Saturday, March 27, 2010

Chicken stock

You've probably been wondering what to do with all those chicken carcasses from the chicken in a pot recipe. Or maybe you've been wondering where I get all that chicken stock I keep dumping into beef bourguignon, or fish soup, or Belgian beef stew. Well wonder no more! Here's how to make chicken stock. (If you're vegan or something, and weren't wondering, then you may want to skip this one.)

There are a lot of chicken stock recipes out there. Some call for roasting the bird remains first. Some want you to use a whole bird that hasn't even been cooked yet. Some ask for a mirepoix, others don't. For me, it's about simplicity and using the last of a roast chicken to create a VERY important and useful ingredient that, if you buy it in a store, is invariably awful. So, why not go for a little thrifty/gourmet combo here and save your next pile of chicken bones for something great? (This recipe calls for the left overs from a roast chicken, but you can save the bones from bbq'd legs, a mess o' wings, or whatever recipe you've done. If you only have a few, freeze them until you have a critical mass and then get cooking!)

The first step is to put your pile of bones in a big stock pot and fill it with water. And that's pretty much it. You can add whatever you want now (with the exception of the cabbage family) to create your stock. Classic additions are a couple stalks of celery, a roughly chopped carrot or two, a quartered onion (no need to peel, but trim the dirty root off and make sure it doesn't have that gross black mould under the first couple of layers), and a few cloves of garlic (whole). On the herbs and spices side, you can toss a bay leaf or two in there, some sprigs of thyme, and or some peppercorns. Once you have all your stuff in the pot, bring it almost to a boil, then turn it down to a slow simmer for about two hours -- you want it to be rolling around gently in the pot, but not boiling. (This is a good recipe to have blupping away on the stove while you read, or clean house, or, well, do whatever as long as it allows you to pop into the kitchen every now and then to give it a stir and to make sure the stove isn't too hot.)

Now, about salt. You can put a bunch in if you like, but I prefer to make a minimally salted stock. This gives me the flexibility to salt my other recipes when and as I please without worrying how much salt is in my stock. I find you do need some though -- it helps you when you taste the stock to see how it's coming along (not that you really need to, but tasting is fun!). The salt helps you pick up the other flavours. So, I go for about a teaspoon (actually, a little pile that sits nicely in the palm of my hand), but feel free to use your own judgement and taste.

After a couple of hours you're stock will have boiled down a little.

The next step is to strain it (you don't want any debris in the finished product). It's smart to do this in the sink (unless you like cleaning up the inevitable splatters and spills).

Then you just need to get it in some containers. I'm not a big fan of plastic (did I mention this already?) so I use these glass things I got from Canadian Tire (they go on for half price all the time, so I stock up then -- I know I have to make more chicken stock when the cupboards start filling up with them). I use two cup containters, since that is a pretty typical quantity of stock for most recipes. I transfer the strained stock to the containters using a measuring cup (not to measure, but because it pours pretty well).

Then I let them sit on the counter for a little while until they are cool enough (i.e. not hot) to cover and to go into the fridge. (This has a side benefit of requiring me to drink several beers, since there usually isn't enough space in the fridge and, "sadly" the beers are the only thing that can be consumed quickly.) You can stack the containers two or three high to save some space.

Some recipes tell you to degrease the stock while it's warm, but this is craziness to me. In most cases it is a good idea to get some of the fat out of there because a greasy stock can make a mess of your recipe. (You may have noticed that this is not a "cooking lite" site, but greasy stock can blow an otherwise great recipe so take heed!) The trick here is to wait until your stock has spent a night in the fridge. The next day, any fat will have formed a solid layer on top of the stock -- more if you had a fatty chicken, less to none if your bones were lean. If you are going to use the stock within a couple of days and plan to keep it in the fridge, then wait until just before cooking before you lift off and discard most (never all -- it is great stuff!) of the fat. The fat layer is like a little lid on the stock and keeps it from being exposed to air. If you plan to freeze the stock, then you should remove most (not all -- again!) of it before you put the containers in the freezer (this is because you don't want to have to worry about it at thawing time, and it is so easy to do right now).

To use the frozen stock, just take it out of the freezer about 20 minutes before you need it. Give the container about 5 minutes in a warm water bath to thaw the ice block of stock at the edges. Then open your container and transfer the stock to a sauce pan (it will still be an ice cube). Heat it up for 10 or 15 minutes until it is warm and melted, and then add it to your recipe!

Enjoy! There is something comforting about a freezer full of chicken stock!

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