Wednesday, April 8, 2009

When to feel guilty about not making stocks

There are 3 types of cooks in this world:

1) Those who use store bought stocks without a smidgen of remorse. Is chicken stock something you can actually make at home? Who knew?

2) Those who have made their own stock at least once in their life and realize that the store bought stuff is not up to snuff. But let's face it -- who has the time to make their own on regular basis. So in goes the boxed stuff with a generous dollop of guilt.

3) Those who think that the stock is the foundation of cuisine, and if you can't make it, you should get out of the kitchen (or at least stick to dishes that don't require stock).

Today, I'd like to address the second group. Those guilty home cooks who know that there is more to life than bouillon cubes, but don't always have the home-made stock on hand.

I know there are a lot of opinions on the subject already. According to Mark Bittman and Michael Ruhlman water is an acceptable substitute for home-made stock. On another hand, Cook's Illustrated suggests that some store bought stocks are significantly better than others, and as long as you avoid the really disgusting ones, your dish will come out well. The brands they recommend are Swanson Organic for Chicken Broth and Pacific for Beef Broth.

It took me over a year to figure out where I stand on this issue. I tried a number of soups, braises, and pan sauces with home-made stock, water, and the winners of Cook's Illustrated store bought stock taste tests. I don't need to tell you that the dishes made with home-made stocks always won the taste tests. The question is by how much and what's the best alternative.

Clear Soups
When it comes to clear soups (chicken noodle, french onion, etc), home-made stocks make all the difference. Unfortunately, using water or store bought stock defeats the purpose of these soups for me, so I can't recommend any substitutions.

Pureed Soups (cream of asparagus, butternut squash, celery root, etc)
To my surprise and delight, home-made vegetable stock (see the end of this post for a recipe) works wonders for these soups and it's much faster and easier to make than chicken stock. Water is the next best thing. There is a noticeable flavor trade off, but these soups are still worth making with water. Using a store bought stock gives these soups more intensity than water, but not in a good way.

I made 3 batches of short ribs braised in red wine -- one with home-made beef stock, one with Pacific store bought beef stock, and one with water. The ratio of wine to stock (or water) for all batches was 2:1. Originally, there was going to be a fourth batch made with More than gourmet (that's the brand name) demi-glace. But after tasting that thing and having to spit it out, I decided against it. I'd describe it as tomato paste and flour dissolved in water with some artificial flavorings. Calling it demi-glace is a travesty in my opinion.

Back to my three batches. To my amazement, there was barely any difference in taste between them! After a little thought, it made a lot of sense. During the 5 hour braising process, the short ribs infused the liquid with their flavor making a sort of stock. I found this finding particularly useful. If home-made stock is a rare commodity in your kitchen, save it for a soup. It is also good news for people who don't have time to make different types of home-made stock (chicken, beef, veal, etc). Chicken stock is perfectly usable even for a beef braise. During the long braise, it will turn into a beef stock :)

Of course, the differences between my batches might have been much more striking if I were to use stock as the only braising liquid instead of only 1/3 of the liquid. But most of the braises that I enjoy use wine, beer, soy sauce+balsamic vinegar, and other flavorful liquids besides stock.

Pan sauces
This is a tricky category. After searing your protein, you'll have a very flavorful fond left in your skillet (that's the French term for sticky brown bits), so you are half way there in terms of flavor. If you add home-made stock (normally it's unsalted, thus lended itself nicely to reducing without getting too salty) and a splash of wine, you'll create a heavenly dish. Without home-made stock, "heavenly" might be a hard thing to achieve. But the good news is that if you proceed carefully, and deal with these sauces on a case by case basis, you can find liquids besides home-made stock that can produce a good sauce.
  • Chicken dishes. Even Swanson Organic (the least scary store bought chicken stock) tastes awful to me when reduced -- too salty and ramen noodle like. When deglazing a pan after searing or roasting chicken, I prefer to use porcini reconstituting liquid. You can make it in a pinch by soaking 0.75 oz of dry porcini (if possible imported) in 1 cup boiling water for at least 30 minutes. Strain through a damp paper towel lined sieve to catch grit before using. Don't let the price of dry porcini scare you. It might be as high as $70/Lb, but you only need 1 - 2 oz for most dishes. Home-made vegetable stock also works well, but porcini liquid is faster to make and tastier.
  • Beef, lamb, and duck. If you don't mind your sauce on the slightly sweet side, using port can cover up all sorts of stock deficiencies. You don't need anything fancy. Trader Joe's port for $7-10 will do fine. When reduced, it becomes more syrupy than red wine giving your sauce the body (syrupiness) it would be missing without home-made stock. Of course, one can't make sauce with port alone. This is one of the few cases where I would argue in favor of a store bought Pacific beef broth. It's lower in sodium than most commercial beef stocks so it reduces better. While it doesn't have the intensity of a home-made beef stock, it actually has a reasonable roasted flavor and no unpleasant aftertaste. Even though I found one completely unsalted stock made by Kitchen Basics, I don't like it as much as Pacific due to its artificiality and lack of beef flavor.
  • Pork and veal. If you are going the savory route, try porcini liquid and white wine. If you are going the sweet route, try port and Pacific beef broth.
One thing to keep in mind for all pan sauces, is that wine is not an acceptable substitution for stock. Sure, all these sauces include some wine, but using it as the only deglazing liquid will yield an unpleasant sauce that is too acidic or too tannic or both.


Kirsten Lindquist said...

Enjoy your blog! Wanted to add that I read somewhere that using kombu to make vegetable broth/stock imparts some of the depth of flavor that beef stock creates. Who knew sea vegetables would mimic meat bone and marrow!

~M said...

Tonight, I roasted a chicken my Le Creuset french oven, which included 1 cup of orange juice ( recipe). YUM, but it left those brown fond pieces all over the inside. I had frozen leftover chicken bones, two whole chicken thighs, and the leftover chicken bones from today. So I was inspired to procrastinate cleaning the pot, and threw in the chicken, filtered water, carrots, celery, garlic, onion, and rosemary. My hope is that the fond will simmer off as the soup/stock cooks overnight and add a bit of kick too!

emiglia said...

Thank you so much for this!

I was in the second category until I moved to France, where we don't even have storebought stock as an option! You can get "fond," which is basically bouillon in powdered form that you measure out by the spoonful, and some butchers will sell real "fond," as in that gloopy chicken base, but really, people here expect you to make your own stock.

I love that porcini reconstituting liquid tip! Too many times I have used water and herbs and spices to cover up my lack of stock, but it never comes out just right... so thanks so much for this!

mary said...

Hi Helen,

Just wanted to add another demension to your "chicken soup".

I buy a Rotisserie Chicken from Costco, and cut off the breast meat. I then wrap it and place it in the freezer if I am not going to use it right away.

With the rest of the chicken, I place it in my large staub. Add 1 large onion, cut in half, 1 whole bulb of garlic sliced in half, 3 carrots sliced in half, 3 celery stalks. Fill the staub with cold water about 2 inches from the top, bring to a simmering boil. Add 2 bay leaves, 6 black peppercorns, a pinch of salt and a pinch of red pepper. Cover and let simmer, (I do 2 hrs),cool completely.

Skim, take chicken out of pot and strain.
This makes delicious stock for my soups.
Now, if you feel it is wasting the extra chicken on the rotisserie, then you can sort through the bones and pick off the meat to add for chicken soup.

My friends rave about this.

Just thought I'd share and also see what you think!

Helen said...

Hi guys,

What great comments!

Kirsten: yes, kombu imparts a really wonderful flavor. If what you need is a Japanese stock (dashi), you can make it in about 5 minutes using kombu and bonito flakes. I haven't tried using it in European dishes. might be worth a shot.

Mary: what a great idea to buy a roasted chicken and make stock out of it. Even if all you have is 2 hours, that stock will taste better than the boxed stuff. The only issue that I can see is that the roasted chicken is already salted. This shouldn't be an issue if you are using this stock for a soup. But if you want to reduce it for a sauce, it might turn a bit salty. You could probably work around that by salting the protein for which you are making a sauce a little less.

~M: cooking the stock overnight sounds very convenient. I'll have to try it sometimes. I bet if I stick it into 200F oven, it will be just fine.

Emiglia: you bring up a good point. I wonder why can't the butchers and fishmongers sell good quality stock. It's so much easier for them to make it than for us :)


Tanya said...

I have got to bring up Wolfgang Puck's organic broths. I don't know if anyone can second me on these, but I think they're the most flavorful broths you can buy in the store. Especially the vegetable broth though I think the free range chicken broth is superior to Swanson too. Am I off my rocker? Am I ignorant or just not paying attention? I really think they're very good and tremendously convenient. I only make my own stock if I have leftover bones. Ok, and I make my own mushroom or dashi stocks. But since I cook vegetarian most of the time (and soups very frequently,) I've made WP's Organic Vegetable Broth a staple in my pantry.

Someone tell me I'm not crazy?

Tanya said...

...eep... I'm still feeling that generous dollop of guilt and I'm not even cooking!

...hangs head in shame...

sudu said...

Great post! will surely try it.
what abt cheese stock? Have you ever used it? It sounds simple and it supposed to be very flavorful. I'll give it a try sometime soon and let you guys know.

Helen said...

Tanya: I hope the guilt attack is over :) I definitely didn't intend to make anyone feel guilty about not making stock. Just the opposite. Haven't tried Puck's stocks and Cook's Illustrated doesn't seem to evaluate them.

Sudu: I haven't tried making cheese stock (haven't even heard about it), but I do put a Parmesan rind or two into some of my soups.


Anonymous said...

I just made my traditional lamb curry stew and decided to use Swansons Reduced Sodium Beef Broth instead of using water like I've done for years. The result was awful. Salty, overpowering, wierdly sweet too. "Natural Flavoring" on the box...ha! That could be anything.

It pretty much ruined $20 worth of carefully trimmed lamb for stew.

Helen said...

Thanks for letting me know about the Swanson beef broth. I'll know to stay away from it. If I ever need store bought beef broth, Pacific tends to be the lesser of all evils, but water works too :)

Alyss said...

I've been making my own homemade chicken stock for a couple years now and really find that it doesn't take much time or energy at all. I save bones and skin and gristle from every piece of meat I cook in a zippy in the freezer. I let it simmer for six or eight hours - one whole weekend day - and all told it only takes me about an hour hands on time for skimming at the beginning and packaging at the end. Very worth it!
Great ideas for non-stock stock, though :)