ISO: The Perfect Chicken Stock

I want to talk about great chicken stock, which I’m making today.  (Ooooh, and does it smell GOOD!)  My chicken stock would be the envy of any foodie worth his or her low-salt, I humbly tell you.  Now, even though I love to cook, make almost everything from scratch and have a fairly good grasp of culinary wizardry, I don’t think I qualify as a “foodie”. I do buy ingredients from fancy grocery stores and upscale outlets, and buy organic and local whenever possible, but we ate meatloaf last week and spaghetti last night, so I guess I’m out. I also think foodies would exclude me from their group since I do things like saving our rib steak bones, cooking them down and using the broth for gravy. I also put vegetable peelings in the freezer for when it’s time to make soup. A foodie would never do that, would she? Isn’t that too, I don’t know, frugal or something?

Well, let me fill you up with a little secret. Frugal cooking is also super-tasty cooking. And the secret to wonderful stock is that it’s not the price of the ingredients that make the end results tasty. Oh, yes, good ingredients do equal good stock. But save your vegetable peelings, friends. Stash those carrot trims, onion bits, celery ends and garlic peels in a ziptop bag in the freezer, and dump them in the stock pot when the time comes. All those scraps that the foodies grate and chop off are really nuggets of super-stock yumminess. Let me tell you how to extract the most from them (and your produce budget!)

I’ve been searching for the perfect Chicken Stock recipe for over a year now. I have tried it all: store-bought birds, free-range farm birds, raw birds, roasted birds, baby birds, mama birds, papa birds. I’ve used birds with skin and birds without. I’ve cooked birds for hours and a few for a couple of days. I’ve added the best ingredients money could buy to those soup pots, too: organic celeries and onions, carrots, fancy peppercorns, sea salt, gray salt, celtic salt, no salt. My stock has evolved into something I’m proud of, and I’m going to write it down so that, next time I want to make it, I’ll remember what I put in that made it so good.

First of all, you need some chicken to make chicken stock. Go for the free-range organic bird if you can get your hands on one, but start with a good old bird in any case. The best birds, IMNSHO, are old layers that are done laying. You want an older bird, not a spring chicken, which the grocery stores love to sell to the public for matters of obvious economics. Young chickens make nice roasters, as their meat is juicy and tender, but the bones don’t have much in ’em yet to make you a good broth. Stick with the mama hens.

As for whether to roast your bird before hand: I don’t notice much of a flavor difference between roasted and unroasted chicken. Roasted chicken makes for a darker stock, but the flavor isn’t necessarily ‘better’ – it’s just different. If you’ve roasted a chicken to eat, by all means, use the carcass to make stock. But you don’t need to roast it just for that purpose.

Cut your bird up. That exposes more of the bones to the water, and helps extract as much gelatin from them as possible. The gelatin is what makes your stock so yummy (and healthy). A good stock should have the consistency of a Jello Wiggler after a short stint in the fridge.Add some other bird parts. I like to put in a package of wings, as they’re nice and bony. Keep the skin on. It adds flavor, and you’ll skim all the fat off, anyway. If you’re lucky enough to know a butcher, or have access to a chicken farm, get yourself some feet and beaks, too. I’ve never been able to find those, but it’s how the Jewish ladies make their stock. I hear they know what they’re talking about, so I’d definitely try it if I could.

Do not add the gizzard / giblets, however. They’ve got an entirely different kind of flavor and should be cooked and used separately.

Put your chicken parts in a stock pot and cover them with cold water. Yes, cold. Then, add a splash of white vinegar. Put the lid on. Let this sit on your cold stove for about 1/2 hour. The vinegar will help extract gelatin from the bones. Use this time to get your other ingredients ready.

Here’s where you have poetic license. You’re going to put in at least the following:

  • Two or three stalks of celery, including leaves. You can chop them if you like, but I just snap them into pieces with my hands.
  • Three carrots, washed but unpeeled. Again, chop into giant chunks or snap them by hand.
  • One or two white onions. I leave the skins on, wash the onion, and quarter it. Just my own method. You can peel them if you like, but there’s flavor in that thar onion skin.
  • A handful of parsley. Don’t chop it, just throw it in the pot.
  • Some whole peppercorns.

Now, you can also add some other fun ingredients to give your stock some body. I don’t know what stock body looks like, but it sure smells good. I put in a turnip and a parsnip. I have no idea what those taste like on their own, but they really do add something to the stock. I also throw in a few sprigs of fresh thyme. You can add a clove or two of garlic- whole – and more of the celery or carrot or onion. This is also where your freezer bag comes/goes in. I had some yummy scraps in my stock bag- leek ends, garlic peels, onion peels, carrot peels, celery butts, and scallion trimmings. Throw all of those in the pot. You can add some salt, if you like, but I prefer to put the salt into whatever I end up using the stock for. If you salt the stock, you can’t cook it down as far because you’ll end up with a chicken-flavored Dead Sea in your stockpot. Yuck.

Let me speak tangentally about the freezer stockpot bag for a moment. You can put most aromatic vegetable peelings in it: carrot, onion, garlic, celery, leek, scallion, turnip, parsnip. These can go in with unfettered zeal. Things like potato peelings can go in, but I would be very cautious about how much you use as they have a tendency to muddy up the stock’s flavor. And sharp flavors like bell pepper, zucchini, and broccoli should be avoided. They’ll just make your stock bitter and blah.

Back to our stock. Light your stove. Bring the pot to a boil, and then immediately turn it down to a slow simmer. Boiling stock is a no-no-no. On my stove, I have to turn the gas all the way down to make it simmer just right. And now, sit back and wait. Let that baby cook with the lid on loosely all afternoon. Enjoy the good smell drifting around your house. Anticipate the fabulous future good smells you’re going to be able to enjoy when the stock is ready to use. Simmer, simmer, simmer. Patience. Patience. Patience.

Don’t stir the pot. That’s bad stock mojo. Just skim it every now and then, especially in the first hour when a grey scum rises to the top. It’s okay if some of the veggies are sticking up, but make sure all the chicken parts are covered with the water. You can add a little more water if you have to. Let it cook for several hours. The longer you cook it, the more concentrated the flavor becomes. I’ve cooked a stock for 8-9 hours before on a really really slow simmer. It was totally worth it.

A few hours after your stock has been going, if you started with a whole bird, you might want to take the breast meat out. Let it cool a bit and then take it off the carcass, returning the bones and skin to the pot when you’ve got all the white meat off. You can use this meat for chicken soup or chicken salad or chicken a la king, or some other favorite dish calling for cooked chicken meat. Put the meat in the fridge as soon as you can and let your stock get back to cooking. The meat adds surprisingly little flavor- it’s the skin and bones that are the… ahem, well, the meat of your stock. Isn’t that a funny bit of irony?

When you’re done cooking the stock, pull out all the solid stuff and dispose of it as you will. Some pets (dogs, especially) like to eat the veggies  as they’ve got yummy chicken flavor in them. You can grind up the bones in your wood chipper and put them in the compost pile if you’re so inclined, or you can just toss it all in the garbage. Whatever works for you. But strain the stock. Get all the solid stuff out and put your golden goodness in a smaller pot. Plunge that pot into a sink of ice to cool it down as quickly as possible. Then stick it in the fridge. If you do this step at night, your stock should be ready to defat when you get up in the morning. You’ll see a lovely little cake of fat on top of a pot of brown Jello. Pull the fat off with a fork, spoon, or your fingers. And the remaining treasure is a pot of delicious stock. Ready to make into an even-more delicious pot of soup, or to add to your favorite recipe. Voila!

Now, I realize I have just written what is  probably the world’s longest explanation of how to make chicken stock.  You can certainly find a much-condensed version of this or a similar recipe in any good cookbook or on Food TV.  But the recipe is hardly the point of this post.  The idea is to discuss how economical it is to make – both in terms of your pocketbook and your precious spare time.  It takes a very small amount of forethought and planning to include a simmering stockpot in your schedule.  And the results are worth every ounce of effort.

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6 thoughts on “ISO: The Perfect Chicken Stock

  1. I searched and fiddled for years to find a chicken stock recipe that tasted like my grandmothers. She never wrote down recipes. So I can relate it is nirvana when you finally find it! I find chicken feet at asian markets, they also often have older birds as well for sale because where I live old birds can be hard to find in regular grocery stores.

  2. I have heard that Asian markets are a good place to get feet, beaks, and also old birds for stewing. Unfortunately, there aren’t any near me (that I know of, anyway). But I keep looking. That’s part of the fun!

  3. Really enjoyed this piece! My only concern is about giving the stock remnants to your dog – only if you don’t put onions in the stock. Onions are toxic and deadly to dogs! I’m always tempted to pour a little stock over my dog’s food so he can have some “gravy” but unfortunately I always put onion in my stock – such great flavor!! One of these days I’ll make a batch just for the pooch…

  4. Thank you for a thorough and well-written article. I always forget to save my veggie scraps for stock! One thing that always surprises me about the American and European approach to getting the broth out of the chicken is that a “stock” seems always preferred to a pure broth. Both are good, but as the dog owner pointed out- and as you mentioned with the salt- anything you add in during the initial broth extraction is usually also something you can add in later. I can’t think of a single ingredient, other than vinegar or wine, which might help extract gelatin, that you would HAVE to add during the stock making process. On the OTHER hand- what else do you do with veggie scraps? So my belief has been- use the veggie scraps because there’s no other good use for them, but don’t waste time putting in whole carrots or celery, because invariably, especially in American and European cooking, carrots and celery are going to find their way, in chunks or bits, in the final soup. Carrots especially might eventually overpower a stock. So I’m a purist in the sense that that less is more. However, I did learn from Andrea Nguyen (http://www.vietworldkitchen.com/blog/2008/10/pho-beef-noodle-soup.html) that charring onion can add great flavor- and I’ve tested it. I’ve also tested roasting the chicken or not and I find that if you at least char the skin, and/or char some onion- these are amazing flavor enhancers for stock. whether or not the bones or meat of the chicken is cooked seems to make no difference.

    Thanks again for your thorough article. The beaks/feet/old chickens information is really helpful to me especially. Also, I was surprised about not using the giblets or gizzards, but I will certainly be on the lookout for the flavor difference.

  5. Hmmm….. identical to my way of making stock – from the vinegar soak to the frozen veggie trimmings …. to the slow, slow simmering…. now you need to find someone who raises their own birds and beg for a beak/foot
    or two.

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