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Food Fights: Stock Versus Stock

May 3, 2012

Yesterday’s food fight was about semantics. As always, I think Mr. Dave said it best when he wrote, “I honestly could not think of a dumber subject to waste words on.”

Today’s food fight is different. It’s not about challenging the meaning of a dish, but rather its approach. And tomorrow’s fight is different still. What’s especially dumb is every day this week we go deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole.

As far as I am concerned, yesterday’s issue was pretty clear-cut. There are the things that are ice cream and then there are the things that aren’t ice cream. A puree of frozen bananas firmly falls into the later. Today’s is much less so. And tomorrow, I’m clearly the a-hole to my long-suffering wife.

Now I am keenly aware that on television there are people who are advocating doing things I find to be unconscionable. This should go without saying, but I’m going to put it out there anyway: just because something is on the Food Network doesn’t make it good. The same goes if it is printed in the Schenectady Gazette, because I saw this and it made me irrationally angry.

The problem is that last week when I tweeted about this, nobody took my side. In fact they were completely perplexed about what could possibly be offensive about the paper’s guidelines for making stock.

Let me first start by saying this. My old friend Chef Cory makes his stock (which he says is the keystone to his cuisine) with a whole chicken. I don’t. When I have a good whole chicken, I want to roast that baby. And I’ve been reasonably happy with my chicken stock made from old bones.

Now I salute the effort to get people away from store-bought broth in cans.

However, the article pretty much suggests that anything you want to throw in the stockpot is fine. And I’ve seen celebrities on television say the same thing, “Don’t throw that away, save it for stock.” There is a fundamental problem with this though, especially for the beginning cook.

Part of learning how to cook is balancing flavors. If one batch of your stock contains a fennel bulb, and the next batch is full of parsnips the flavor profile is going to be completely different and dishes made with the stock will come out differently too.

I also shudder to think about some of the things that might make it into the stockpot. Think about asparagus bottoms that have been simmered for two hours with kale stems and carrot peels. Let’s say a beginning cook does this, finds their stock to be disgusting after standing over a hot stove for two hours, and decides forever to switch back to cans.

The paper also suggests lots of garlic, says that salt is fine, instructs celery to go in at the beginning, and gives a two-hour cooking time. I’ve got problems with all of these.

Garlic has an intense flavor and can be overpowering. Believe it or not, you might not want everything you cook to taste like garlic. It’s an easy flavor to put into a dish through other means, so it’s best to leave it out of stock.

Salt is a very dangerous game to play when it comes to stock. With a stock on hand, it’s nice to have the flexibility to reduce it into a glace. And if you’ve salted your stock to make it delicious, you may have killed your chances for making a palatable dish that requires the stock to be cooked down further.

Delicate greens like celery or even fresh parsley or dill, if cooked for too long in a stockpot, will not impart their bright fresh flavors, but rather a muted and stewed version of their former selves. The easy solution to that is instructing people to add these to the stockpot in the last 30 minutes of cooking.

Which incidentally is at the two-and-a-half hour mark. The Cook’s Illustrated folks tested the times a while back, and that extra hour really paid off for depth and complexity of flavor.

I’ve already written about my technique for making stock. It’s easy and it’s not rocket science. But it does call for whole peeled carrots, halved and peeled onions, and celery. There are some spices like peppercorns, coriander and a few dried cloves. And there is totally room for flexibility. I’ve been known to throw a fennel bulb in the pot, or maybe some peeled parsnips. But you have to be careful, and remember the flavor profile of the stock when considering its use. The parsnip one ended up unpleasantly sweet, so that was subsequently banned from the pot.

You may have noticed that I used whole aromatic vegetables, and not scraps.

This is not because I’m trying to be like a professional cook; quite the opposite. All my most trusted sources from the fussiest like The Cook’s Bible and Marcella Hazan to the ubiquitous Joy of Cooking all effectively call for fixed quantities of prepared vegetables.

Some professional kitchens where margins are tight and waste is strictly managed might take their vegetable scraps and turn them into stock. You don’t have to do that. You can save the scraps for compost, or even simply throw them away.

It reminds me of the PBS cooking show with Jacques Pepin and Julia Child. One day they were talking about spinach. She would never consider using the stems because they didn’t have very good flavor. But he was appalled at the notion of wasting the stems, and simply chopped them up and threw them into the dish.

My bottom line here is that it’s no harder to make a really good stock than it is to make a crappy one. This newspaper article was written with the goal of helping people move away from canned broth. But instead of giving readers some clear instruction for cooking something truly delicious, they are just giving people the freedom to make something awful.

What a wasted opportunity.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. Chrystal permalink
    May 3, 2012 9:22 am

    I prefer to use a whole raw chicken to make my stock with only onion, carrots and celery, never garlic. I like the cleaner flavor of using raw chicken instead of roasted bones, the roasted flavor makes me feel like I made gravy and not stock especially if I’m going to cook it down further.

  2. christine permalink
    May 3, 2012 10:01 am

    I use a whole chicken as well… the cheap, $5 (I was killed too soon) version and not the roaster that is all plumped up. I use celery, unpeeled carrots (makes a difference to me) and onion. That’s it. I simmer it down and use intuition to know when it is “right”. I use the chicken in the soup. Sadly, I never make the stock to use for another recipe that calls for it… I am too unorganized for that. If I’m making stock, I’m making soup. I’ve been making stock for a long, long time and this is where I ended up through trial and error. Bones just never seemed to produce the result I wanted, although I do use the leftover turkey bones at Thanksgiving some years, as I just don’t want to waste them. The result is just so-so for me.

  3. May 3, 2012 10:39 am

    My husband makes a chicken every week for his lunch (he picks the meat off to make chicken salad). We season it heavily with either a home made porcini peppercorn rub or Penzy’s Turkish seasoning. To make stock, all we do is put the carcasses in a 5 gallon stock pot, bring to a boil, and let simmer for 5-6 hours. What i like about it is that it’s already seasoned from the seasoning being on the remaining hunks of meat, fat, and skin we couldn’t pick off the bones and it gives the broth an interesting flavor. For our next batch I’m going to try roasting the bones. I like the idea of a dark broth – we don’t really make much soup, but we do use stock when we make rice or occasionally when a recipe calls for water.

    I think skimming the fat off of stock is a crime, unless you’re going to put it on a fresh roll with some sauteed onions and a little salt and pepper. That’s just good eats.

  4. cheftanner permalink
    May 3, 2012 10:44 am

    I purchase whole fryer chickens (3-4.5lbs), I never purchase any precut chickens and the thought process is this. I have chicken breasts to make a saute dish, I have the legs and thighs to make a braised or stewed dish, I have the livers and giblets to bread and fry for a snack or to top a risotto or gnocchi with, and finally the bones…

    I split the bones into pierces, roast them to give a good maillard reaction to help flavor my future stock and expose the marrow to help thicken the stock with the natural gelatin. The mirepoix (2 parts onion, 1 part celery, 1 part carrots) should be fresh and cut into even pieces and PEELED. Onion peels and carrot peels come in direct contact with dirt. You can never get all of the dirt out of the onion skin especially. As for scraps into the pot? Saving money by doing this? You may save 2-3 cents, maybe 5 cents a pot of stock, yet that is by throwing in what would have otherwise been GARBAGE. So I’m going to throw subpar produce, bones from a chicken I cooked yesterday, and deglaze the roasting pan from the bones with wine I wouldn’t drink and expect? The base for what is supposed to be the foundation of all my sauces and soups? Garbage in = Garbage out.

    When meat goes into the pot btw, it is called broth, not stock. Broth is what comes in a can, and you know what? I actually have no problem with it in certain applications. Even as a chef I don’t always have time at home to make stock so occasionally I will buy broth to make soup or a stew or simmering liquid at home. I always purchase a high-quality low or no-sodium broth. However, one cannot make a proper reduction sauce from broth as there is no gelatin in broth. There is a place however for broth even in commercial kitchens, those who don’t have a large enough kitchen, or enough cooks and time to cook in a kitchen with only six burners might consider packaged broth or base. That is not my style of cooking, but it has its place in cost cutting measures, I will tell you those companies take a lot of pride and put a lot of money and research to come up with the best possible product. Though Daniel and I may not frequent chain restaurants that have a 14 dollar entree, much of America does and those companies use these measures to keep their costs down and their customers happy.

  5. Mr. Sunshine permalink
    May 3, 2012 11:55 am

    For home use, I don’t peel the onion or carrots. I think the onion skin lends a little color. I use roasted bones, and never more than one stalk of celery. Too much celery overpowers other flavors. Strain through cheesecloth for a clearer broth.

    • cheftanner permalink
      May 3, 2012 2:14 pm

      Try sometime doing what is known as Onion Brulee (A classical French technique of browning half an onion flat side down in a very hot pan) which will give a nice flavor as well as color.

    • Kerosena permalink
      May 3, 2012 3:08 pm

      I’m with you, Mr. S. My technique is really similar, except I peel the carrots but not the onions. I feel the same way as you about celery and straining. I also never let it come to a boil, which I believe helps with the clarity issue.

  6. May 3, 2012 1:24 pm

    FWIW, the person who wrote that blog entry isn’t as much of a foodie as she is an environmentalist, the kind of person who grows her own food and makes her own compost. So surely, the idea of reusing scraps to make food was what appealed to her the most. And while maybe some of the details of her method aren’t the optimal way of doing it, she got the basics right — you can make your own stock, rather than using a can, and you can do it largely with kitchen leftovers, the bones from your meat and the extra veggies threatening to go bad in the fridge. But I won’t argue with your method — while it’s easy to throw together a better-than-canned stock, it takes a bit more thought and effort to produce a really, really good stock.

  7. May 3, 2012 3:02 pm

    See, you might know what’s good *to you* as I know what’s good *to me* and Chef Tanner knows what’s good *to him* but none of us are the exclusive authority on the subject because there is none. Let me be very clear, there is no single, authoritative way to make a basic chicken stock. Cooking is personal. If you were to question 10 different chefs, I can guarantee they will not spout off identical methods of making stock. There will be variation and differing *opinions*. I don’t care what book you consult because as I showed you on Twitter, I can consult books that say otherwise.

    Now, me? I don’t peel my onions. Obviously, I check for visible dirt, mold and rotten spots and rub off the outermost loose layers but after that I simply quarter my onions and throw them in my pot. I use dark meat chicken parts, usually legs or thighs and I chop them in half to expose the marrow. I also pull the skin off the chicken parts. I use well scrubbed carrots, garlic that has been smashed and peeled or not and celery. I don’t put things in at different times I put it all in the pot cover with water and add some whole peppercorns and a few bay leaves. Bring to the boil, skim foam, reduce heat and simmer until I like the way it tastes.

    I let my stock cool, drain out the solids and then I refrigerate it over night so the fat rises and solidifies on top. I skim that off and sometimes use it in dumplings.

    Viola. That’s my method. It might not be your perfect method and maybe it’s not in such and such textbook but it works *for me* and it’s the stock that tastes good *to me*.

    And there is not a single thing wrong with that.

  8. May 3, 2012 5:57 pm

    I agree – there is no salt in chicken stock!!!! I make the recipe from Thomas Keller’s Ad Hoc at Home almost every week, and that works out great.

  9. May 3, 2012 7:47 pm

    OK, I’ll get in the barrel with the lady from the Gazette. Regulating your ingredients and portions so the stock always tastes the same may be safe for a beginning cook, but it’s also expensive and takes away the casual, ad hoc appeal of an easy stock. What she’s saying is that you can get results as good as a can by boiling bones and leftover veggies, and I find thathard to argue with . Fretting about too much garlic (which dissipates its intensity as it cooks) or subdued celery flavors is way too much trouble.

    Remember Julia Child’s friend Jacques Pepin, who had his own cooking show for many years? He would just toss vegetable scraps into a baggie and put it in the freezer, then pull it out when the time came to make a stock. Nothing scientific or fussy about that and the stocks enhanced the foods he was making them for. And he would taste and correct as needed.

    Ok, whack away.

  10. Kate H permalink
    May 3, 2012 8:45 pm

    I make all my own stock because I use a lot of stock. We eat a lot of soup,stews, etc. While I’d like to be a purist and say I only use x y or z, I basically use what I have on hand. If I use the tops of the spring garlic that I just pulled from my garden then I know it’s going to be a garlicy stock and I label it accordingly. The same thing goes for using fennel tops, lemon grass stalks, mushrooms etc. If I’ve got a bone from a pork shoulder then I make pork stock, same thing goes for beef or sometimes it’s what I’ve got in the freezer, chicken bones, beef scraps, leek tops. The one thing I never do is add salt to the pot – EVER! If I was a newbie I might need a concise recipe but after 30 years of making my own stock now it’s second nature.

  11. May 9, 2012 10:25 pm

    I have been working in a “novice cook” scenario the last couple days and am ready to go to the mat with you on this, Profusser. Are YOU ready? (that’s a question.)

    Here’s the deal. It is a user interface problem. You don’t give people instructions that turns them into mindless robots (which they are not because they are responding to your instructions). You give them positive feedback that lets them know they are on the right track or, if not, lets them self-correct in a non destructive way.

    Tossing veggie scraps into a pot of water is an easy and satisfying concept. Turning nothing into something, what could go wrong? Ok, they could put asparagus peelings in there but I would bet people who cook asparagus are a very small subset of your cooking audience and they know how strong its flavor is. Put a disclaimer in there that says “no asparagus” and that should do it.

    Giving people a precise recipe for an imprecise exercise (making stock) disenfranchises them. It certainly can’t make them better cooks because there really is no recipe. And it may demoralize them if their results aren’t satisfying.

    My mom and I fried up some great scallops and soft shell crabs because we were confident in our ability to understand the ingredients, use a simple prep, and fire away. A “recipe” could have propelled a couple of simple but costly ingredients into the trash can.

    And that is why there is no recipe for stock.

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