Save your scraps. There are two kinds of food. What rich folks eat, and the dregs that poor people live off. Haute cuisine and cucina povera.
In either case, one fact keeps asserting itself. Cooking is like a pyramid. Each new step is built on the one that came before it. So today we are going to dig the foundations. We’re going to talk about broth, or stock, whatever you want to call it. Foundations.
This is not a very glamorous subject. So let’s forget about the glam and the glitz for a minute and just focus in what makes food Good. Capital G. It’s surprisingly complicated. Broth, bullion, stock — whatever you want to call it — you throw some stuff in a pot with some water, boil it, strain it. Not that hard, right? Wrong. The devil’s in the details, as always.
The temptation is great to rush things, but broth takes a classic lesson from Aesop — slow and steady wins the race.
There’s magic in the bones. About 1,500 years ago, Vikings accidentally discovered steel. They were fording iron tools and weapons. Sometimes, when they wanted to make something extra, they ground up the bones of ancestral heroes or fearsome beasts and forged their dust into the iron. This happened to introduce carbon into the iron, and made it into steel, giving them a literal edge over their adversaries. The resulting items were named after the deceased. That’s why magic swords in the sagas and fantasy novels have names. There’s magic in the bones.
It’s the same with broth. Technically, a broth or bullion is made with meat. Stock is made with bones and other inedibles. In the modern era, we use these terms interchangeably: broth, bullion, stock. It’s all good. I usually go with broth. A broth made with good meat that is infused into water and then discarded, though, seems like a waste to me. I get excited about the idea of taking vegetable peels and uneaten bones, and then pulling hidden flavors out of them.
Why do we use broth? Aside from getting everything we can from our food, no flavor is left behind.
Broth can be used in any recipe that wants water. Especially if it includes the liquid in the finished recipe. Cooking rice? The flavor comes from broth. Making soup? The flavor comes from broth. Making a sauce? Risotto? Green peas? Poached Bratwurst? You get the idea. Rice is a perfect example. Rice has very little flavor in itself, it’s a vehicle for other flavors. Your rice is only as good as your broth.
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To get down to brass tacks, these are the essential things to understand about broth.
Save your scraps
Carrots, celery and onion scraps are your friends. Whenever you are chopping them for other recipes, take the ends, the skins, the bones and the butts and put them in a small plastic container. Cover them with water. Freeze them.
Likewise, save any meat bones leftover from meals at home: rotisserie chicken, takeout wings, ribs. Rinse them off and freeze with water. You’ll want to leave as much meat on the cartilage as possible.
When your freezer is full of scraps, pull them out and make broth. Free food. The extra is that most of the flavor and nutrition of vegetables are in those surface layers that don’t have a nice texture to eat. That’s the perfect material to infuse into water and cook into boring food, like rice.
Take it slow. Broth tends to infuse best at 165 to 175 degrees. Far below a simmer. We are coaxing the flavor out, not forcing it. If you don’t have a thermometer, a good method is to look at the surface of stuff in the stock pot. If you see a single bubble breach the surface about every second, you’re good to go. That’s the 165 to 177 degrees target.
Don’t stir things up
To get into deep science here, you don’t want to agitate the ingredients in your broth. Abrasive movement will bruise and degrade the albumen in the cell walls of your food. Albumen is the same substance that solidifies egg whites when they cook. This makes your broth more of a mash and less of an infusion. Roughing it up makes your broth muddy and not just visually. It will actually taste like mud, or dirt, so be gentle. This is the same reason we don’t take it over 175 degrees. A hard boil knocks the chunks around, breaking their cell walls.
Wait for the drop
When the vegetables get started, they tend to float over the water surface. That’s OK. As they cook, they will become saturated and fall. When all the ingredients have dropped and submerged, then it is ready.
Pull it hot
This is make or break. When you allow food to cool in it’s cooking liquids, it will reabsorb the flavors and nutrients back into the solids. This is great with poaching or braising. But when making broth, we want the flavor in the liquid. So keep it warm right up until the moment you strain it.
Chill and separate fat
After straining, pour broth into containers and chill it out. Don’t stir it. As it sets, the fat will rise to the top and set into a solid. When it solidifies pull that “fat cap” off. Seriously, just pull it off. It’s not straining it. You’re pulling a solid off a liquid. Easy. Use your fingers. then wash them, because now they are greasy. Now you have a fat free food. Save the fat if you want it to fry up other food with, or throw it out — your choice. I usually don’t say no to free food. The 1980s dietitians might cry about that, but old fashioned folks and modern paleo/keto people are all about natural fats. Use ’em or lose ’em.
Yeah, yeah, color of royalty and all that. But really, purple and blue foods don’t add a benefit to broth. Red onions, purple carrots, red kale ... just pass it along to the compost. The red color in food comes from anthocyanins or keratins, and for whatever reason I don’t understand, they bring a strange funk to your broth. Reminds me of gasoline. Not really a favor I want to infuse my broth with. Maybe it’s different for you. Play with it and see what you like. Taste and smell and go with that. A lot of people put raw garlic in their broth. I don’t. It has an off taste to me. There are plenty of other ways I want to use garlic.
Keep it simple
Broth is a basic building block of other foods. I feel like it’s good to keep it simple and versatile, so I rarely stray from carrot-celery-onion and bones. If I want to make kielbasa sauerkraut soup and a bowl of ramen from the same broth, I want the broth to be flexible.
To roast or not to roast
There are two common styles of chicken stock: brown and blonde. Roasting the bones and browning them up will give a more robust flavor, making a brown, or roasted chicken stock. Putting the bones in raw so they gently poach in the stock gives a cleaner and less aggressive flavor. Either way will cook the bones thoroughly and extract that gelatin we want so much.
Bone broth wants to sit on the stovetop for a whole day, at least. It’s a commitment to time, but not effort. You just put it on, turn it down, and let it rip. The upside is that your house smells like pure bone magic — what potpourri wishes it smelled like, if it grew up and went to college of something. And all this magic comes from the scraps. The parts nobody wanted, that otherwise would end up in the garbage. But you and I both know, there’s magic in these bones.