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Take stock

Suzy Mckeever Suzy Mckeever | 11:06 UK time, Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Tim Hayward’s programme on stock for Radio 4’s Food Programme this week extracted a wealth of information about the development of stocks and stock cubes, and piqued our interest in the subject.
Stock is one of those elements in cooking that is apparently simple but which takes attention and skill to make really well. Stock comes in a variety of guises, from a simple broth, to a clear-as-a-bell consommé.

It is a culinary fundamental that requires few ingredients and simple instructions – warning enough that ‘experience’ is the unnamed key ingredient. You start off with roughness; bones, carcasses, meat trimmings, crudely cut veg, a handful of herbs and you finish with complexity, savouriness, and a liquid which looks by turns silky and light-capturing. It’s cooking magic.

Professional chefs take great care over their stocks and have their own preferences. Thomas Keller excludes celery from his stocks, as it adds a bitter note. As a nonpareil for decadence, Marco Pierre White ordered in crates and crates of whole chickens, destined only for stock, for his 3-starred Oak Room restaurant. In 2011’s Great British Menu, Johnny Mountain aroused the disapproval of judge Marcus Wareing over his resistance to using fish heads in his stock for a bouillabaisse, stating fish heads had no place in his cooking. Marcus didn’t agree, and Johnny’s dish, sans heads, came off the loser.

It’s easy to see why the professionals take time and intense care over their stocks – they are the root of much that issues from the kitchen, most notably, stocks provide the base for sauces, the crowning glory of many dishes. The job of saucier in the kitchen is the highest in the brigade (pipped only by the sous- and head-chefs. During service, the saucier makes sure the sauces are on hand for the head-chef, ready to apply the final spoonful or drizzle to finish the dish. Stocks are the beginning of the eloquent finishing touch to the dish.

Chef spooning sauce onto a dish

A head-chef applying sauce from, yes, a sauce-pan, to a dish on the pass, moments before being served to a customer

While we’re not delivering restaurant service in our homes, there are some fundamentals that are good to know, some rules which once known, you can riff over.

Dos and Don'ts:
The quality points you’re looking for in a stock are:

  • • balance of flavours
  • • clarity
  • • viscosity and body
  • • good colour

    All these pointers will help achieve a clear, stock with good body and colour:

  • • Never boil a stock – you'll cloud it.
    A cloudy stock means that the fat, impurities and soluble proteins in the ingredients have become mixed into your stock, instead of being filtered out. The boiling action forces proteins to emulsify in the liquid, rather than coagulating gently, then either rising to the surface, where they can be skimmed, or dropping to the bottom of the pan.
  • • Never add hot water to stock – you'll cloud it
    For the same reasons as above – hot water will make the proteins in the stock set too quickly and in particles too small to be easily removed.
  • • Don’t cover a stock while cooking.
    This would increase the heat, making the stock more likely to boil. Harold McGee elaborates on the science of it: that evaporation cools the surface of the stock, making it less likely to boil, and dehydrates the soluble particles, making them more insoluble, and easier to skim off.
  • • Always skim a stock – every 5-10 minutes for the first hour, every 30 minutes after that. Removing the impurities and scum is critical to getting good-flavoured, clear stock.
  • • Generally speaking, don’t add salt
    You don’t always know how a stock is going to be used, if the stock is reduced after being salted at the beginning, it may get too salty.
  • • Always double strain a stock, first through a colander, then through a fine sieve
  • • Remove as much fat as possible from the ingredients before adding to the pot
  • • Keep it on a slow simmer – if it’s not kept hot enough, the stock can sour

    A stock is not a dustbin for all the manky veg and leftovers you have hanging around. To produce a good stock, you need good ingredients, but they don’t need to be premium: keep herb stalks and trimmings of meat and vegetables to make your stocks.
    In brown stocks, good flavour will come from well browned meat – make sure your beef or veal bones have plenty of meat scraps on them, and that they are well roasted in pre-heated trays. Chicken wings are an excellent base for a brown chicken stock – providing heaps of flavour from a very humble joint. The cooking times will be long; 8 hours minimum for a veal or beef stock. It takes time for the flavours to marry and infuse into the liquid.
    For lighter stocks, the cooking time is much shorter: fish stocks will be ready in 20 minutes, vegetable stocks in 45. The ingredients threaten to disintegrate and cloud the stock if cooked for much longer, and the flavour will suffer as a result.
    Gelatin is an important component in stock, as it gives the liquid body. Using bones will impart gelatin to the stock, and is a key reason why bones are used, instead of just meat (aside from the cost issue). Fish stocks that use gelatinous bones from turbot and brill are considered the best.

    Once you’ve got your stock, the choice is yours as to its use. Glâces and demi-glâces are the first port of call when making restaurant-esque sauces. A glâce is a reduction of the stock to 10% of its original volume. The result is a deeply flavoursome liquid that is used as the base of, or mixed into, other flavours to make sauces. A demi-glâce is a stock reduced to 25-40% of its original volume and is used widely in professional kitchens.

    So rather than simply boiling up an old roast chicken carcass, give a little more time and devotion to your stocks. Your risotto (and soups, gravies, pies, stews) will thank you for it. And your sauces will be out of this world.

    chicken risotto with peas

    Try making chicken stock from browned chicken wings for a rich, succulent stock that will transform a risotto

    Find out more about how to make stocks with our stock recipes:

    Listen again to Radio 4’s The Food Programme: In Praise of Stock

    What’s your favourite way to make stock? And what dishes do you use it for?



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