Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Stock Excuses

Food trends are quirky.  Back in the 1980’s when real men didn’t eat it, quiche was one of the more popular items on restaurant lunch menus, and home cooks frequently served it.  Today quiche has largely disappeared (though lately it has enjoyed a slight renaissance now that we’re losing our fear of eggs).

For a while, soup seemed to be disappearing too.  In 1984 Madeline Kamman wrote in her most innovative (and probably best) book, In Madeline’s Kitchen, that soups were in decline:
Soups have all but disappeared from French restaurant menus.  An occasional luxury restaurant still serves a delicious potage here and there, but the good old delectable fillers of my young days have gone forever.  Between 1950 and 1980 most of society became comfortable enough to afford a piece of meat, and people no longer had to tax their stomachs with a lot of liquid at the onset of a meal.

In the past decade, however, soups have started to show up again on restaurant menus — and on the home dinner table.

But while soups are regaining popularity in the home kitchen, homemade stock – the foundation of many soups – isn’t.  Instead, we often use substitutes like canned stock or soup bases.

Home Stockonomics

I used to make stock frequently.  I would often save leftover bones from beef roast in the freezer.  When I’d accumulated enough, I’d make stock.   Sometimes I would buy several whole chickens when they were on sale and cut them into individual serving pieces, freezing the parts I couldn’t use right away.  Invariably, I’d have pieces of chicken carcass (usually the backs) that I’d turn into stock.  

But now I can’t remember the last time I bought a whole chicken just to cut it into individual servings.  Instead, I usually buy exactly the pieces I want – and in the quantity I need – from my supermarket.  I rarely save the leftovers for stock-making purposes.  When it comes to beef, I almost never buy the appropriate cuts in the first place.  

And then there’s the time factor.  Although stock basically makes itself by simmering away on a back burner, it still takes hours to cook — and requires some attention.  So it can be hard to fit stock-making into my schedule.

When I make stock these days, it’s usually because I have roasted a chicken or a turkey.  Once the bird is picked over, I break up the carcass, plop it into a stockpot, and let it simmer for a few hours — on a day when I have time to watch it.  Making stock has become a “special occasion” rather than an everyday cooking practice.

 Restaurant Kitchens Have Changed Too

In the past, many restaurant kitchens used to make stock daily.  They needed it not only for soup, but also for sauce making.  Many classic sauces require demi-glace, which starts out as stock (and is then much reduced, with additional ingredients added).

Restaurants that do this sort of cooking need a lot of stock — so much that they can’t rely on leftovers to make it.  Instead, they buy quantities of bones specifically for the purpose of stock making.

Many restaurants still follow this model, particularly Chinese restaurants or those that specialize in French cuisine.

But a surprising number of restaurants are no longer in the stock-making business.  Instead, they buy commercial stocks, and even prepared sauces.  Many restaurants do this for convenience, but cost saving can be a consideration too.

The stocks they buy tend to take the form of powders or gooey gel “bases.”  Until recently, most of these products weren’t available to the home cook.  But now some can be purchased in some supermarkets and online.

assortment of Better than Bouillon soup bases

A Base Hit

Even after I stopped making much homemade stock, I still made a lot of soup.  Which meant that I had to rely on commercially available substitutes for stock, like canned broth.  

Some canned broths are of acceptable quality, particularly if you simmer them for 20 minutes or so with onion, carrots, and celery.  But they are never as good as homemade.

A few years ago, I discovered another alternative that (while also not the same as homemade) is far superior to canned stock:  soup bases.  (I previously discussed soup bases in my recipe for Black-Eyed Pea and Collard Green Soup.)

I generally use "Better than Bouillon” bases.  Penzey's Spices makes a good one.  I haven’t used Minor’s brand, but I’ve heard that they are excellent.  Minor’s sells primarily to commercial users; individuals can order through their authorized retail website.

Soup bases taste better than most canned stocks — and much better than bouillon cubes.  Plus, they’re more convenient (use as much or as little as you need).  And they last a long time in the refrigerator after they’ve been opened.

I use soup bases as a stock replacement in all soups that require stock.  Sometimes I even use them to pep up a legume-based soup (such as lentil or bean) that doesn’t “require” stock, but that could benefit from some added flavor.

Where Not To Use Soup Base

I wouldn’t use soup base in consommé.  For that, you really need a broth made mainly from meat, not bones.  And the broth should be greatly reduced to concentrate the flavor.  Soup base (or canned stock) would be too salty for this broth and would not have enough flavor.  If you want consommé, you’ll have to make a homemade broth that contains lots of meat, and you’ll need to clarify the broth (i.e., remove all fat or impurities that could cloud it).

I also wouldn’t use soup base to make demi-glace for a sauce.  Soup base would probably become too salty when reduced.  (I wouldn’t make demi-glace from homemade stock either — it’s too much work.)  If you need demi-glace, there are some excellent commercial products available.  At some point in the future I’ll discuss ”More Than Gourmet Classic French Demi-Glace” which is my favorite, readily available demi-glace.

Vegetarian Options

Vegetable stock is often a good substitute for chicken stock in many recipes.  I’m still developing my veggie stock recipe.  But roasting the vegetables for 30 – 45 minutes (include some mushrooms for their great umami  flavor before simmering with water (and also add a bit of soy sauce to the mix for its umami characteristics) seems to be the way to go.

For packaged stock, Better Than Bouillon sells both vegetable stock and “no chicken” chicken stock (Amazon sells it if you can’t find it in the grocery store).  “Imagine” brand also sells a No-Chicken Stock that is quite good. It actually tastes like chicken stock.  Whole Foods often carries this, or Amazon is an online source.

Recipe:  Brown Poultry Stock

OK, so the majority of home cooks (including me) use stock substitutes most of the time.  But homemade stock still tastes better.  And it can be fun to make when you have the time.  So here’s a recipe for the stock that I make most often.

You’ll need an 8- to 12-quart stock pot (maybe even something larger — the size will depend on the quantity of poultry bones you use).  Yield varies from about 1½ quarts for one chicken carcass to 3 - 5 quarts for a turkey carcass.

  • 1 cooked chicken or turkey carcass, most meat removed and broken down with a knife or cleaver
  • 1 onion, peeled and halved (many cooks don’t bother removing the peel)
  • 1 or 2 washed carrots, roughly chopped (1 carrot for chicken, 2 for turkey)
  • 1 or 2 washed celery ribs, roughly chopped (1 for chicken, 2 for turkey)
  • 1 bouquet garni (should include parsley and peppercorns; thyme is nice; most people include bay leaf, though I usually don’t)

  1. Put poultry carcass in stock pot.  Add just enough cold water to cover.  Bring to a boil on stove top.
  2. Once at a boil, immediately reduce to the merest simmer.  Skim off scum that appears.  After you’ve thoroughly skimmed the stock (about 5 minutes), add vegetables and bouquet garni.
  3. As stock cooks, occasionally skim off any scum that appears (some cooks skim fat too, though I don’t at this stage).
  4. Stock will take from 3 to 5 hours to cook.  I stop cooking when the stock tastes good.  Longer cooking tends to provide a more concentrated stock.
  5. When done, remove from heat.  Use tongs to remove as many vegetables and large pieces of carcass as you can.  Place a large strainer across the opening of a smaller, clean stock pot, and pour contents from cooking vessel through strainer into smaller pot.  
  6. Put the stock pot containing the strained stock into kitchen sink.  Fill sink with cold water.  Adding ice cubes to the water helps speed things along.  You’re trying to reduce the temperature of the stock as quickly as possible.  Skim as much fat as you can.  The debris in the strainer?  Trash that.
  7. When stock is cooled, pour it into conveniently sized containers, and freeze.  When you thaw it, you’ll find that the remaining fat has collected at the top, and can be peeled off easily with a spoon or knife and discarded.

stock cooling in sink with iced water
Stock Cooling


  • This stock will be brown because the poultry you use to make it has been cooked.  If you want white poultry stock, use uncooked poultry bones.
  • If you want to make stock for Asian recipes, replace the onion, carrots, celery, and bouquet garni with 4 or 5 slices of unpeeled ginger and 2 to 4 whole peeled garlic cloves.  You’ll probably also want to use a white stock.  To my palate, chicken is better than turkey in Asian stocks.
  • The stock is unsalted so it may taste a little flat.  I correct for salt when I use the stock in a later recipe.  
  • If you wish, you can add about a cup of white wine or dry vermouth to the pot when you add the water.  This adds some flavor and also helps to release more gelatin from the bones.

Stoked for Stock

It’s nice to have homemade stock in the freezer, but most of us don’t.  So it’s a good idea to have substitutes on hand.

Soup bases are your best bet — they’re superior to canned stocks, and far better than bouillon cubes.  If your supermarket doesn’t carry soup base, ask them to order it.  Otherwise, you can buy it online.

Once you try soup bases, you’ll probably find many uses for them.  Is your turkey gravy a tad weak?  Jazz it up with a spoonful of turkey base.  (It really makes a difference.)  Need a quarter cup of chicken stock for a recipe and don’t want to open a can?  Just use a small amount of chicken base mixed with hot water.

Next Up

Later this week, I’ll put soup bases to work in a new recipe:  Sweet Potato Soup.

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