Admittedly, this isn’t the sexiest of posts. There’s no chocolate-glazing or honey-drizzling or hickory-smoking of anything. But this is something that we make at least once if not twice a month. I think of it in two ways: a bridge between one meal and another, and an invaluable building block in many of our recipes.
I often feel somewhat sanctimonious when I make homemade stock because 1) it’s easy, 2) it tastes so much better than anything out of a can or box, and 3) it’s a frugal way to use up and extend ingredients that are on hand. It takes a little bit of time, sure, but almost all of that time is completely hands-off, and the reward is great.
This is also a wonderful blueprint recipe to have going into the holiday season…or just the winter season, really. It’s a rich base for other soups (like this chicken and rice one), gumbos, risottos, stuffing, scalloped potatoes, pot pies…you name it.
There is something almost magical about taking the bare bones — the things most often thrown away — of a chicken or turkey, adding a couple of vegetables and several cups of water, and ending up with what some cooks call liquid gold. Like spinning gold from hay, really.
Some of the essentials: Onion, carrot, celery, parsley, thyme
Our most recent batch of homemade stock used the bones from our Thanksgiving turkey, but more frequently we make it with a chicken carcass after baking a chicken or two — even after enjoying a grilled chicken. You’ll also need carrots, celery, and either onions or leeks — those are the other must-haves. I always throw in a handful of black peppercorns and a couple of bay leaves as well. If you have parsley or thyme on hand (as we did after Thanksgiving), put those in too.
We make this so often that I keep a plastic zip-lock bag in the freezer, to which I add random vegetable trimmings or extras that are still usable as I cook throughout the month. Things like scallion or leek greens, celery tops, onion quarters, mushroom bottoms, broccoli stems, chard stems, etc. I pull the bag out and dump it into the stock pot when we make a batch, and it helps round out the flavor.
I keep this in my freezer and add to it when I have useable veggie peelings
Speaking of freezing, that trick works just as well for the chicken carcasses too. After we finish carving a baked or grilled chicken, I immediately plunk the carcass into a zip lock, label it with the date, and put it in the freezer. That way, if I’m not ready to immediately make stock, I can pull a couple of carcasses out of the freezer at a later date and make stock then.
I said earlier that this is both a bridge and a building block. For us, it’s getting us from Thanksgiving dinner to a nice cream of turkey soup, where it will be a great base along with other ingredients. The recipe for this stock, however, is a pretty flexible one — the ingredients, and even the amount of time it takes to cook, can vary batch by batch. I’m going to tell you how we made our stock, but you should tinker and figure out whether you like more or less of certain flavors. I’m a big celery fan, so I add at least three ribs — often more. I also like a lot of vegetable flavor in our stocks so my ratio of veggies to chicken is a little higher than other recipes. If you prefer a stronger chicken flavor, use multiple chicken carcasses or even a whole, uncooked bird and include things like the wings as well.
Fresh veggies and chicken combine to make a rich stock
There are a couple more tricks to making a good stock:
- Unless you’re a big salt fan, hold back on the salt until you’ve strained the stock, and even then it might not be necessary. You can always add salt to taste in the final dish you’re making with the stock. You can’t take salt away once it’s there.
- Likewise, you probably don’t want to use a brined bird to make stock (although, full confession, I sometimes do). Brined turkeys and chickens have soaked in a salt/sugar mixture and can be quite salty. If you do use a brined bird as the base for a stock, be aware and adjust accordingly.
- When simmering your stock, do so over a low flame. It should never come to a full rolling boil for any length of time or it will become cloudy. Again, full confession, half the time my stocks turn out cloudy and they taste just fine. This is more of an aesthetic thing.
- Taste, taste, taste. I’ve made batches of stock that come together with a rich flavor in two hours. Likewise, I’ve made other batches that were somewhat watery until they had cooked down for three or four hours. Your stock will be ready when it has a full-flavored taste…not when a timer says it’s ready. A good portion of the water needs to evaporate in order to have a condensed, rich flavor.
- If using stronger herbs like sage or marjoram, keep your final dishes in mind. Some herbs can make a lovely stock, but have flavor profiles that just don’t work with certain things.
- Stock is NOT the place to use produce that is just about to spoil or which has been previously cooked (unless you’re talking about veggies you’ve roasted specifically for the stock, which can be terrific). Tempting though it may be, the best stock uses fresh veggies along with the chicken or turkey carcass.
- Always be wary of kitchen hygiene and food safety. Chicken — even baked — can spoil quickly if not handled correctly. Don’t use a carcass that has been sitting for a prolonged period of time. And once your stock has finished simmering, the best practice is to stain it, cool it quickly in an ice bath, and store it in the refrigerator. It should be used within a couple of days, or frozen for up to three months.
If you’ve never made your own homemade stock I hope this post inspires you to try it. And yes, I do have boxes of packaged chicken stock on hand in the pantry, but always prefer to use a homemade stock when I can. It really tastes that much better…plus I know everything that went into it, which is important. After all, when you’re fighting your way through a winter cold and nothing but a big bowl of chicken noodle soup will do, wouldn’t you feel better knowing that fresh ingredients, and not chemicals or stabilizers, are nursing you back to health? I thought so.
To your health!
Homemade Chicken or Turkey Stock
1 turkey carcass or 2 – 3 chicken carcasses (it’s OK, and even preferable, to have a little bit of meat left on the bones)
4 – 6 ribs of celery, roughly broken into 3 – 4 inch pieces
3 – 5 unpeeled carrots
1 onion, unpeeled but cut in half through the core or 1 – 2 washed leeks, split down the center (I prefer the flavor of leeks, but onions are often easier and on-hand)
A handful or two of any available vegetable trimmings, like broccoli stems, mushroom stems, chard stems, etc.
2 tablespoons back peppercorns
3 bay leaves
Very generous handful (or two!) of fresh parsley sprigs
1 – 2 large sprigs of fresh thyme
12 cups cold water (or enough water to cover carcass and other ingredients once in the pot)
In a large stockpot, combine all ingredients and water to cover. Bring to a boil over high heat and immediately reduce heat to a low simmer. Simmer stock for several hours, tasting every 30 minutes or so after the first hour. Stock will likely simmer for 3 – 4 hours before it is done.
Just waiting for water
When the stock tastes rich and full of flavor, take it off the heat and allow it to cool slightly.
Position a fine mesh strainer over a second large pot or large measuring cup. Line the strainer with cheesecloth or several layers of clean paper towel, or even a coffee filter. Begin to carefully ladle stock through strainer, allowing it to strain into the container beneath. Change the cheesecloth or paper towels if they become clogged with veggie debris and fat.
Straining the stock
Once all stock has been strained, fill your largest mixing bowl (or the kitchen sink) with ice and place the container with the strained stock on the ice to quickly cool it (it’s probably obvious, but don’t put ice in the stock…that will water it down). At this point, you can put your finished stock into a lidded container and refrigerate. If you will not be using the stock within a couple of days, freeze the stock for up to 3 months.
You should note that you may get a layer of fat on top of your stock, which will solidify once refrigerated. You should be able to lift it off the top if you wish, though this is sometimes tricky. Also, it is pretty common for long-simmered poultry stocks to gel up once refrigerated — you’ll think you have a giant block of jello. This is because of the collagen in the connective tissue and skin of the poultry. Once heated, the stock will liquefy. Don’t freak out. It’s actually a pretty cool trick and means that the stock is densely packed with good flavor.
Makes: 8 – 10 cups of broth
Parent AND Kid Rating: Five stars. It’s hard NOT to give this five stars, though really, the stars are reserved for the final dish. This is the pre-star starter, and the reason Daughter 1 and Daughter 2 enjoy their risotto and chicken soup as much as they do!