A good stock is magic in the kitchen. It takes the castoff leftovers of your other dishes – the chicken backs, the lamb chop bones, the ends of wilted carrots – and transforms them into a medium of flavor and richness that will then transform everything it touches.
For a long time, I would make stock occasionally, and then clutter the fridge with quart jars that eventually went bad or freeze it into yogurt containers which I never remembered to thaw before I wanted to make soup. A few years ago I came upon the idea of Perpetual Stock and it would be only slight hyperbole to say it changed my life. In the winter the crockpot is continuously simmering. In the summer, I make a batch or two a month, and then reduce it down by half or three-quarters and freeze it in ice-cube trays; from there, it gets added to dishes most nights of the week. I confess I am a zealot. But stay with me as I endeavor to convert you.
- Having an abundance of flavorful stock always to hand makes dinner easy, at least in the cooler months. If you have any vegetables, meat, beans, or grains – and you also have stock – then you have soup. Some degree of preparation and/or planning will make a better result, sure, but I have gone from zero to soup in fifteen minutes with entirely satisfactory results. This is no small blessing when you have small children, unexpected guests or illnesses, or other variables that do not respect the concept of time.
- Everything else you cook will benefit. Well, if not everything, at least most savory dishes benefit from a ladleful of stock. Cook your rice or beans in it, add it to mashed potatoes instead of (or in addition to) butter, splash some into pasta sauce with the wine, whisk a bit into your omelet, deglaze everything.
- Probably it’s good for you, too. There is a doctrine of signatures logic to it: eat bones to help your bones. When you lift a long-simmered beef shank out of the pot and it crumbles, it’s hard not to assume that at least some of what had been holding it together made it into the broth and that your body might know what to do with it. Bone broth is also touted as an elixir for digestion and even as a cure for cellulite. The scientific literature is actually pretty scant in support of any of this, despite the many anecdotes and vociferous alternative-health website claims. (There is, however, some evidence for immune-boosting and flu-fighting effects, so go kiss your nearest Jewish grandma. The culinary magic is undeniable; whether or not the nutritional juju is real, I think that anything that makes home cooking easier and more delicious is going to translate into better health.
After ten hours
in its bubbling bath,
bone slips its grasp.
The tendons – strong enough
to bear twelve hundred pounds
of steer – relax, finally,
as they couldn’t even in death.
They say bone broth is rich
in all the minerals you need
to build bones & with a knuckle,
good for joints, too –
the way we saved eggshells
to dry and crush
and feed back
to the chickens,
handily supplementing them
they needed to make eggshells.
So I am gathering calcium
and chondroitin, collagen
and the hope that my bones
will be enough to bear me
for a long time, that my joints
will keep joining,
the limbs all keep jumping
when my brain pulls the strings.
They don’t always,
you know. Sometimes
the chickens laid eggs
with no shells
Save the bones and bits from your meat dishes in your freezer. When you have enough to fill your crockpot at least halfway, make a batch.
Fill the crockpot with bones and meat scraps. The more you put in, the richer the flavor will be.
Fill with water, and add a generous splash of vinegar or lemon juice.
Turn the crockpot on to low. You’ll have usable stock in about 6 hours. (You can stop here, if you want, and just have a single batch.)
Use it! We keep a ladle and a small mesh strainer on a dish next to the crockpot, and just ladle out and strain what we need when we need it. Whenever you take out some stock, refill the pot with more water. Just leave it on low. Add more vinegar, if you like, when you think you’ve moved through the whole volume of the pot.
The day before you plan to finish the batch (see below), you can add some vegetables. (We save the ends and odds of our vegetables in the freezer as well: the ends of carrots and onions, kale ribs, cabbage cores, celery leaves. Anything very strongly flavored will likewise flavor the stock, so keep that in mind.)
The broth will change flavor over time; at some point it will stop tasting so good. That’s when it’s done. After the broth has peaked, strain it out through a fine-mesh sieve or cheesecloth, wash out the crockpot, discard the ingredients, and start again. I’ve found that chicken broth improves over about four days of simmering, but then gets a little funky; when we cook a chicken, I usually split it in half and do two batches in a week. The more substantial bones from beef, pork, lamb, and venison can go usually a full week or more.
To reduce, if desired: Pour broth back into clean pot, turn to high, and leave with the lid off until reduced by half or more.
You may find it helpful to get into the habit of making a Sunday (or other day) roast – a whole chicken, leg of lamb, bone-in ham, or prime rib. Beyond supplying you with the bones you need for the stock, you’ll also have a nice pile of leftover meat to jumpstart your soups and other meals throughout the week.