I cook seasonally, and winter cooking means stocks. That can be using bit of chicken stock to deglaze a pan or beef stock to add richness to a stew. Stock is like the most basic soup you’ve ever had. It’s a clear liquid with meaty flavors; a good stock is fine to eat on its own, but it shines when it can augment a dish. It is like the bass in a rock band; it’s not the melody, but you’d notice its absence. The three things that make a great stock are:
- Richness: A meat stock should taste meaty! It should have a hearty, tasty flavor. If you use vegetables, you get those coming through clearly as well.
- Body: A good stock should set like Jell-O when it’s cold. This is a feature, not a flaw. That setting is from gelatin, which melts when warm and makes the stock slightly thicker. Yeah, I know that gelled stock sounds gross, but you can really notice a difference; thin stock doesn’t taste as good because it doesn’t coat our mouth like stock with gelatin does.
- Aroma: Great stocks smell rich, too. This means that you’re getting a full meat aroma and if you use vegetables or aromatic herbs, they are clear and inviting. A good stock simmering makes your whole house smell good.
Commercially-made chicken stock does a decent job of all three things here, but beef stock is all wrong. It’s not worth buying, it’s so bad. To find out why you should skip the commercial version and easily make your own, keep reading for my stock tips. (NOTE: my pictures I took for this sucked so I’m going to re-shoot and add them in later; I didn’t want to miss my Tuesday publishing time, though!)
Commercial beef stock doesn’t really have much beef in it.
A recent issue of Cook’s Illustrated laid out why this happens. The bones and byproducts from slaughter get sold to big rendering plants, who render out the beef proteins from the bones. There is little to no beef meat actually going into the rendering. They then concentrate that liquid down, which consists of meat proteins and minerals. They sell that concentrate to stock making companies. All well and good, since the stock renderers expect that companies making beef stock will supplement the concentrate with more flavors, added beef, things like that. Turns out, it’s a whole lot cheaper to just add something called “hydrolyzed protein,” from soybeans, wheat or elsewhere. These are proteins that give soy sauce its deep flavor. It makes the stock taste like something, but it doesn’t really taste beefy. Cook’s Illustrated said most taste metallic and thin and could not suggest a good commercial product.
That’s a grim reality for making things with beef stock. The market just can’t deliver a cost-effective stock. The solution is to make your own.
Most homemade beef stocks take hours and end up being very expensive.
If you’ve ever glanced through a classical French cookbook, you’ve seen that a beef stock takes eight or twelve hours to cook. That’s simply unacceptable for most modern cooks. I want stock-making to be easy for you. That’s why we are using a pressure cooker, which I’ll explain in depth later.
You’ll also see that most stock recipes call for several pounds of beef shanks, marrow bones or ground beef to be cooked down. If you followed a recipe you found online, you might spend $30 or more to make two quarts of stock. That’s outrageously expensive and you shouldn’t resort to that. I’ll get into thrifty ways to make stock for pennies, as well.
So, you may be wondering, why do these recipes call for so much meat, only to use for stock? The answer lies in the history of French kitchens. The customer or lord of the manor got the best cuts, of course. The lesser cuts, instead of being served to the lord, were used to make things to serve to the lord. Barons didn’t eat chili or hamburgers. While you and I would braise that beef shank for hours until it was tender, that was a waste because the boss doesn’t want to eat that.
The best way to save costs and satisfy the boss was to use those lesser cuts to make rich stocks. What a waste of beef, you might say! But nothing was discarded when it could be fed to the poor. The stingy lord would have his servants eat beef that had been boiled for eight hours as their food. Grey, tough and flavorless meat was better than no meat, after all.
This curious way of using up perfectly acceptable beef still haunts modern stock making. It’s wasteful and expensive. You’re not going to be feeding those scraps to your servants or your dogs.
The better way to do this is to make beef saving into a regular routine in the kitchen. This is a good habit to develop. I do it by keeping a zip-top bag of scraps in the freezer and adding in bits and pieces. The stock I’m making in this article uses two T-bones and four ribs from a prime rib roast at Christmas. The pieces have enough meat left on them to add heartiness, and truly nothing is going to waste.
This doesn’t help you if today, you are struck with the idea of making stock from scratch without any hoarded meat. No worry; buy the cheapest mix of beef and bones you find at the store and then keep in mind that you should save scraps for the future. Even pieces that are mostly fat and bone will have a profound and positive effect on your finished stock. Most stock recipes begin with browning all the meat, meaning that pre-cooked meat skips this messy step.
The pressure cooker makes great stock in an hour.
Pressure cookers are phenomenal devices that raise the boiling point of water. They cook food under pressure, which means that the water is being forced into the food at hotter temperatures. It cooks food quickly. They aren’t cheap, but they are a key part of simplifying complex and classical recipes into weeknight treats. In this case, it makes beef stock in only an hour.
Since a pressure cooker is sealed, it doesn’t let out vapors that carry flavor. When your kitchen smells nice, that’s because tasty things that should be in your stock are instead escaping into the air. Nathan Myhrvold of Modernist Cuisine notes that a pressure cooker keeps delicate aromas in the stock, which produces a tastier end product.
The other really cool thing about a pressure cooker is that even though it’s boiling, the water doesn’t move. When you’re making a stock normally, you simmer it. That’s because a boil will stir up the stock and make it cloudy. For reasons I don’t understand, a pressure cooker keeps it still; you end up with a vibrant and clear stock at the end. Boiling it means that all those flavors extract better (some of the meat proteins have a high melting point and you need to melt them out of the bones).
If you use bad vegetables, you’ll get bad stock.
The conventional wisdom is to save every carrot peel, each onion top and wilted celery stalk for soup. I used to do this and it creates bad, off flavors. Onion skins make it bitter, dirty carrot peels make it taste like, well, dirt. Don’t get me wrong: I hate to throw out things in the kitchen. Instead, I just put those bits on the compost pile, where they will give back to me in time.
Instead, I use about a dollar’s worth of carrots, celery and onions for the stock. I peel them and cut them up finely, because big chunks of vegetables don’t season the stock as well. Want proof? Put a few large chunks of carrot in your stock next time. At the end, fish one out and bite into it. You’ll still taste a lot of carrot flavor, and that’s flavor that never ended up in your stock. That’s a waste.
This is also where you can prune out some things in your fridge. The tops of leeks, washed thoroughly, go in. If you have a half of a tomato, that can pop in as well. I like to use up parsley, but I save that to put in at the end; a long cooking will obliterate the flavor of it.
Finally, woody herbs like bay leaves, rosemary, thyme and sage are worth putting in. I like to dial back on them because I want them in the background. If I’m making something that calls for more sage, I can always add it in later.
Do you know what I don’t put in? Salt. It’s not needed at this point. You will eventually add it in to your recipe, but this is an inappropriate spot for salt. Some recipes include simmering stock to reduce it down, and the salt doesn’t leave the stock. You could end up with something unpalatably salty if you add it in now.
Don’t over-fill your stock pot.
This mistake I made over and over. You’re getting around to making the stock out of all of those scraps and vegetables; there’s no shame in wanting to stretch it as far as you can. I settled on the new philosophy that I only fill my pot enough to submerge all of the solids in it. This guarantees rich and full stock and has never produced a thin and watery product. If you’re going through the effort, you should commit to making a great stock.
Chilling and saving stock is simple, too.
Stock needs to be cooled down before you put it in your fridge or you’ll make your fridge too warm and ruin everything in it (ask me how I know that). I’ve got a tremendous cheat to cool it, though.
I make my stock in winter. When it’s done, I take the pressure cooker and put it outside in the cold. An hour is enough time to really take the heat off. If it’s not cold, it’s at room temperature at the very least. From there, I portion it into reusable plastic containers and put them in the fridge. The fat will float to the top and firm up; you can pull the tallow off and discard it or save it for other projects.
My last tip is about freezing it. Stock is only good for three to five days in the fridge. What makes it tasty to us also makes it inviting to mold and bacteria, so freezing is the best way to prolong it. First, you can freeze small amounts in an ice cube tray. For larger amounts, I put two cups in a freezer bag and lay it flat on a baking tray. It freezes flat and then you can stack it vertically in the freezer. You’ll feel like a genius when you do this. It also makes defrosting really easy, because it’s a pane of ice and not a big cube.
I guarantee you’ll have a good, beefy base to use for future projects. As a bonus, my favorite winter hot drink is hot beef stock combined with a bit of miso, lemon juice and ginger. Sip it out of a mug. You can toss in hot sauce if you’re feeling adventurous. I don’t put much faith in home remedies for sickness, but this does a great job of warming your toes after being outside for a long time.