Taking stock

Categories: Expert guidance

In the first of a four-part series, Tim Maddams explores the demise in home kitchens of making traditional stocks and broths—and implores us to get back to making them from scratch

Put simply, a stock is a highly flavoured and often coloured liquid, which may or may not contain alcohol or meat. Whether it is cooked fast or slow, using meat, fish or veg, the idea is to extract flavours from solids and suspend them in a liquid. This liquid can then be used to flavour other things or be reduced to intensify its effect.

When I was a very young lad, my grannie’s kitchen was always filled with a savoury smell and a little steam was ever rising from her ‘kitchen sink’ stock pot, so-called as the family claimed everything went in it except the aforenamed plumbing article. Later though, say post-age six, I have no further memory of a stock pot simmering. Stock became something different: it simply meant a cube of something somehow clean, modern and instant—something with no story, no depth.

This continued and worryingly became a reasonably regular part of my professional chef training, as stock manufacturers pushed their way into the time and cash conscious world of pro kitchens. Stock meant bouillon, or it meant long and laborious boiling—nothing in between. For many, convenience won out.

The stock companies were clever little badgers. They started sponsoring chef competitions—though those were then way less glamorous than MasterChef has since has made them—and, of course, if the contestants wanted to win one, they probably ought to think about who was paying the bill and include a little of their magic powder.

Renewed, strained, reduced
Interestingly, when working in a White Star Line kitchen, I remember distinctly there being tubs of bouillon on the shelf in the dry store, but those same tubs were still there, intact, some six month later. Meanwhile, the ever-present pot of veal bones was renewed, strained, passed and reduced on a daily basis. But the damage was done.

We lost something. While many pro kitchens now refuse the lure of instant stock and make their own, at home things have been very slow to come back. Miso? Why yes of course. Bone broth for the eaters of clean? Certainly. But stock in general, stock as part of the simple and ongoing process of cookery? No. Not even with the return of the slow cooker (the busy modern person’s stock-making friend) has a good stock become once again a crucial part of the modern British kitchen—something on hand, a basis for so many great meals and the final layer of polish or integral mortar for so many others.

Stock-making has become an alchemical sideline of the truly obsessed. I was even once advised by an environmental health officer that making my own meat stocks was highly hazardous. I cannot repeat in print the words I uttered.

A broth renaissance
It is for these reasons that I wish to champion stock: to ignite a broth renaissance, a demi-glace revolution. It is flavour. It is fundamental cookery. From light and bright veg stock made more like a tea, to deep, rich, roasted meat stocks, there is something for every occasion and circumstance. I want to show how it doesn’t need to take all day; how even a simple veg broth can change the way you cook. In short, we are missing a trick here—and it is a good one.

In the next few instalments of this series, I will wander through a few variants and offer some thoughts and helpful ideas that may just, I hope, spark the tinder of a new wave of stock makers—conscious, less wasteful cooks who value their food and its flavour truly, madly, deeply.

But first, some basics. There are essentially three cornerstones that must at all times be observed: sometimes you can get lucky and just sling something together, but leave the devil-may-care pan slinging until you have the basics sorted and the skills nailed, otherwise you may find yourself with a disastrous, bitter, cloudy and separated stock that puts you off for life and has you reaching for the stock cubes.

The cornerstones of stock making
Keep it fresh: do not be tempted to use up stale carcases of roasted meat or veg that’s far past its best. It’s fine to use super-ripe veg or even floppy carrots, but nothing actually rotting please. Skim the stock often to remove floating fats and impurities (blood, proteins, marrow). This is best done with a ladle pushed gently into the just-rolling stock as it cooks. This way, the lip of the ladle will filter off the scum on the top of the boil rather than the liquid itself.

—Not too hot: while it is important that most stocks retain a high temperature throughout cooking so that they do not become breeding grounds for unwanted microbiology, they should also not boil like a Bond villain’s piranha tank. I often used to spend my time berating junior chefs for boiling the hell out of the stock—they need nurture, not aggression. There are times when fierce heat is a good thing, like when you are starting off a dark stock, but once the water is in the cauldron it’s time to moderate the thermal vibes. Boiling any stock too hard and fast will cause it to absorb bitter impurities and make it cloudy, sour and certainly not vibrant—it will taste flat; dirty almost, and not in a good way.

—Not too long: the flip side of too hot is too long. Some bones will take a long cook—up to 12 hours and sometimes more—but no veg can stand that without breaking up and bringing disharmony, mirk and bitterness to your pot. It’s far better to cook deep meat stocks without the veg to start with and add them later, when there is only an hour or two left of the cooking time.