because the foam will not only affect the clarity of your stock, but will in fact compete with more desirable elements like gelatin that you’re trying to extract. I know this post has gone on for a while now, but keep in mind our actual timeline. You pre-roasted your bones, so you just had to fill your pot with water and toss them in. While the liquid came up to a simmer, you chopped your veggies, prepared your aromatics, and cleaned up. After a half hour of simmering and skimming, you’re pretty much done for the next 6-8 hours. You can go on about your day while your stock cooks. You want the heat nice and low, just enough to maintain a slow simmer. I’ll stir the stock 2 or 3 times during the day, but it really requires very little attention.
Hours later, you’re ready to finish up your stock. The general idea here is that you’ve got to strain out the bones, meat, veggies, and other ingredients, leaving you with just the cooking liquid, which is now full of delicious goodness. A colander lined with cheesecloth is your best bet, and you can pull the larger chunks out with tongs or a slotted spoon. You’ll want to cool the stock quickly, since the longer it spends cooling, the more chance bacteria have to take up residence. If possible, strain the stock into another large pot or bowl, which you can put in an ice water bath in your kitchen sink. The next step depends on whether you plan to freeze or can your stock for storage.
If you’re planning to can your stock, you’ll want to chill it until the fat rises to the top, then skim it off. At this point you can either prepare your pressure canner, bring your stock back up to a boil, and can it immediately, or refrigerate the stock overnight and do the canning the next day. You MUST use a pressure canner to safely can meat stock. It is NOT SAFE to can stock using a water bath canner! I freeze my stock, so as soon as my large batch is reasonably cool, I measure it into freezer containers in either 1 quart or 1 cup increments, then transfer it to the freezer. If freezing, you can wait and skim the fat when you’re ready to use it. The fat will form a good seal that protects the stock itself from the air, which is the enemy of freshness in the freezer. If you want smaller portions to use in making sauces, try freezing stock in an ice cube tray! Just pop the frozen cubes out and put them in a freezer bag to store.
Just like anything else, your first couple of batches are going to be a lot of trial and error as you learn what setup gives you the best workflow in your kitchen. Start with smaller batches while you get things figured out. Once you’ve got the hang of things, though, you’ll be able to do a nice big batch of stock with less than 2 hours of active work time, split between setup and cleanup. Today’s batch was the least work-intensive one yet, and I filled my big stockpot chock full. My final yield was 8.5 quarts of stock!