Friday, March 7, 2008

Brown Chicken Stock

One of our first classes at the FCI is devoted to making stocks, the liquids that are the starting point for soups and sauces. A stock that you make yourself is a lot more versatile than the broths you can buy in stores, mainly because as it cooks and reduces, its flavor and body get deeper without losing freshness and subtlety. The simplest and one of the best sauces can be made simply by reducing a stock by about 4/5 (that is, boil five cups of it until so much of it evaporates that you have only one cup left) and then seasoning it with salt and a bit of pepper. For that to work, you need your stock to have two things that are missing in commercially prepared broths: first, you need the gelatin that comes out of bones when they are simmered for several hours, because that is what will give your reduced stock the thicker consistency of a sauce; second, you need the flavors in the stock to be deep and subtle enough that when you make them five times more concentrated than they were originally, you don't end up with something that tastes artificial or metallic or corn syrupy, all of which you might end up with if you concentrate a commercial broth.

The most basic classification of stocks divides them into "white" and "brown" stocks, named both for their color as well as the way in which you prepare them. While a "white" stock is about the color you probably associate with chicken soup, or maybe a bit lighter or less orange, and a "brown" stock looks a lot like what you think of as a beef broth, most people don't know that the color of a stock or broth does not have to do with the meat used to prepare it. In particular, a chicken stock is not necessarily very much lighter in color than a beef stock. Most of us think of beef stocks as having a much darker color than chicken stocks, but that is primarily due to the coloring added to canned beef stocks, and sometimes also to a bit of tomato cooked into beef stock. Looking at the ingredients listed on a couple of different brands of canned beef stock that I happen to have on hand, both of them list "caramel color" on their labels. When a "real" stock is prepared, its color and the character of its flavor is mainly determined by how you handle the bones, meat, and vegetables that go into it. I've made many good beef stocks that you would be hard-pressed to identify as beef stocks by their color. To illustrate how a homemade brown stock gets its color, and also because a good brown stock can really be a revelation in your home kitchen if you learn some uses for it, I want to present here the process of making a brown chicken stock. (A brown beef stock, or veal stock or lamb stock or game stock, would be made in the same way.)

Chicken trimmed and ready for browning.

Any meat-based stock starts with some bones and meat, and what are called "aromatic vegetables," including nearly always some onion, and for a brown stock carrots. In a white stock, leeks might also be used, and some chefs use celery in either kind of stock, although many do not because it adds some bitterness that they don't want. In a restaurant setting, both the meats and the vegetables commonly come from trimmings left after whole animals and vegetables are cut up for other uses. By "trimmings," we don't mean "garbage" -- bones and meat will be further trimmed to remove as much fat as possible and any other "yucky stuff" before they are used for a stock, and vegetable trimmings used will be peeled and trimmed of any wilted or discolored spots. For my stock, since I don't normally have enough trimmings around to get very far with, I've used fresh vegetables and a bunch of chicken wings and drumsticks that I bought.

Vegetables cut and ready for browning.

The vegetables should make up about 20% of what goes into your stock, and meat and bones to make up the other 80%. The vegetables are roughly cut into chunks all about the same size, and the size is determined by how long your stock is going to simmer. You don't want the vegetables to become so soft that they begin to disintegrate into the stock and cloud it, but you want them small enough that all of their flavor will be extracted in the time your stock cooks. I cut the vegetables for this stock to last for about a 4-6 hour simmer; for a fish stock, which only cooks 30 minutes, I'd have made them a lot smaller, while for a beef stock that cooks 12 hours I'd have made them 2 or 3 times as large, maybe simply quartering the onion and cutting whole carrots into about 3-inch sections.

To prepare the chicken, I cut the wings into sections, because exposing the bones and cutting into the joints allows them to release more flavor and gelatin into the stock. I've also removed as much of the fat and skin as I have the patience to cut away, because those only add fat that clouds the stock's appearance, muddies its taste, and gives it an unpleasant oily texture on the palate.

The chicken after browning for
an hour in a very hot oven.

The first cooking step is to thoroughly brown both the meats and the vegetables. I do them separately because they brown in different amounts of time, and I want to get both as dark as I can without burning them. The meat and bones were tossed with a little oil and then roasted in an oven at 400F-450F for about an hour altogether, and turned over with tongs halfway through their roasting. The vegetables were cooked at pretty high heat in a bit of oil on the stove. For both meat and vegetables, you want to use a flavorless oil with a high smoke point, which in a home kitchen basically means any oil except olive oil, which has both flavor you don't want and a low smoke point that will make it difficult to brown things without burning the oil and introducing an acrid taste. Neither the meat nor the vegetables should be salted or seasoned while you make the stock, for two reasons: you don't want to salt your stock because if you later reduce it into a sauce, you might end up concentrating the salt too much, and salt will also draw the juices and moisture out of things, and you want those to go into your stock and release their flavor there, and not boil off as you brown things.

The vegetables after browning.

Once everything is nicely browned, you put it all into a stockpot. If you want the maximum flavor you can get in your stock, put a bit (a couple of tablespoons to a quarter cup) of water in each of the roasting or sauté pans you use for the browning while they are still hot, and stir it with a spoon scraping the bottom as it sizzles to get all of the browned bits off the bottom of the pan and into the water, and add that water to the stock pot. When everything is in the pot, add enough cold water to completely cover it and then some, because some of your water will evaporate as you simmer the stock. The reason for using cold water is that if you add hot water, bits of protein in the meat will very quickly cook and disperse into the water in very fine particles that become suspended and cloud the stock. When they come up to temperature slowly, those proteins coagulate into larger bits that will float to the surface and they can then be skimmed off the top. You can also add a bit of herbs at this point, but a tiny bit -- unless you know for certain that you're only making enough for a single use, you don't want to add any obtrusive flavors that will make your stock unusable if you were to reduce it a lot or use it to complement other ingredients later. The classic additions would be a "bouquet garni" made up of a bay leaf, and a tiny bit (a single sprig or less, if fresh) of thyme and parsley, and maybe with three to five whole peppercorns and a whole (peeled) clove of garlic.

The stock pot right after adding cold water.
Notice the film of crud already on top that should be
skimmed immediately.

The next step is to bring the stock to a simmer, but without ever letting it achieve a full boil. (If you only care about flavor and not the appearance of your stock, you can go ahead and make it at a full boil, forget all of the skimming, and ignore everything in this paragraph. You'll make a very nice stock, but one that wouldn't be good for clear soups or some very refined sauces, both of which many of us never make anyway.) Boiling will cause all of the impurities released by cooking the meats and vegetables to get broken up into fine particles and churned back into the liquid, clouding the stock. As soon as water is added to the pot, you'll see small particles swirling all around in it, and floating to the top. They should be skimmed off the top as often as possible. As the stock heats up, foam will rise to the top, and should be skimmed off. Skimming is a slow and tedious operation, usually done with a large spoon or a ladle. The easiest way to skim is to move the bottom of your spoon or ladle lightly in circles around the center of the pot and that will push the foam and particles to the edges of the pot, where they are easier to lift off with the edge of your spoon or ladle against the wall of the pot.

The stock with foam rising to the top.

If you are diligent about not letting your stock boil and skimming it every 5-10 minutes or so (less often as time goes on) as it comes to a simmer and during the first hour that it cooks at temperature, you'll notice that after that first hour you don't have nearly as much gunk coming up to the top. At that point, you are home free -- just cook your stock at a very low simmer, so that it just barely has small bubbles in one or two spots at the edges of the pot, for another 6 hours or so, skimming it as you have time. (When I make a brown stock on a weeknight, I usually start around 7pm, have things browned up by about 8:30pm, and begin heating the stock and finally have it stabilized at a simmer around 9pm, and I've skimmed it enough by 10:30pm or so that it no longer cruds up very much or very quickly; at that point, I can go to bed with the stock over a very low flame, maybe not even bubbling, and finish the process in the morning -- since I've skimmed it thoroughly during that first hour or two, it won't cloud up if I very gently cook it unattended for a few hours.)

A couple minutes after the picture of the foam
above, the stock has been skimmed.
(Apologies for this blurry picture.)

Once it simmers for about 6 hours altogether, you can strain your stock. To keep it as clear as possible, you would ladle it out of the pot and through a strainer. In practice, unless I have some very special purpose in mind for my stock, as long as it looks pretty clear and free of foam and small particles (in other words, if you've skimmed it well), I just pour the whole pot through a strainer into another pot. Then you need to cool it as quickly as possible, because there's almost no better way to grow bacteria than to use a warm stock (in fact, labs often use warm beef stock to grow bacterial cultures quickly). One way to cool it quickly is to fill a smaller pot or metal bowl (glass won't really work, because it insulates too well and in addition might break) with a lot of ice and a bit of water, and set that small pot into your pot of beef stock and move it around to stir the stock with it. You'll get your stock below room temperature within 5 or 10 minutes, and you can refrigerate it after that.

Cooling the stock with ice.

The last step is to degrease your stock. As it cools, excess fat will float to the top, and eventually the fat will become solid and you can lift it off. Often if you trimmed the fat away from the meat and bones before you started, and skimmed the stock well during that first hour or two of cooking, it will have almost no fat in it. If you have a good clear stock that looks like it doesn't have a lot of fat in it, a good trick is to float a covering of plastic wrap on top of it when you put in in the refrigerator, and once it is cooled the fat will come off when you peel the plastic away.

I used about 16 chicken wings and 8 chicken legs to make the stock pictured here, and started with a little more than a gallon of cold water. The final yield was about 7 cups (a bit less than a half gallon) of stock. I could have started with a bit more water, but I could also slightly dilute this stock to make a soup and I won't have to reduce it as much to make sauces.

A bit of the finished stock in a saucepan,
along with some refrigerated bits of it on a saucer
(good stocks form a gelatin when cooled).

Finally, now that we have a good brown stock, I'll show you a couple of the simple dishes we've made in class with brown stocks. Normally we use brown veal stock, the workhorse all-purpose stock of restaurant kitchens, but a brown chicken stock works just fine here.

First, we have Poulet Sauté Chasseur, or Sautéed Chicken, Hunter Style. For this dish, I quartered a chicken, salted it well, and browned it in a skillet in a bit of oil over very high heat (the chicken goes in just as the oil begins to smoke), and then finished the chicken by putting the skillet into the oven. While the chicken finished, to make the sauce, shallots and sliced white button mushrooms are cooked in another pan, then flambéed with brandy and deglazed with white wine before adding the brown stock with a bit of chopped tomato and reducing it to the consistency of a sauce. Just before serving, the sauce is further enhanced with chopped fresh tarragon and chervil, and seasoned with salt and pepper. The version pictured below is less "saucy" than the dish is supposed to be, but it was good nevertheless.

Poulet Sauté Chasseur

Second, we made a breaded chicken cutlet, garnished colorfully compared to the many very brown dishes we've mostly made in the past few weeks. This dish is simply a chicken breast pounded flat by placing it between large sheets of plastic wrap and hitting it with a mallet, then breaded à l'anglaise (in flour, then eggs, then bread crumbs) and cooked in clarified butter for about 90-120 seconds on each side. It is garnished with hard boiled egg whites and egg yolks pushed through a sieve, capers, parsley, a slice of lemon, and an olive wrapped with an anhovy filet. The sauce is brown stock thickened with a bit of cornstarch dissolved in a couple tablespoons of water to make a slurry, then seasoned with salt and pepper.

Chicken Cutlet with Brown Sauce

1 comment:

Pamela Malo said...

This is such great info. I am curious if it is possible (or would be a waste) to use a whole chicken?