Food Fights: Stock Versus Stock
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.