Taking stock: meat

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. This time: meat

This final instalment of my series on stock making is possibly the most complicated—certainly the most crucial. If there is an ultimate victim of the decline of stock making in the home kitchen, it has to be gravy. Hands down, more crimes are committed in the name of gravy than any other stock-related sauce or dish you care to think of. I have tried, over the course of this series, to show how simple and yet important a good stock is, and I can think of no greater talisman to prove my point than the terminal usurper of the stock pot: instant gravy.

There are many times in life when instant things are good—bank payments, for example, or service at the bar on a hot day. Instant foods however are, if not intrinsically a bad thing, certainly a very poor average. There are some very good tasting instant gravies out there—and used correctly they are excusable in any busy household—but they are never going to be able to replace the real thing.

Great gravy is a fine thing, and the very best are not thickened with starch of any sort (though that is perfectly acceptable in most circumstances) but reduced after passing, often with red wine, beer or cider added for extra depth and body and almost always finished with the resting juices from the meat, and even just a hint of the fat from the roasting tin. Gravy made in this way is very strong and you do not need much, but a large batch can be made and frozen for later use and finished very easily. While not instant in the same sense as a jar of dried brown stuff of dubious origin, it is certainly not time-consuming to whip some out of the ice box and into a pan.

Thicken and enrich
I will just temper this lofty position of mine. There is a jar of instant gravy in my cupboard at home. Rarely does it make an appearance, but I have been known to thicken and enrich a light stock with it to conjure an ad-hoc gravy for a toad in the hole or some such. There, I confess. Sling me in the tower and be done with it.

But a good meat stock has so much more to offer than just a great gravy. It is a thing of tangible sustenance—a sort of virtuous feeling ‘meat tea’ that you can almost feel nourishing your mortal being as you imbibe it. Chicken stock is, of course, many people’s go-to first meal after a period of enforced abstinence from food after an operation or illness and there is a very good reason for that—it tastes great, stimulating the appetite, yet it’s easy to digest and seems to just feel right.

It is hard to think of a sensible instance where a meat dish is not improved by a good homemade meat stock—Scotch broth springs to mind, as well as French onion soup, rabbit stew and steak and kidney pie. I like a light meat stock for all sorts of ‘from the fridge’ dishes: simmer some up and just chuck in some veg, crack in an egg or two once the veg is tender and allow them to just set. Lunch is sorted with hardly a thought.

Planning ahead
To make any meat stock you will need bones. Everything from chicken to lamb bones will be available from your butcher, but they may need a little notice to save you some, so it is worth planning ahead.

Meat stocks take no more care and attention than any other type of stock to get great results. However, they may well take a little longer to cook than fish or vegetable stocks and further time will be required if you wish to reduce the stock for gravy or a reduced sauce of some kind.

Below I have given guidelines on making meat stocks using chicken bones. If you decide to use other bones, there are one or two things to consider. First, size. Beef bones can be very large—you may want to ask the butcher to cut them up for you. Second, type. For example, lamb stock actually reaches its peak flavour quite quickly and is best cooked for a short time before you remove the bones and reduce the stock. Pork bones, meanwhile, take a lot of cooking to really get the best from them and I think are only really good for a dark stock. There is something odd about a light pork stock, with the obvious exception of ham broths. A good rule of thumb is the larger the bones, the longer the cooking time: chicken stocks take the least amount of cooking time, followed swiftly by lamb, then pork. The longest cooking time required is for beef bones.

I have used every type of meat bone to make a stock and I have even had some success with mixed meat bones, but I suggest you start with free range chicken carcasses. They cook quickly, are easy to handle, very versatile and readily available. As ever, make the stock in the smallest pan that will comfortably fit everything in, with enough room for manoeuvre. The less water you use, the more potent your stock will be when cooked.

Light chicken stock
Many recipes will tell you to blanch the chicken carcasses in boiling water before draining and making the stock proper—this is to remove blood and stop it from bittering and discolouring the stock. Personally, I have never found it necessary to do so: I simply use cold water, bring the stock slowly to a gentle simmer and skim off any any froth that rises to the surface with a ladle.

Let’s start with around 1 kilo chicken carcasses. Make sure they are very fresh—no one wants to taste stale chicken, and these are an ingredient we want to take no risks with from a hygiene point of view. Then take 2 large, scrubbed carrots, 2 large scrubbed (but not peeled, I like the colour from the skin in this instance) onions, 1 clove, 1 garlic bulb (cut in half around the equator), a good sprig of thyme, a few black peppercorns and 2 fresh bay leaves. I often throw in a stick of celery if I have one handy and a fennel seed or two will not hurt either. A pinch of salt accompanies everything else into the pan, cold water is added to just cover, and the whole thing is placed on the stove to slowly come to a simmer.

Skim, skim and skim again as it approaches a rolling boil, then reduce the heat to a simmer and allow the stock to cook, nurturing carefully and skimming often if you want it super clean, for around 1 hour. After that time, turn the stock off and allow the liquid to cool on the bones for at least 15 mins, before passing off and either chilling rapidly or reducing for later use—or, of course, pouring it straight into whatever you have planned for it. This jerusalem artichoke pie by Rosie Birkett would be an ideal home for some of your precious chicken stock and another great recipe for wild garlic gnocchi and asparagus broth by the very same will really show it off—though we may be a little late for wild garlic this season.

Dark chicken stock
Here we will take exactly the same ingredients as above, but we will first roast the carcasses in a hot oven until golden brown. Drain off any excess fat from the roasting tray and reserve this for another time. While the chicken carcasses roast in the oven, slice your carrots lengthways and onions and garlic around the equator. Place these in the stock pan and cook, cut sides down, with a little oil on a moderate heat until they take lots of colour but do not burn—pay particular attention to the garlic.

Add 1 tbsp or so of good tomato paste or a couple of good tinned tomatoes, cook for a few mins and add a good glass of red wine. Again, this needs cooking until the raw acidic aroma from the wine has toned down to a savoury, smooth whiff of umami. Now add your carcasses and enough cold water to cover. Bring to a rolling boil and skim as needs be. Turn down to a simmer and cook for another hour or so before turning the stock off and allowing it, again, to sit on the bones for a short time before passing and using in whatever way you like. This fabulous recipe for girolles, chanterelles, brambles and egg by James Lowe would make an ideal stage on which to show off your stock-making skills and this chicken, chicory and ale stew by Hayden Groves is another corker.