Cooking, Savory, Technique

Playing Chicken (Stock)

Right now, I’m making chicken stock. And the smell, from across the house, is making me so ravenous that it’s hard to concentrate on work. There may be smells more delicious, or more cerebrally appealing. But so far as I can tell, there is none that smells so much like Food — primal, meaty, nutritious, starvation-preventing food — than simmering chicken, onions, celery, carrots, and spices. It grabs you from the inside, and pulls.

Which is funny when you think about it, because so far as I can tell, chicken stock is not food. It’s an ingredient. It’s a means to make food-things, and not a food-thing in and of itself. In fact, the best chicken stocks for home use may smell like chicken when they’re cooking, but they don’t taste like much but richness, savoriness, and just a touch of meatiness when they’re done. They should be like a rich substitute for water in a dish, not like a can of chicken noodle soup.

The reason for this is that stock for home use needs to be flexible. We home cooks only have a limited amount of time to make stock, and a limited amount of freezer space to store it. While restaurants may be able to use a half dozen different varieties in a dozen different dishes, we only have the resources to use one. Or preferably two (chicken and beef). So we need to make those stocks go a long way for a lot of different uses. And while you can make the chicken flavor stronger by concentrating it when you want, say, chicken soup, it is difficult to make it weaker without making it taste watery.

So given that, I thought that I’d post a couple of ideas on making chicken stock, as well as a couple of interesting links.

The variety: There are two main types of chicken stock — white, and brown. White stock, for which I will post a recipe here, takes a very long time, but is easy to do, doesn’t take much attendance in the process, and is very versatile. Basically, you toss your chicken and your vegetables into the pot, and you simmer for 4-8 hours.

Brown stock, on the other hand, is quicker, but more involved. Here, you need to brown your chicken bits in the oven like you would with bones for a beef stock, then simmer it with your vegetables for about two hours. Brown stock is more strongly flavored than white. It’s quite lovely, actually, and perfect for soups and consumes. But it is less flexible in terms of other kinds of cooking.

The chicken: There are a couple of schools of thought as to what to do in terms of your chicken. My general preference is to freeze the carcasses of roasted chickens after I’ve more or less picked them clean, then toss about two of them into an eight quart stock pot when I’m ready to make the final product. But for various reasons, you might not want to do this. You might be put off by used bones (some of which may have been in contact with your, or your guests’, mouths); or you might want a slightly meatier flavor in your stock; or you might not make as much roasted chicken as I do. In this case, lots of people use necks and wings — two to four pounds of them — to get the same effect. They give them a rough chop to expose the bones, and away they go.

There is also a third approach to the chicken, which I have not tried (UPDATE: I have now done this several times, and it is by far my preferred method), but seems to have a lot to speak in its favor. That is: some people use chicken feet. This is a very old way to make stock. It seems to have been a preferred method at the end of the nineteenth, and beginning of the twentieth century. And it is a bit more involved. It involves pre-boiling the feet, then clipping off the ends of the toes (to expose the bone marrow). It’s kind of gross. It’s very feety. But I have read that it produces a stock that is neutral in flavor but very meaty, and very filled with gelatin. As in: when you cool it, it solidifies. It works exactly like other stocks in hot dishes, but its gelatinous nature makes it a lot richer in the end.

The Vegetables: I’m sort of a classic chicken stock person. The only vegetables I add to mine are carrot, celery, and onion. It makes an aromatic stock, but not one that tastes particularly strongly of any one particular thing. But I recognize that other home cooks have a different approach to this. I know a few cooks who save whatever vegetable scraps don’t look completely gross, freeze them, then toss them into the stock. And my experience of eating things made in that way is that they’re just fine too. They aren’t the same as the classic French version, but they have a perfectly good flavor. If you are going to do this, however, there are a couple of caveats — a couple of vegetables to avoid, unless you want a stock that tastes like just one thing, or that is gritty, or that is the wrong consistency. No asparagus, artichoke or mushroom. They will definitely define the flavor. And no starchy vegetables like potatoes. With them, you run the risk of creating an undesirable, thicker, potato-soupy feeling on the tongue. Other than that, go to town and experiment.

The Herbs and Spices: As with the vegetables, I’m in favor of the classic. I use thyme, parsley, bay leaf, pepper and salt. That’s it. But it doesn’t have to be. Just like with the vegetables, there is a lot of room to play with the formula, to use other kinds of fresh herbs, as long as you are prepared for a different kind of flavor. I’ve had stocks that have been made with a little bit of rosemary, with oregano, with marjoram, and have been just fine. The flavor is definitely different. but it isn’t bad.

The Recipe: So here it is, what I do when I make my chicken stock.

2 Chicken carcasses, frozen
1 medium onion, roughly chopped
1 large carrot, roughly chopped
1 1/2 stocks celery, including the tops, roughly chopped
1 large sprig of fresh thyme
10-15 parley stems (or a tablespoon of dried parsley, if you only have that)
2 bay leaves
10-15 peppercorns
1/2 to 1 tsp salt

To an 8 quart stock pot, add your chicken carcasses, onion, carrot, celery, and salt. Place your thyme, parsley, bay leaves, and peppercorns in a cloth bag (or tie them up in cheesecloth), and toss that into the pot too. Fill the pot with cold water, leaving about a half inch of space at the top. Then place the pot over high heat on the stove, leaving it until it just starts to boil (probably about an hour). At that point, cover the pot, turn your heat to low, and allow to simmer for 4-6 hours, stirring occasionally, until the carcasses have fallen apart and the stock tastes rich and meaty. At that point, turn off the heat and allow to cool for about two hours. Then pour the stock through a fine mesh sieve into a large bowl, or preferably a second stock pot, pressing the solids as you go to get all the liquid out. Refrigerate overnight.

The next day, you should find a layer of solidified fat at the top of the stock. Skim it off. Then, bring the liquid to a low boil on the stove, and let it go for another 6-8 hours, or until the liquid has reduced to about 4 cups. Allow the reduced liquid to cool, then pour it into ice cube trays and freeze.

When you go to cook with it, one cube, plus about 2/3 cup of water will make about a cup of nice, strong, rich stock. Though if you intend to make soup, two cubes + 1/2 cup of water would probably be preferable.

The Links: Finally, here are the stock related links I promised. These should get you started on a world of interesting alternative methods and ingredients that I’ve only just begun to play with.

You can find a recipe for classic brown chicken stock here.

Mario Batali’s variation on brown stock is here.

And from one of my favorite food bloggers, you can find out about making stock out of chicken feet here.