A few years ago, I had almost no idea what chicken stock was. Those of you more enlightened in the chickenary arts might think that’s a little ridiculous, especially since I’ve probably been eating it in everything for most of my life. But, since I didn’t really get it, I would end up being mildly disappointed and annoyed anytime it showed up in a recipe (which was often).
But then I figured it out, and now chicken stock is proudly included in my arsenal as a home cook. A good stock is crucial for brothy soups, but it comes in handy with all kinds of stews and sauces as well – pretty much anywhere that “not just water” would taste better than “plain old water”.
According to all kinds of people on the internet (and probably some real chefs as well), store-bought stock isn’t anywhere near as delicious as the homemade stuff, and I tend to agree. If you’re stuck and really need it, it’s not bad, but most stocks on the shelf have a lot of salt and MSG, not to mention a pretty high price point for chicken water. It’s a little more work to make it yourself, but if you’re smart about it, it’s an easy and worthwhile practice to bring into your kitchen.
When you make stock, what you’re doing is slowly infusing hot water with the flavors from chicken bones, vegetables, and herbs. The added benefit of using the bones is that after awhile they will even start to release their natural collagen into the stock as well. I won’t pretend to know much about the purpose of collagen in a person or a chicken, but its purpose in a stock is to make it thick and rich and will often cause it to gelatinize once it cools down. This is a good thing.
So the key is to give your flavors time and heat to infuse into the water. This is the reason that most recipes for stock involve simmering a pot for 8-12 hours while the bones and vegetables break down. I’ve done it this way, and it’s effective, but kind of a pain because I have to be around the house and check the pot way more times than I was hoping to (which was never). Then I realized that we already have an invention to cook pots of liquids at low temperatures without supervision– the slow cooker! So that’s what we’ll use today. I got my inspiration from A Year of Slow Cooking, which is an awesome site and well worth checking out.
One last thought before you get to it: roasted is better. Both the bones and the vegetables add a nicer flavor to the stock when they’ve gotten some browning, so I either use stuff that already spent time in the oven, or make sure to roast it a little before I throw it in the pot. In the pictures I have here I roasted a little chicken for shredded meat and stock bones, and just had the vegetables in for the ride. Other times I’ll buy bone-in thighs and freeze the bones I cut out until the next time I need stock.
chicken bones, as many as you have available
carrots, at least one
celery stalks, at least one
onions, at least one medium
garlic, fresh herbs, peppercorns, bay leaves for flavor
Making the stock: First, roughly chop your vegetables. Don’t worry about getting all the random leaves and pieces and onion skins cleaned up, it doesn’t matter and they actually add flavor. If you haven’t roasted your vegetables or bones, do so (20 minutes in a 400°+ oven or a few minutes in a sautee pan).
Take all your roast-y vegetables and bones, put them in your largest slow cooker. Add any other herbs or aromatics you have lying around. A little salt probably helps, but I tend to go easy on it so that I can control the salt of future dishes that use the stock.
Fill the slow cooker with boiling water (just to save time heating up). Turn it on low power, and leave it there for the next 8-12 hours. Honestly you can leave it even longer if you want, which is a luxury you can enjoy with the low-maintenance style of a slow cooker.
After your stock has had forever to simmer, and when you feel like it has nice color and flavor, strain out everything but the liquid itself. If you don’t need it right away, I recommend putting it in a pitcher in the fridge for a few hours or overnight, so the fat will harden on the surface and you can skim it off.
Freezing the stock: I really like to have my stock frozen in usable quantities. A big block of stock may be easier to store, but it’s really a pain when you only need a cup or less of it for a recipe. Some people freeze it in ice cubes, but my favorite way to do it is in muffin tins. That gives you roughly half-cup portions you can pull out whenever you need them.
Pour your stock into ungreased muffin tins. For me, one batch of stock filled about 24 muffin cups. Awesome. Find a level place in your freezer and leave the trays there overnight to freeze the stock.
When it’s frozen, take out the pans. Turning a pan upside down, run warmish water from your faucet over the bottom of one of the muffin cups. After a few seconds, press your thumb on the bottom of the cup; the stock muffin should pop out easily. Repeat for all the portions, seal in a large freezer zip-top bag promptly (so they don’t melt and freeze to each other) and put it back into your freezer for when you need it.
There you go! It takes a little work, but not much maintenance, and I think it’s totally worth it. What do you think? Any thoughts or stories? Remember to sign up your email to get weekly thoughts and news!