Continuing with the soup kick I've been on the past couple weeks, I whipped up a batch of chicken stock yesterday. I usually try and do turkey stock this time of year, but this Thanksgiving's dinner was catered, and there was no carcass to get my hands on afterward, so chicken it is (anybody here in Portland who's planning on cooking a turkey for Christmas, I'd be happy to take the carcass off your hands; feel free to e-mail me).
Stock is, of course, one of the foundations of pretty much all western cuisines, and chicken stock is arguably the most versatile. While a number of pretty good stocks, broths and bases are available commercially nowadays (even Rachel Ray™ has her own brand), you really can't beat stock made, properly, from scratch. I've made more than a few batches of chicken, turkey, and even antelope stock in the past, but I still saw fit to turn to Michael Ruhlman for some guidance, via his excellent reference The Elements of Cooking, which turned up a couple good pointers I'd missed. First, stock doesn't like to be boiled, which we all know, but it shouldn't be simmered either. Bringing it up to about 180F, well below the simmer but still hot enough to extract collagen from the bones, and keeping it there will prevent the sort of turbulence in the pot that stirs up particulate matter and clouds the stock. Second, Ruhlman suggests adding the aromatics in the last hour of cooking, which is long enough to extract their flavor but not so long that the vegetables begin to break down, which can also lead to a cloudy stock.
This whole enterprise begins, of course, with bones. For a stock with a light flavor - sometimes called a blonde stock - you can use raw bones. I like a stock with a little more character, however (otherwise I'd be hitting up Rachel Ray™ for some of hers), so I used bones from a couple of chickens I recently grilled. If you cook chicken on a regular basis, all you realy need to do is throw the bones in the freezer and make your stock once you've got six or seven pounds of them. Sure, you could make a smaller batch with fewer bones, but for the work you're putting into this, you might as well make as large a batch as you can. I had about four pounds on hand, so I got three more pounds of necks and backs, roasted them in the oven at 375F for about an hour or so, and added them to the pot. If you can find chicken feet, those work well too, as they've got a lot of collagen, which is, by the way, the most important consideration when making stock. Gelatin is produced by hydrolizing collagen, bones and connective tissue contain a ton of it, and collagen is what gives a stock the body and mouthfeel that can only otherwise be provided by fat. A word about meat is appropriate here as well: a lot of stock recipes call for bones only, and that's technically what a stock is (if this were made with meat only, then it would be considered a broth), but meat adds flavor, so if there's a little meat left on the bones, as with those necks and backs, that's fine. But enough talk, already. If you're down with making some chicken stock, here's what to do:
6-7 lbs. chicken bones and meat
Enough water to cover
2 large yellow onions, diced
8 cloves of garlic, minced
5 celery stalks, diced
2 large carrots, diced
2 handfuls of parsley, leaves and stems
6 sprigs of thyme
5 bay leaves
1 Tbsp peppercorns
Put the bones into a large (at least 12 qt) stock pot. Cover the bones by a couple inches with cold water. It's very important that the water be cold at this point, as adding hot water to the bones right away can seal up their pores, thereby preventing collagen extraction and defeating the whole purpose of this endeavor. Slowly bring the temperature up to 180F. You'll definitely want to employ a good thermometer which you can stick on the side of the pot here:
Let the bones hang out at this temperature for about four hours, adding water as necessary to make sure none of the bones are exposed to the air. Adding water will, of course, alter the temperature. If it gets down to 170, turn the heat up a bit. If it gets up to 190, don't panic, just turn it down a bit. Every once in a while, carefully skim off the foam, fat and scum that's risen to the top. That's really about all there is to it at this point. You've got four hours to kill here, so read a book, smoke some dope, do your laundry, whatever, but if you're like me, you probably don't want to leave the house with the stove in use unless someone else is around.
After about three and a half hours, you'll want to get the aromatics ready to add to the mix. I find that caramelizing the vegetables adds a depth of flavor to the stock that you don't get when you throw them in raw. So grab a large saute pan, heat up a little butter and olive oil, and get to work (if you have a smaller saute or fry pan, do this in batches): saute the onions over medium-high heat, and once they've softened, add the celery and carrot. This combination of vegetables, incidentally, is known as a mirepoix. Continue to saute until the veggies just begin to take on a little color, then add the garlic and continue over medium heat for two or three minutes longer. Add the vegetables, along with the parsley, thyme, bay, cloves and peppercorns, to the stock:
Let this cook for about an hour, continuing to skim any residue. It's a good idea, by the way, to employ a colander to keep everything below the surface as it cooks (not just at this point, but throughout the whole process):
After the vegetables and herbs have cooked with the bones for about an hour, take the stock off the heat and remove as much solid matter as you can with some tongs or a slotted spoon. Strain the stock slowly through a strainer lined with two layers of cheesecloth into another stock pot or a couple of large saucepans. Clean out the stockpot, transfer the stock back into it, and chill in an ice water bath. Once it's cooled to below room temperature, put it in the fridge and chill it overnight.
In the morning, you'll find that a layer of chicken fat has formed on the top. This is called schmaltz. Schmaltz figures prominently into Jewish cuisine, and is very useful for frying, even for a gentile like myself, so reserve it for later use, as your grandmother might have done with bacon fat. Once the schmaltz has been skimmed, you'll probably find that the stock has taken on a rather gelatinous consistency (you'll no doubt remember that talk we had earlier about collagen). Heat the stock just to the point where it's liquid again, pour it into whatever containers you're using to store it, and freeze. I like to use ice cube trays:
These trays, which are Rubbermaid brand, have sixteen cubes apiece, each of which is exactly an eighth of a cup. Very useful for measuring purposes. If you go the cube route, remove them once frozen and store, double bagged, in Ziploc bags. And there you have it, an excellent base for soups and sauces to last you through the Winter (or part of it, anyway).