Investing (time) in Stocks

Stock. The basis of so many recipes, and yet something of an antiquated procedure in most home kitchens – it certainly has been in mine. I’ve made de-facto stock, as the first step of a soup, often enough, but I’d never taken the time to prepare stock to store for use in other recipes. Even this first, quite simple, recipe made me realize what a departure from my normal cooking style this project will be. Namely, that it will be slow. Particularly in the past several years of being in school or at work more-or-less full time, my cooking has tended toward dishes that could be thrown together quickly, relying on spices or condiments for much of the flavor. Making stock, in contrast, is all about the slow extraction of flavor from the food itself. Different for certain, but also very satisfying. As The Professional Chef (TPC) decrees, good stock tastes not only flavorful but wholesome.

TPC devotes several pages to veal, beef, fish and chicken stock, among other meaty variations, but also includes a recipe for vegetable stock. Vegetable stock, along with chicken and fish, are classifying as “white” or light stocks, as opposed to the heartier “brown” variations. Apparently an extra-rich stock can be made if you use the nasty bits of younger animals, as they have more connective tissue clinging to the bone, which will melt down into your stock making it richer and more”gelatinous” – yum. But stock is really more about technique than ingredients. The only difference between making a meat stock and a veggie version is that you chuck some extra veggies in the pot instead of bones. And so I decided there was no real need to try to make a un-beef stock, as veggie stock can pretty much go wherever the meaty stuff does.

Considering that I will be using this stock only vegetarian preparations, I figured that a mild vegetable stock would be sufficient for most recipes.  But, since veggies lack tendons and cartilage and such to add fat and body, per TPC, I made sure not to skimp on the oil – 1/4 cup per gallon of water. I began with a standard mirepoix – 2 parts onions to 1 part carrot and 1 part celery, chopped in ~ 1/2 inch cubes. After heating the oil, the onions went in first until they began to release their juices. Then I added the carrots until they began to brown, then then celery. After about 10 more minutes on stove, I added more vegetables, the same total volume as the mirepoix. (I think I may need a scale…). TPC specifies that any “non-starchy” veggies may be used. I used some leftover leeks and portobello mushroom trimmings, hoping the mushrooms would contribute a rich flavor. These sautéed for another 10 minutes. Then I added the gallon of water plus ~ 2 teaspoons of sea salt. The whole pot then simmered for about an hour (while I took a bath). I chucked in the flavoring bouquet (a bundle of cheesecloth containing 4 parsley stems, 1 sprig of thyme, 1 garlic clove, a bay leaf and a few pepper corns) about 15 minutes before the end. Finally, I strained the stock through a mesh colander.

The results were good, but not overwhelmingly so. Really, I was a little disappointed- all that work, and it didn’t taste all that different than something that could have come out of a can… But then, sitting overnight deepened the flavor improved remarkably. And the next day, I made polenta with the stock, to see what sort of difference the flavor would make in such a simple recipe – it was incredible! Worth the trouble…I think. I can’t imagine making stock very often, but a big batch every now and then seems like a great way to use up vegetable scraps and its easy to freeze. I may be a convert after all…

Next, I plan on tackling a less-orthodox vegetarian brown stock. Traditionally, the brown color and richer flavor would come from both the meat an from well-caramelized mirepoix and a bit of browned tomato paste. I’m thinking of subbing dried mushrooms for the meat, to try to capture a similar depth of flavor.

Stay tuned…

Next, my stocks will be turned into sauces!

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