Sunday, May 2, 2010

Taking Stock; Chicken Stock 101

There are several culinary compromises that I’ve had to make because of the economy. I’ve had to eliminate eating out at nice restaurants. Rack of lamb and artisan cheeses are just a couple of the things I can’t wait to reintroduce to my gastronomic life. But there’s one thing I started doing to economize that I will continue long into the future: making my own chicken stock.

I was spending about $10 every week to get 3 quarts of prepackaged stock at the grocery store (what can I say? I use a lot of stock). I finally had to break down and see if making my own would be any cheaper. It is. And it’s infinitely better too. I’ve even got to the point that I take the restaurant approach – using scraps for the bulk of my stock ingredients. I can make 6 or 8 quarts of stock at a time and use about $2 worth of ingredients to do it. It’s the best $2 I can spend on eating.

All I have to do is make a couple of strategic decisions during the month and I usually have all the makings of a good stock waiting for me in the freezer. The main strategy is to make a roasted chicken at least once a month – the carcass then goes on ice and is ready to make stock when I am. You could also buy a 2-3 pound package of chicken legs when they’re on sale. I prefer to roast them first, but you could use raw chicken. With raw chicken, it seems to make a lighter, more gelatinized chicken stock. It’s not bad, just different. I like the dark color and flavor you get from roasting the chicken first.

Additionally, I keep a ‘Stock Sack’ in the freezer. It’s just a gallon-size zip top freezer bag that I use to hold the vegetable cast-offs for my new, secret weapon. Onion and carrot peels, celery tops, parsley stems, and over ripe tomatoes use to go down the disposal. Now I squeeze every last ounce of goodness out of them before they get discarded. Additionally, I add anything else that I think would add to the flavor of my stock: fennel tops, mushroom stems, scallion ends and wilted salad greens all go into the Stock Sack for future use. Some of the things I intentionally skip are: anything overly starchy (like potato skins), bitter (like cucumber peels), or that don’t seem like they would blend with (or overpower) the stock (like asparagus, broccoli or squash).

Once I see what’s in my Stock Sack, I augment the deficiencies with fresh vegetables to come close to my basic chicken stock recipe.

You will also notice that I don’t put any salt into my stock. That’s because I consider stock to be an ingredient, not a finished dish. Since I’m going to cook with the stock later, I prefer to add salt to the dish I’m preparing with the stock. I’ve got much better control over salt content that way.

It really only takes about 30 minutes of active work to make a batch of stock that then lasts for a few weeks (or longer, if you don’t use as much stock as I do). I’ll put the stock pot on early Saturday morning, go about my business, and take it off the heat about lunchtime. I also tried putting it on to simmer as I went to bed one night, thinking it would be ready for me when I woke up. But it turns out that I am much too paranoid about burning the house down to get any sleep when I do that, so I wouldn’t recommend it.

Like I said, I use a lot of stock – to make rice and pasta dishes, for sauces, to poach fish, for quick soups, and a host of other things. It’s the easiest trick for better cooking that anyone could ever come up with.

Think about it: I was paying $3.50 for a quart of stock at the grocery store, and I can make up to 8 quarts for about $2. That’s a savings of over $25 for a batch of stock that tastes better than the stuff I can buy anyway. Why the heck did I wait so long to start doing this?! Now if I could only find a way to make gasoline at home as cheaply…

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