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Stocks form the basis, (used in one form or another), for the flavoring of most classical French dishes. Since classical French cuisine has so widely influenced other Western cuisines, stocks are important in general. You can buy them pre-made, of course, but the results are often insipid. It’s worth your time to learn how to make a good stock, even at home. You’ll find that dishes in which you incorporate a good stock are elevated beyond your expectations.
A classical stock is a combination of bones, vegetables, and liquids (usually water), with the addition of some simple seasonings.
The main categories of stocks are as follows:
1. A white stock, which is made by simmering veal, beef, or chicken bones along with mirepoix, (diced carrots, celery, and onions at a 25% to 25% to 50% ratio), in water along with some peppercorns, a bit of thyme and parsely stems, perhaps some garlic. Many chefs use bay leaf, though we were discouraged from doing so at school, with the valid point that bay is such a strong taste that it would be too prominent in subsequent dishes made from the stock. If you’re using chicken bones, your stock will need to simmer for 5 or 6 hours, whereas if you’re using beef or veal bones, you should let it go for 6-8 hours.
2. A brown stock, which is also made by simmering veal, beef, or chicken bones along with mirepoix, in water along with seasonings such as peppercorns, thyme, parsely stems, and garlic, and frequently a bit of tomato paste. The main difference here is that the bones will have been roasted beforehand. Roast the bones by laying them in a single layer on a roasting pan, (use extra pans if necessary, rather than piling up the bones– you want each of them to develop some good color from direct contact with the hot pan), along with your mirepoix. You want both bones and mirepoix to brown substantially, (while of course staying short of burning); this generally takes about an hour in a hot oven. You can turn them over midway through. If your bones are very large (especially in the case of veal or beef bones), cut them into smaller pieces, a few inches long each, before roasting. As with the white stock above, simmering times will be 5-6 hours for chicken bones and 6-8 hours for veal or beef.
3. A fish stock is made by simmering fish bones or crustacean shells (shrimp, lobster…) in water with mirepoix and seasonings. Avoid bones from strongly-flavored fatty fish such as salmon; the taste will be too distinctive for versatile usage later. Rinse scales, blood and the like off the fish bones before using them; chop them into pieces of a few inches. Fish stocks must simmer for only 45 minutes or so.
A word about your mirepoix– the vegetables should be diced so that they’re roughly the same size as your bone pieces. So for a fish stock, you would use a fine mirepoix, and for a browned veal stock, your vegetables would be in large chunks.
You may have noticed that salt was left out of the seasoning descriptions above. Classical stocks do not include salt, because salt levels must vary so much dish to dish and you would not want a substantial component like the stock to set the salt level. Particularly as stocks are frequently reduced, the concentration of salt could become overpowering down the line.
On to technique. All of stock making can be broken down to the following steps; follow these and you’ll be golden:
1. Assemble your mise en place. Mise en place is a French term for “everything in its place,” and it means gathering everything you’re going to need, and taking care of necessary prep work, before you start cooking. In this case, gather your stockpot and a large spoon, a strainer and some cheesecloth, and all your ingredients, before you start cooking. How many bones, and how much mirepoix, do you need? Well, this largely depends on how much stock you want to make, but Mark Ruhlman does a great job of providing an easy formula for figuring this out in his book, Ratios. The formula is 3:2:1, where the first measurement is water, the second bones, and the third vegetable. So if you start with 4 pounds of bones, you’re going to want 2 pounds of mirepoix, and 6 pounds of water (and when we’re dealing with water by weight instead of volume, we know that there are 16 oz in a pound, so you’re looking at 96 oz of water, or 12 cups, which works out to 3 quarts.) Chop your vegetables for your mirepoix, prep your seasonings, chop and clean your bones if you need to.
2. This step is only necessary for a brown stock: Roast your bones and mirepoix.
3. Place your bones, mirepoix, and seasonings in a stock pot and add cold water in the ratio you worked out in step 1. (If you’re feeling lazy, another rule of thumb is to just add enough cold water to just cover your bones and vegetables, but I recommend using Ruhlman’s ratio.)
4. Bring your stock up to a simmer, where it will remain throughout the cooking process. Never allow your stock to come to a boil. A boil will cause the bones to release impurities, resulting in a cloudy stock.
5. Skim your stock occasionally– fats and other impurities will float to the top; this is an easy way to get ahead of the game and remove them.
6. When your stock is done, pass it through a strainer, and then strain it again through cheesecloth.
7. Cool your stock as rapidly as you can. In a commercial kitchen making a large volume of stock, this may involve filling a sink with ice, and placing an entire stockpot of strained stock in the middle (still in the pot, of course), and stirring constantly until the temperature comes down a bit. The stock is then poured into multiple containers (lower volumes of liquids will cool more quickly) before being put into the fridge to complete the cooling process. This helps to ensure that the stock doesn’t stay in the food safety “danger zone” (the temperatures at which bacteria proliferate, 41 to 135 degrees farenheit) for too long, and also that a giant pot of hot stock doesn’t raise the temperature of the restaurant fridge. If you’re making a smaller volume of stock at home, though, you’ll find that you can cool your stock more quickly without having to use all of these steps.
8. After your stock has cooled, degrease the top, and now you should have a lovely, flavorful, gelatinous stock, (if it appears gelatinous after it has cooled, this is a good thing; your bones will ideally have released collagen during the cooking process), to add body and flavor to your risottos, your soups, your stews, your pan sauces….
Okay, get out there and make your own stock, and report back!