Making your own stocks, like baking bread and other once-basic kitchen skills, is one of those pastimes that today seems to set the serious kitchen enthusiasts and fully-paid professionals apart from the rest of us hunger-motivated amateurs. I don’t know about you, but when I’m wondering what to cook for dinner, a load of shells or bones isn’t the first thing that springs to mind. And even for those out to impress, starting by scratching that particular stock-itch is seriously impressing. (How often do you see that on Come Dine With Me? I rest my case.)
I always had the vague idea that making fish stock was a cinch, but have to admit having never made one, blaming lack of large stock pot / deep-freezer / time / spare fish bones etc. Really, it was more a reluctance to fumble blindly into unknown territory, and the unspoken suspicion that it’d be more trouble than it was worth.
Speaking of worth, there is an initial outlay if you want to start making stocks. A good five litre stock pot might set you back anything from €45 to the guts of €200, depending on where you pick it up, what kind of brand you want to buy into, what kind of use and abuse it is designed to take, and whether you bother with a lid or not. (On the latter, many chefs don’t, preferring to wrap the top of the pot in cling film, allowing you to peer in whilst preventing any moisture escaping. Makes sense in a busy kitchen where there’s more important concerns than keeping track of the right lid for the right pot.)
But when you can pick up a pack of bouillon for a handful of coins at any supermarket, or a pouch of fish stock from the likes of Fallon & Byrne, you might wonder, why bother?
And indeed, some restaurants would agree with you. Most of the specialist companies supplying to restaurant kitchens will happily provide – at the right price – a highly reduced, high quality veal jus which will give a richness and depth to sauces that the home cook recognises as different to anything they can produce. Other establishments will make this jus themselves as a point of pride. Either way, it is precious stuff. Consider the energy – human and otherwise – that goes into the following:
- Roast the bones and drain the fat.
- Simmer with mirepoix (ie veg and herbs), skimming the top, for a good five hours.
- Cool and refrigerate for several hours.
- Skim the fat.
- Reduce down by about 70% for another couple of hours, with or without the addition of a bottle of red or a bottle of port or both.
- Pass through muslin.
Hey presto: your five litres of bone-flavoured water has been transformed into about three cups of intense jus.
Having invested all that energy, you’d want to be sure to use every last drop of that precious liquid. That’s where the deep freezer comes into play. Actually, so concentrated is this kind of jus that (a) you won’t have much left to freeze, and (b) a little will go a long way in terms of flavour, so an ice-cube or two will make its mark on a sauce.
Of course, not all stocks demand quite so much dedication. It’s true that a fish stock is a cinch: just feck whatever skins, bones and trimmings you have (leaving out the guts and head) into cold water with whatever mirepoix you fancy, whack it almost up to the boil, skim the scum and simmer for 20 minutes. It’s important to catch the scum as it rises and not to send it back down into the liquid by abandoning it to a wildly rolling boil, but other than that, easy peasy. And because you’re not reducing this stock significantly, you can freeze a good amount for future use.
Some stocks are the by-product of cooking certain cuts (the cooking broth from ham hocks for example); others can be made from what you might otherwise discard (lobster / prawn shells can be roasted and reduced down with various aromatics); others from what others have discarded (chat to your butcher about beef or lamb bones or chicken carcasses).
Once you get comfortable with the basics of stock-making, your horizons broaden and you can get creative. Small details like whether you sweat your mirepoix or not will mark out your cooking as your own. You can play around with what aromatics you use: Matthew Albert‘s Thai chicken stock is based on the same process as any white chicken stock (a white stock being un-roasted bones, and a brown being roasted) but with Thai veg and herb trimmings used as the mirepoix.
But more than that: once you have the habit of stocking your freezer with well-made stock, you have the guts of many a fine meal ready to rock. On Day Fourteen of the course, we feasted on the fruits of the sea, buoyed up by a fish stock which had been transformed with roasted langoustine shells. From this came the baritone-deep flavours of a shellfish casserole which we topped with roast hake and black olive toast, but which would have stood alone at any mealtime. We also used that fish stock as the base for a lick-your-bowl lobster and tomato sauce, into which we placed pan-fried halibut garnished with a lobster tortellini, shaved fennel and basil oil. (Again, any of the latter components could have been pared back for a perfectly luxurious meal.)
Yes, you can get away with never fumbling into the territory of stock-making and still turn out many’s the fine dinner. But these are far from uncharted waters: most basic cookbooks will have stock advice to get you started. And it will open up whole new chapters in your own personal cookbook of tried and tested recipes with which to wow your friends and win Come Dine With Me. Think of the glory in that. Priceless.