When I first started cooking school I had a class called “Food Basics One” taught by a crusty old German chef who had no time for disinterest. His first lecture sounded like this: “If you don’t want to be here, don’t come. I don’t care. If your mommy or daddy paid for this education and you don’t come, take it up with them. I don’t care. If you are paying your own way for this education and you don’t come, you’re an idiot. But regardless, if you DO come, absorb and learn and maybe one day you will become a chef.” Needless to say, if I was going to stay I had better shut up and actually pay attention. One of the things I’m glad I paid attention to was how to make stock – probably the most essential thing to know how to make. I don’t care if you’re a master grill cook, or if you can carve a potato in such a way that it forms a chain-link (admittedly very cool); if you can’t make a decent stock or broth, you didn’t listen that first day, and you probably aren’t a chef now.
But you don’t need to be a chef to make an excellent stock or broth. It’s the easiest thing in the world, because even at it’s most basic it’s just bones and water. It can be much, much more than that of course, but even a university student can find enough couch change to make a simple broth; sustaining themselves long enough to get through their next “World of Warcraft” session or whatever it is university students need sustenance for. I do want to clarify the difference between a “stock” and a “broth” here though, because I do think there is some confusion about the two.
Stock is what you make when you want a neutral base of flavorful liquid to accommodate a lot of different recipes.
Broth is what you make when you want a more assertively flavored liquid that will eventually probably become a soup, but not necessarily.
At the end of the day, the main difference is salt. Salt enhances the flavour of anything. Eat a raw carrot straight up. If it’s a well grown carrot it will probably be tasty, somewhat sweet. Now lick that carrot and sprinkle salt on your lick stain. Now eat that carrot. Effin’ delicious. Now, knowing salt’s effects, you must be judicious when using it. Especially in a stock that might be reduced by twenty times it’s volume. If a stock is highly salted originally, it will be gross when reduced that much. Science, right?
Because a stock is made to be a lighter base, the flavours don’t have to be aggressive. My favourite is chicken stock. Sooooooo versatile it’s ridiculous. I use it in almost everything. Instead of sautéing vegetables in oil I will lightly poach them in chicken stock. I will boil cauliflower in chicken stock and a touch of cream before puréeing it to velvet smoothness. I’ll reduce chicken stock down in a hot pan, add a stem of thyme and a chopped shallot, and at the last minute just before the stock completely evaporates, I’ll whisk in a little cold butter and a squeeze of lemon juice for a delicious pan sauce. I really don’t want to sound fancy, because it’s NOT fancy. Homemade macarons are fancy; stock is grade school.
Here’s a recipe that you’ve probably seen a variation of in every cookbook, but whatever. One more won’t hurt.
1 chicken carcass (it’ll probably be about 1.5 lbs, depending on the size of the chicken. Get two if you think they look small. Get your butcher to chop it in, like, three pieces or so. If you don’t have a butcher, leave it whole. Or come to my shop.)
Put the chicken carcass in a pot that will hold it and cover the bones with water, just about an inch above the top of the bones. If you have a whole carcass and it’s sitting awkwardly in the pot, almost cover it with water. If you start feeling stressed out at this stage, have another glass of wine. I think I forgot to mention you should be drinking something before you even start. Anything will do. (Please drink responsibly.)
Put the pot on a medium heat and add a pinch of salt. Just a pinch. Then add:
1 small onion – cut in four with the skin on
1 medium carrot – peeled and cut into four pieces
1 stalk of celery – washed and cut into four
2 bay leaves – fresh or dry
Like, 5 peppercorns
3 cloves of garlic
Let the water come to a simmer, and then reduce the heat to just over low. A bunch of crap will rise to the top of your stock (mainly coagulated proteins and fat). Take a ladle or a spoon and try to skim that crap off before it muddies your stock. After the stock has simmered for an hour and a half, turn the heat off and let the stock “steep” as it gradually cools. It is very important to let the stock rest this way. It might not do anything actually, but I like to believe it solidifies the stock’s flavour profile.
Now strain the stock through the finest strainer you have. A wire mesh one is great, but a salad spinner basket will do.
And you’re done.
See that!? My eight-year-old niece could do that, and she hasn’t even finished Harry Potter and The Goblet Of Fire yet. I’m not saying you have to do it, but at least know how to do it. Make it once and stop being such a little princess.
And now broth. When I worked in Italy we would make a broth to use as a base for everything. Similar to stock, except it had more flavour, more oomph, more balls. It was the best when used sparingly, like when reheating a ragu of rabbit for example. Put a little of the refrigerated, pre-made ragu in a pan, add a quarter cup of broth and bring to a simmer before tossing it with your cooked pasta. Even better, add the pasta when it’s not quite cooked and let it finish in the brothy ragu. Add a knob of butter and some freshly chopped parsley, toss to combine everything and plate. Beauty Clark!
Broth is used when making risotto, because the intense aroma will encapsulate every grain of that rice and hug them in an embrace of deliciousness. Also it adds flavour to rice. Broth is the best base for soups, as a well made broth only needs a garnish and perhaps a little more salt to be eaten as is. It is a restorative, giving strength where stock gives sustenance. I know it seems like little difference, and when you get down to the nitty gritty, when making this at home you would probably make some kind of hybrid stock-broth and leave it at that. But that little difference means the world to a chef. A stock just isn’t as hardcore as a broth. But half the time you only want soft-core. That’s just how it is.
A broth is usually made with meatier bits than just the bones. Bones are there, sure, but so is meat. Remember, meat has more flavour than bones on their own. Give a dog a marrowbone and she will love you. Give her a shank bone with the meat attached and that dog will be your bitch for life. On that note…
2 chicken legs
1 beef short rib (about a pound’s worth)
1 pig’s foot, split (if this is too hard to get, forget it, it’s not worth crying about)
Put all of the meats in a roasting pan, liberally season with salt and freshly ground pepper. Drizzle with oil and place in an oven that is preheated to 400˚F. After about twenty minutes the meat should be browning nicely. Remove them from the roasting pan and put in a pot. There will be a bunch of caramelized bits of meat on the bottom of the roasting pan. Pour enough water to cover the bottom of the pan and put it back in the oven. This will help “loosen” those little flavour bits. Meanwhile cover the meat with cold water and put the pot on a medium heat. After a couple of minutes take the roasting pan out of the oven and using a wooden spoon scrape the bits off the bottom, making a type of meat slurry. Pour that deliciousness into the stockpot. Now add:
1 big onion, skin on and cut into four
2 carrots, peeled and cut into four pieces
2 stalks of celery
6 cloves of garlic
6 bay leaves, fresh or dry
A small handful of whole peppercorns
A generous pinch of salt
As with the stock, as soon as the broth comes to a simmer a bunch of crap will rise to the top. Use a ladle or spoon and get rid of it. Turn the heat down to just above the lowest setting and simmer for two or three hours. Taste the broth. It should taste like yummy soup. Perhaps a slightly under-seasoned soup. No worries, you can always add salt at the end. Turn off the heat and let the broth steep for an hour before straining it.
So this was a little more complicated, what with the roasting pan and all, but still! If you can ride the bus by yourself, you can make this. And you will be happy. Maybe not the big chef you want to be one day, but a damn good cook who is welcome in my kitchen any day.
And this is the point of knowing the difference. Cooking can be just a necessity, but it can be much more than that. With a little push, Kraft Dinner can be Baked Pasta. Cream of Mushroom soup doesn’t have to come out of a can every time. Sometimes it’s awesome to indulge in premade garbage. Peanut butter on Saltines is the shit. But with every hot dog, have some broth. Your grandmother would be proud.