Le Creuset stock pot, well used and loved

Hey, you! Yeah, you — you, with the remote on the coffee table in front of the TV. So you think cooking from scratch is scary? Doesn’t have to be. Cooking can be as simple or as complex as you like; it’s up to you.

I’m going to address these remarks to the guy (or gal) out there who is eating a typical American diet, didn’t grow up knowing how to cook, needs for whatever reason (be it health, saving money, or some other reason) to learn, and would like to learn to make foods in the American canon. What I plan to do is to start off with some of the basics — the things that form the backbone of Western (or at least North American) cookery. And in my own opinion, there’s no better place to start than in the making of soup stock. (Vegetarians take note: This is geared toward making meat stocks, but is easily adapted to vegetarian cooking just by leaving out the meat — which, by the way, simplifies the process considerably.)

Let’s say you ordered too much chicken at KFC but you don’t want to try saving the leftover pieces because they inevitably dry out in the fridge and become inedible chicken jerky. Or you have some beef stew meat that’s not quite enough for a main dish. Or you’ve got some ham or luncheon meat that’s about to go bad and you need to use it up. Or you bought a roasted chicken from the store and have a big chicken carcass with some meat attached after a big meal. Or you’re cutting up a whole raw chicken and have no idea what to do with the wings and back. Or maybe you want to make a gallon or two of soup stock and you went out and bought a whole bird to be dedicated to that purpose.

Have I got a deal for you!

That extra bit of leftover meat you can’t bear to simply throw away can be repurposed to a higher calling, and serve as the basis of many different dishes. And doing so is so easy, even Cris Collingsworth could do it. For all you multi-taskers out there, this is a great thing to do on the weekends if you’re at home watching the game and doing the laundry. Start it in the morning after you’ve done the shower-and-breakfast thing, then check on it every so often to make sure the liquid level’s OK; by the time the last game’s done, it should be ready, or at least at an acceptable level of completion. Most of the work will be at the beginning of the process; once the veggies go in, it’s a matter of letting everything simmer for at least three hours.

Before we get started, you should have the following items:

– a stock pot (a slow cooker or Dutch oven will do; or as large and deep a pan as you have on hand)
– a strainer (4″ will do fine, but bigger will also work)
– at least two ice cube trays
– a nice sharp knife such as a santoku; “sharp” means “can cut the skin of a ripe tomato simply by resting on it with only the weight of the knife itself pressing down on it”. Yes, I know your knives aren’t that sharp. Use the steel or stone that came with them after each time you use them, and they will be.
– a pair of kitchen shears (my tool of choice for cutting up chickens and cracking bones; a good utility knife will do)

As for the soup ingredients themselves, they can be, as the Good Witch said, whatever you want them to be: just click your heels together and wish really hard. Any type of meat, fish, or vegetable is suitable for soup stock. Hell, citrus can be fun to add to chicken stocks towards the end of cooking, just for that added zing — though freshly sliced ginger root, which you add right at the beginning with the other ingredients, is my own stock-zinger of choice.

(A word of caution: Do Not Add Salt. (This is especially true if you’re using any precooked or preprocessed meats, which will inevitably have lots of salt anyway. Try to avoid using preserved meats with lots of nitrites as well.) If you do add salt, the end result, especially if added at the beginning of the process, will be extremely salty — which for those folks on low-salt diets is not a good thing.)

If your chicken carcass looks to be mostly bones, don’t worry: The flavor of stock can come from the meat, but where it really resides is inside the bones, in the marrow. This is why the older the bird, the more flavorful the stock. (This is also why you want to crack open the bones before you toss them in the water. The funny little semi-circular notch near the handle in the kitchen shears’ blades is designed for just this purpose.) Lightly-flavored stocks have their place — they’re useful for when you want to complement but not overwhelm any delicately-flavored ingredients, such as leeks or morels, with which you might be cooking, and they’re an excellent substitute for water when boiling rice. And most any chicken carcass will provide a hearty stock if heated long enough, or if roasted beforehand. But if you want a really tasty, deep-charactered, full-bodied stock worthy of being a chicken soup base without the meat’s having to be roasted first or simmered for eight hours, your best bet is to get an old stewing hen or rooster and use that. (The good news for those with little money: If you go to groceries catering to Asian or Latino communities, you can find whole stewing chickens for around $2 each. These are typically pullets from egg farms, and so have been allowed to hang around until their egg-laying days are done, which is far longer than most chickens attain.)

Okay, so you’ve got your meat, be it chicken, beef, fish, or whatever. You’ve got whatever bones that are in it cracked to extract the flavor therein. How much stock you’ll be making will depend on the following: The amount of meat and bones you have, the amount of veggies you have, and the size of the pot you’ll be using. If you only have a few ounces of meat or bones — less than a quarter of a chicken carcass — and a similar amount of vegetables, you can probably get away with a small 2-quart pan, pot, or slow cooker. If you’ve got a chicken carcass, you’re going to need a 4-quart pot or slow cooker. And if you’ve got a whole bird, you need to use a stock pot, a Dutch oven, or a really big slow cooker, because nothing smaller will work.

Put whatever amount of meat and/or cracked bones you have into whatever cooking receptacle you’ll be using, then add cold water until it cover the meat by at least an inch. (Now you see why you need a bigger pot. Now you also see another reason for cracking the carcass bones — to make them lie flatter and thus take up less space in the pot.) Why cold water? Because cold water extracts the flavor better, as well as the collagen that will give the stock thickness and body. Let it sit in the cold water for about fifteen to twenty minutes before you turn on the burner (or turn the dial to the “low” setting, if using a slow cooker). Use the fifteen minutes to chop up your veggies.

What sort of vegetables to use, and how much? For much American and European cooking, particularly French cooking, the holy trinity is onion, carrot and celery, or celery root (celeriac) if available. That will serve you well for starters, though I like to put in ginger with my chicken stocks and garlic with my beef ones. You can, if you don’t mind really spicy (as in four-alarm) stocks, throw in a chile pepper pod — though really, just a few seeds will be great plenty as far as spicing things up goes. Now the other question: How finely should we chop the veggies? The answer: Not finely at all. In fact, one-inch chunks are ideal. If you’re doing a whole bird, one or two chunk-chopped yellow onions, three to four chunk-chopped large (at least one inch thick and eight inches long) carrots, and four chopped celery stalks (or half of a celeriac root) will suffice; scale up or down accordingly for different amounts of meat.

Okay, now to turn on the heat. Bring the water up to almost (but not quite) a boil, skimming off any scummy foamy residue that reaches the top so you don’t risk it being cooked into the stock by boiling, as it will leave a bitter taste; when you stop seeing fresh foam (this should be after about five minutes or so), add in the veggies. (If you’re using a crock-pot or other kind of slow cooker, you can add in the veggies along with the meat right at the beginning, as even on high it won’t get hot enough to sustain a true rolling boil; just remember to skim off the residue when you’re done cooking and before you strain.)

Once the veggies are added, that’s it. You can turn the heat down to a slow simmer and go on about your business for the next few hours (three to four if doing a stovetop method, eight on low if using a slow cooker) with no need to do anything other than checking the water level every hour or so to make sure it’s still above the level of the meat and veggies. (If you’re using a slow cooker, you won’t even need to do that. Plus, you can safely leave it on when you leave the house, something I hesitate to advocate for stovetop cookery.) You may want to add in some herbs and various other aromatics, but for most of those there is a danger of overcooking the herbiness right out if added too soon; wait until about an hour before you plan to stop cooking before adding any herbs to the mix. (Garlic and ginger are different in that they’re tough buggers that take a lot of abuse, which is why they’re added early on in the process.)

When three to four hours (or eight in the slow cooker) have elapsed, pull out a piece of meat or veg, let it cool, and taste it. If there’s still some flavor to it, cook a little while longer if you can; if not, you’re done cooking — all the flavor in the meat or vegetable has been transferred to the liquid, which is now officially stock. Goody!

The finished (frozen) product

Take the stock, fish out all the now-depleted veggie and meat bits, and strain into another container. Put the container in the refrigerator to cool for at least six to eight hours, or overnight. When cooled, peel off the fat layer that may or may not be on top (if you made chicken stock, there will likely be a layer; if you made duck stock, there will certainly be a layer) and save it in the freezer if at all possible — chicken and duck fat are prized in cooking. Strain the cooled, defatted stock into ice cube trays, freeze, and put the frozen cubes into plastic bags for freezer storage. Now you can use as little or as much at a time as you want, and since it’s in one-ounce cubes, it’ll melt much faster than it would if you’d frozen it as one great big block.

Now you have something that, when you want to make a simple soup or a fancy sauce, or flavor some rice or pasta, or make a quick gravy, is handy and ready to use inside your freezer. And it wasn’t that hard, was it? If you can watch football, you can make stock. If you can make stock, you can make pretty much any and every main dish in the Western canon of cookery. Have fun!