Take stock in this building block

Vegetables, herbs, and mushrooms add depth and complexity to a vegetable  stock.
Vegetables, herbs, and mushrooms add depth and complexity to a vegetable stock.

Open any general-interest cookbook to the first few pages after the introduction, and you are likely to find the same thing in each one: Recipes for stocks.

There is a reason for this uniformity, a singular idea behind cookbooks' beginning the same way. Chefs, authors, and home cooks alike all agree that stocks are the foundation of good cooking. All other advanced cooking builds on them.

Simply put, a stock is the liquid you get when you simmer bones, meat, or vegetables in water for a long time. In other words, it's soup with all the good parts left out.

But that's what makes stocks so versatile. They are robustly flavored liquids that adapt marvelously to whatever you put in it.

Add meat and vegetables, and you have a double-rich soup. Pour a little into the pan drippings of a meat you have just cooked, add aromatics such as onions or garlic, and maybe a splash or two of cream, and you have an incredible sauce to serve alongside the meat.

Stocks are one of those tricks of the trade that make restaurant cooking usually so much better than home cooking. Many restaurants continually keep a big stockpot simmering away on a back burner and use the stock for any cooking application that would ordinarily require water. Along with soups and sauces, they use it to boil rice and cook pasta, they use it to flavor stews and to braise meats.

And the best thing is that it is all free.

In restaurants, they add bones and vegetable scraps to the pot as they become available throughout the day; it is culinary recycling on a grand scale. And you can do it on a more modest level just as easily in your own home. All it takes is a little time and space in your freezer.

Whenever you make chicken, just buy a whole chicken (they're cheaper that way, anyway), and cut it into pieces yourself. Take the parts you aren't going to eat — the neck, the back, and the wing tips — and put them in a zip-close bag in the freezer. Or if you cook shrimp, buy it with the shells on (again, it's usually cheaper). When you remove the shells before cooking them, place them in another zip-close bag in the freezer.

Are you making beef that has a bone in it? Cut it out after cooking it and pop it into the freezer.

Or, for the sake of making a great stock, you might even want to consider buying your own beef bones or veal bones from your purveyor of meats. Butchers used to give out bones for free — after all, they had plenty of them and no use for them. But in recent years, butchers have caught on that people are willing to pay for bones, so they are charging relatively high amounts for them. We recently saw beef bones selling for $3.49 a pound.

In other words, you might not want to use that homemade broth to boil pasta. And because it takes a few hours of your time, making stock is more an activity for the weekend than for a night after you come home from work. But the time and effort are well worth it.

The goal of making stock is to have a liquid that is richly flavored, but neutral. You don't want any one ingredient to outshine the others, you just need to achieve a roundly fortified sense of the main flavor, such as beef or chicken.

The secret is in the simmering. Stocks should be cooked at a low simmer, which means about four or five bubbles should be breaking the surface at any time. This will be easier to achieve if you use a pot that is taller than it is wide, resulting in less evaporation.

In the early stages of simmering, impurities from the meat will rise to the top of the pot in the form of foam or scum. For a clear, flavorful broth, be sure to skim this off with a large, flat spoon or, preferably, a wide, flat strainer. This requirement may take 20 minutes or so of near-constant skimming, but everyone agrees that clear stocks are better than cloudy ones.

In general, stocks are not salted. That gives you more control when you use them in other dishes. You can always add salt, as they say, but you can't take it away.

Stocks can be refrigerated for a couple of days, but you are more likely to want to freeze them, or at least part of them. Do this in small portions so you have just enough for your purposes. I like to use the two-cup size of plastic containers from takeout orders of soup from Chinese restaurants, but any sturdy plastic container with a strong top will do.

Don't fill them to the top, though. Remember that stocks are liquids, and will therefore expand a little as they freeze. And don't forget to label the containers before you freeze them, so you know what they are.

Before you freeze them, be sure to chill them as quickly as you can; putting it in a bowl submerged in ice water is a good way to do this. Not only does this process make the food safer, it is also a good way to get rid of the fat. When it chills, the fat will rise to the top. Just skim it off with a spoon. That way, the stock will taste better and be better for you.

One last bit of science: Bones and connective tissue are full of collagen which, when heated, turns into gelatin. This means that when they are cooled, stocks may become quiveringly gelatinous. That is the state that chefs desire, but whether it happens or not depends largely on what bones you use. Some, such as veal ankle and shin bones, have more collagen than others.

When your stock is made and put away, don't forget to use it. All that goodness is awaiting you in your freezer.

Contact Daniel Neman at: dneman@theblade.com or 419-724-6155.


Basic Chicken Stock

4 pounds chicken bones (necks, backs, and back frames)

2 onions, halved and sliced ½-inch thick (see cook's note)

4 stalks celery, sliced ½-inch thick

4 medium carrots, sliced ½-inch thick

2 ripe tomatoes or 3 canned tomatoes, quartered

½ bunch parsley

1½ gallons water (6 quarts)

Cook's note: For more of a French flavor, use 3 leeks. Cut off and discard all of the dark green part except 3-4 inches above the white part (some stores do this for you). Slice the leeks lengthwise almost all the way through to the other side. Rinse thoroughly under cold running water, fanning out the interior layers under the water to ensure they are all washed.

Combine all ingredients in a large soup pot and heat until it almost starts to boil. Immediately reduce the heat and cook at a very low simmer for 2-2½ hours. Do not allow the stock to boil. Use a wide, flat strainer or a flat spoon to remove impurities from the surface as they appear.

Use immediately, or strain and cool on a rack for 1 hour before refrigerating. If you want a stronger-flavored broth, reduce by half after straining. Chicken stock will keep for 1 week refrigerated or 6 months frozen, preferably in small portions.

Yield: 4-5 quarts stock

Source: The Frog and the Redneck cookbook, by Jimmy Sneed

Asian Chicken Stock

4½ pounds uncooked chicken bones (backs, feet, wings, etc.)

1-2/3 pounds chicken pieces (wings, thighs, drumsticks, etc.)

14 cups cold water

3 slices fresh ginger

6 green onions, white and light-green parts only

6 garlic cloves, unpeeled and lightly crushed

1 teaspoon salt

Put the chicken bones and piece into a very large saucepan (the bones can be either frozen or defrosted). Cover with the cold water, (use more water, if needed, to cover). Bring to a simmer.

Using a large, flat spoon or a wide, flat strainer, skim off the scum as it rises from the bones. Watch the heat; the stock should never boil. Keep skimming until the stock looks clear, about 20-40 minutes. Do not stir or disturb the stock.

Turn down the heat to a very low simmer. Add the ginger, green onions, garlic, and salt. simmer the stock on very low heat for 2-4 hours, skimming any fat off the top at least twice during this time.

Strain the stock through several layers of dampened cheesecloth or through a very fine sieve, and let it cool. Remove any fat that has risen to the top. Use immediately, or transfer to containers and freeze.

Yield: 2-3 quarts

Source: Complete Chinese Cookbook, by Ken Hom

Basic Beef Stock

3 pounds beef bones

1½ pounds lean beef

½ pound carrots

½ pound turnips

½ pound leeks

3 quarts cold water

2 whole yellow onions

2 whole cloves

Put bones and meat into a large kettle. Clean carrots and turnips. Cut carrots into eighths, turnips into fourths. Add to kettle. Clean and wash leeks (remove and discard the green part; slice lengthwise almost all the way through to the other side. Rinse thoroughly under cold running water, fanning out the interior layers under the water to ensure they are all washed). Add leeks to the soup kettle. Cover with the water and bring to a boil. Immediately lower temperature to a low simmer.

Clean and peel onions. Cut one in half. Put cut side down on a piece of foil or in an iron skillet (using foil will eliminate cleaning problems). Place foil or skillet over very low heat and burn onion to a depth of about 1/16 inch. Burned onion gives the stock a rich brown color. Stick cloves into the other whole onion. Remove scum that has collected on the soup, then add the onions. Skim the pot regularly as impurities collect on top of the liquid.

Simmer 3 hours, then remove meat and bones, and discard bones. Cook another 3 hours and then strain, cool, and use in soups or sauces. Freeze, in pint or quart containers, what is not used immediately.

Note: Meat from the stock has very little flavor. To use it, cut it up and use in dishes with strong flavors, such as a curry or a frittata with eggs, potatoes, and hot Sriracha sauce.

Yield: 1½ quarts

Source: Hows and Whys of French Cooking, by Alma Lach

Shrimp Stock

2 tablespoons corn oil

½ onion, coarsely chopped

1 stalk celery, coarsely chopped

1 carrot, coarsely chopped

4 cloves garlic, crushed

1 pound shrimp shells

1 bay leaf

1 sprig fresh thyme

1 teaspoon black peppercorns

Heat the corn oil in a large pot over moderate heat. Cook the onions, celery, carrots, and garlic, stirring often, until they are soft but not brown, about 3 minutes. Add the shrimp shells, bay leaf, thyme, peppercorns, and 3 quarts water. Increase the heat to high and bring to a boil. Immediately reduce the heat to low and gently simmer, skimming any foam that rises to the surface, for 1 hour.

Strain through a fine sieve into a container with a cover. Allow the stock to cool. Cover and refrigerate, then skim off the fat. Freeze the stock in small batches to use later.

Yield: About 2 quarts

Source: Adapted from My New Orleans: The Cookbook, by John Besh