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Take stock: There's an easier way to do it

By Andreas Viestad
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, October 28, 2009

"Bouillon is the soul and quintessence of sauces," wrote the 18th-century French cook François Marin. He might as well have said "of all classical French cooking." But at that time in France, of course, all cooking worth writing about was French and classical.

Bouillon, or stock, or broth, is the foundation of a range of dishes, not just French ones. It is the essence of a risotto. It is the heart of a soup and constitutes the body of a stew. Few chefs could imagine a world without it. A restaurant kitchen without a large pot of simmering stock feels barren and soulless.

But one of the first things you learn once you have graduated from the University of Food Writing and enter the Real World is that people don't make stock. Even many food writers and chefs don't make their own stock from scratch, at least not on their own free time. Stock should be just a matter of knuckles and dimes. Yet it seldom is.

There is not just one way to a good stock. The paths leading to a rich and flavorful meat, fish or vegetable stock are many, depending on the dominant ingredient and the various schools within the world of classical cooking. But all of those paths tend to be long and winding.

Marin claimed that it was simple to make stock, his definition of simplicity being "four to six pounds of beef, a big shoulder of veal, a hen, an old partridge with a strong savour," stewed together with numerous root vegetables for several hours, reduced and then cooked with even more beef, veal and ham. Other recipes go even further, if not in expense, then in complicated detours. Some call for stock to be clarified by using egg whites ("Whip the egg whites from 16 large eggs in a large bowl until the whites are foamy," as one recipe put it) and some by skimming it with a spoon for several hours. Many recipes tell you never to let it boil. In the recipe in Jacques Pépin's very useful book "Complete Techniques," there are 12 steps.

No wonder we give up. If we are going to spend time and effort on a 12-step plan, it had better change our lives, not just give us a quart or two of something we can use in a soup.

The problem is that the alternatives are so poor. If we substitute bouillon cubes or bouillon concentrate for the real thing, we end up in a completely different place. Many of the cubes or concentrates are just flavored salt. I used to buy a veal fond from Knorr/Unilever; I was quite fond of it, too, until I found out it contained less than 1 percent veal. So for animal content, if not for flavor, I would have done better using Jell-O.

Luckily, our choice is not limited to the extremely complicated or the extremely inauthentic. A lot of tradition but very little innovation lies behind the classic way of making stock -- and very little understanding, too.

What cooks need is a smart approach. The secret to a good stock is not, as most classic recipes claim, to use enormous amounts of meat or bones, or to put in hours of hard work. It is possible -- and desirable -- to make good stock without going to extremes.

There are basically two types of meat stock or broth. One is meat-based, using beef, veal shoulders, pheasant and the like to extract meaty flavor. The other is based on pieces of bones and carcass and contains a high level of gelatin, giving it a thick, rich consistency. The bone-based stock is not necessarily flavorful, but most often there will be some meat left on the bones, giving it a meaty quality; browning before cooking will instigate caramelization, lending more taste.

What we want to do is to extract as much flavor as possible in the most effective way we can. And to do that we need reasonably good temperature control and a generous amount of time. If we can manage those things, we can make a quart or so of simple but excellent meat stock using less than a pound of meat and little effort. (Most classical recipes call for about two pounds of meat per quart.)

A few simple techniques will improve the efficiency of stockmaking. The first is to cut the meat and/or vegetables into very small pieces. That makes it much easier to extract flavor. I use ground or minced meat. Sometimes I use store-bought minced meat; otherwise I mince the meat scraps I have using a meat grinder, or, even simpler, a food processor. When I strain the stock through cheesecloth or a clean kitchen towel at the end of cooking, it is easy to extract most if not all of the liquid, so very little is lost; bigger chunks of meat or root vegetables often behave like unruly sponges. (That is not so important when it comes to bones, so I usually let pragmatics decide what to do with them. Chicken bones are crushed; veal or beef bones are not.)

The most important thing is temperature control. That might seem like the biggest challenge. One of the nice things about making stock, old-style, is that it fills the house with a luscious aroma. But however atmospheric that might be, it is worth remembering that what you smell are aroma and flavor compounds escaping from your stock. If you have evaporated several gallons of stock, you have lost a lot of flavor. However, you need to keep the temperature high enough to extract flavor, to dissolve filaments and collagen, and that is why many recipes insist that you keep the temperature of the stock just below boiling. You also don't want vigorous boiling to beat coagulated proteins into very small pieces. "Simmering" is the elusive and unscientific term most often used.

Time is the one fairly constant factor. Making stock can take 12 hours or more. Even with shortcuts -- chopping the meat or bones into small pieces, for example, or using a pressure cooker -- the process will always be time-consuming. But with better temperature control, you don't have to be present for the duration.

By doing the browning in a pot on your stove, then transferring the pot to the oven, you can control the temperature much more effectively. Keeping the thermostat at 200 degrees, you are well above the necessary and below the problematic temperature ranges. The impurities in this stock tend to be large, and they are easily removed by straining through cheesecloth, so there is no need to clarify or to sit by the pot collecting scum with a spoon.

With big gastronomic advantages, little risk of failure, no need for hour-to-hour monitoring and greater economic benefit, too, it is a fine way to raise the value of your stock.

Recipes

Simple Meat Stock

Barley and Root Vegetable Soup

Easy Demi-Glace

Halibut With Demi-Glace

Andreas Viestad, author of "Where Flavor Was Born" and host of the public television series "New Scandinavian Cooking With Andreas Viestad," can be reached at http://www.andreasviestad.com or food@washpost.com. His Gastronomer column appears monthly.

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