Friday, April 16, 2010

The Baroness of Beef Stock

Months ago, I promised a stock-making post. My apologies for my lateness. One of the best things you can do as a cook learning to navigate the world of "real food" is to make your own stocks. For this you need bones. My co-op carries grass fed beef bones and elk bones already pre-packaged for making stock. This is a bonus because to gather up enough bones of the right kind you can end up going to several stores. For a brown stock, it's recommended that you get some bones that provide some gelatin like knuckle or ox-tail, some marrow, like shin bone and some bones like ribs that have a small amount of meat on them. You aren't really going to eat this meat, it just adds to the color and flavor of the stock. The pre-packaged bones are around $10 and make a large pot of stock (produces about 80 ounces of stock). Stock-making is a messy, time-consuming process that ends up costing as much as store-bought product, so why do it? There are several reasons. One is quality. I know the beef producers at my co-op and know that these are the best quality bones. I know that there are no additives or other shennanigans because I make it myself. I also know that my stock just tastes better. Make a soup with home made stock and you'll never go back to packaged. It's difficult to explain but it just has a vitality that stock from a can or carton can't equal. So now that I've convinced you to do it, here's what you need to pull it off.

1) Some free time. Pick a day off when you are going to be doing other cooking anyway. Start the stock early and cook it until it's bed time. Since you are going to be running your stove all day, it's best not to do this in say, mid July.

2) A big 'ol pot. I use an inexpensive stock pot I got at a restaurant supply store. It's huge. It holds several gallons of water.

3) Bones: A couple of pounds of mixed bones: beef knuckle, shin, ribs, oxtail, etc. make sure shin bones aren't too long for your pot. You may need to ask the butcher to halve them. Maybe you can get the gentleman of the house to do it for you, if he has a sawz-all that he's been dying to use.

4) Water to cover the bones, I usually add water as the day goes on, but not too much. Weak stock is kind of a waste of time. you can get gourmet and use water from the Brita pitcher if you like. I use tap water.

Technique: Put bones in the pot. If they are frozen cover them with cold water. Add water till it is two or three inches above the bones. Turn that burner on and boil all day. Watch the water level so it doesn't run dry. If it does, don't panic. Unless you let it burn till black you haven't hurt anything. In fact you've just browned the bones which is something many people do in the oven before making stock. It adds a darker color and a carmelized flavor to the stock. The best stock I ever made, was one I almost ruined. Just add water back in to the pot to the original level. As you get to the end of the day, quit adding water so that the stock gets time to strengthen. I usually stop adding water around dinner time (two or three hours left to boil).

Remember to skim the scum off the top of the pot occasionally during cooking. I'm not super dilligent about skimming. I do it when I add water. When you are finished strain into containers. Discard the bones, unless you have a dog who would appreciate them. I understand the marrow is good on toast. I've never tried it, but since I make beef stock once a month, I should get round to it eventually.

This technique should produce about 80 ounces or four English pints of stock.

I use at least one pint right away and freeze the rest. I don't bother to skim the fat from the stock as it's cooking because it will quickly separate out, when the stock is cooled. The fat floats to the top, making a thick, waxy plug of tallow at the top of the container. I use this for cooking, so I store it with the stock until I need it. It almost acts like a canning seal, keeping the stock inside, fresher. Some people recommend freezing the stock in ice cube trays and then emptying them into plastic bags. This just gives you a bunch of little portions of stock. I'm not sure I ever need 1/4 cup of stock. But if you can think of a reason, knock yourself out. Whenever I thaw a pint of stock, I never have trouble using it. Soups, stews, and pilafs are just the beginning. I've even added beef stock to oatmeal. (Yeah, it's weird, I know, but it wasn't as gross as it sounds. I quite liked it actually.)

This technique works well for other kinds of stock. Use a leftover chicken carcass to make home made chicken stock. Lamb stock makes an incredibly lovely lamb stew and stock making is a great use for that leg of lamb bone. If you only have one or two small bones, you can still make stock, either by supplementing with more bones from the butcher or by scaling things down accordingly. The bone left from a whole ham, makes the most divine pea soup in the world as you simply make the stock within the soup pot.