Sunday is a perfect day to make stock, especially this one. We know who’s going to be playing in the NCAA final game Monday night, so the television is mercifully quiet. There is just enough of a breeze blowing to dance the wind chimes around. The dogs are napping in the sun in the back yard, so far not helping the neighbors’ dogs bark. I’ll catch up on some podcasts while I fold laundry because I sense a miracle in the offing: laundry will be done, folded, and put away on the same day. And today just needs to be a quiet one.
Meanwhile, a pot of stock will simmer on a back burner. Yesterday in a class I taught on gluten-free foods for Easter, MJ reminded me that I’d promised in an earlier class to post a post on vegetable stock. I hadn’t wanted to talk about it in either class because it’s more of a discussion than time permitted.
What goes into a good vegetable stock? At a minimum, onions (2), carrots (4), and celery (4).
Onions: any color but red. Trim off the root end, pull off any loose peel that looks like it has dirt on it, and leave the rest on. It’s going to give the stock a gorgeous, golden color. Quarter the onions and toss into the pot.
Carrots: Peel them, and remove the tips and ends. I feed the trimmings to the bunnies; friends feed them to chickens; and they also compost beautifully. Anything that has been in contact with the dirt needs to be peeled. Or be very, very well scrubbed. Cut them into 1″ pieces and add them to the pot.
Celery: Wash the stalks, of course, and trim off the ends. It’s fine to leave the leaves on. Cut them into 1″ pieces and add to the pot.
What else can go into stock? I keep a bag of stock contents in the refrigerator and add to it during the week. Into it go mushroom stems, clean onion peels, garlic peels, parsley stems, firm stems from other herbs (rosemary, thyme, marjoram), tomato ends. Chard and kale stems. The ends of asparagus stalks, oh yes. On stock day, they all go into the pot. Along with a couple of bay leaves.
What doesn’t belong in stock? Any kind of peels other than onion: carrots, potatoes. Anything soft-fleshed: summer squashes, basil, lettuce (seriously, someone asked that once upon a time), spinach, chard leaves, potatoes – basically anything that is going to break down excessively during the cooking process. Stocks want to be jewel-toned, clear. Broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower are wonderful in their own right, but all are too strongly flavored and will take over the character of a stock.
Fill your pot with cold water to cover the vegetables by 3 inches. Why not hot water? It’ll come to a boil faster, right? Yes, it will. But the cold water rule exists for stock for the same reason it exists for anything else you start in water: dried beans, potatoes of any color. If started in hot water, the exterior of whatever you are cooking will cook faster than the center. By the time the center is done, the exterior has begun to break down because it cooked too fast. So always start stock in cold water.
Cover the pot and set it over medium-high heat. Bring it to a boil, then remove the cover and reduce heat to a simmer. You want to simmer the stock uncovered because it needs to reduce, to allow water to cook off. A beautifully concentrated flavor will remain.
Don’t stir the pot. If some of the ingredients stick out above the water, it’s fine to gently push them back down. But don’t stir stock. Remember, it wants to clear and jewel-toned. If you stir it, there is a good chance that you will turn it cloudy.
How long does it need to cook? As long as it takes to reach a good concentration of flavor. So begin tasting it after a couple of hours. At first, the primary taste that you’ll get will be of the onions. But as the stock continues to cook, other flavors will begin to emerge. Its color will also deepen. Continue cooking until it reaches a deep concentration of flavors.
When your stock is done, set a large bowl in the sink. Set a colander in the bowl. Pour the stock into the colander to remove the large solids. Lift the colander out of the bowl and set it back over the pot to let it continue draining. Don’t press on the solids for the same reason that you don’t stir the stock: cloudiness will ensue. Once the solids have finished draining, you may throw them out (or compost them, or get some chickens to feed them to). Pour the stock back into the pot. Set the bowl back in the sink. Set a very fine-mesh strainer over the bowl. I have one I got especially for straining stock. Alternatively, line a conventional strainer with a couple of layers of cheesecloth. This is an important step: pour the stock through it to remove any fine particulates.
Now to get it cool, if you’re not going to use it right away. I keep empty plastic beverage bottles of frozen water in the freezer for instances like this. They’ve been run through the dishwasher and filled 3/4 of the way with cold water, then frozen. Drop a couple of them in your stock, move them around now and then, and you’ll be amazed how fast it cools down. Once the stock is cool, pour it into a storage container and either refrigerate or freeze, depending how soon you plan to use it. Again, I keep empty, clean beverage containers for freezing stocks.
Coming up next: I’ve made stock, now what do I do with it?