By Joshua Bardwell, originally posted in December 2010 at Jack-Booted Liberal.
Some time back, I found myself not wanting to eat meat that had been raised in oppressive conditions. At home, I have more pork than I know what to do with, but what I was really missing most was chicken. Not steak. Not hamburgers. Chicken. Go figure. And not just yummy roast or grilled chicken either, but the inability to use chicken stock meant lots of my favorite soups and sauces were off the table. Chicken stock is a fantastic way to add rich, complex flavor and “meatiness” to all kinds of dishes that would otherwise be much simpler.
Today, Issa and I went to The Market, which is an outlet for Laurel Creek Meats. In short, Laurel Creek claims to raise happy animals. That their web site uses the phrase, “the animal’s psychological distinctiveness,” reveals that they’ve read some of Joel Salatin’s words. Good enough for me. I picked up seven chickens, most of which will go to the freezer, and one of which is getting turned into tom ka gai (Thai chicken lemongrass coconut soup).
Before I could make tom ka gai, I had to make chicken stock. It occurred to me that some of you readers might not know how to make chicken stock. Let me tell you, if there is one food product that combines easy to make and light-years better than its store-bought counterpart, it’s chicken stock. I’m not too proud to use store-bought chicken stock if that’s what’s required, but every time I do, I cry a little bit inside, because I know how much better home-made would be. Real chicken stock is like liquid chicken, just chock-full of flavor.
So I thought I’d tell you how to make it.
How to Make Chicken Stock
First, you need some chicken. The most cost-effective way to make chicken stock is to use parts of the chicken that you wouldn’t otherwise eat. I almost always buy whole chickens and then section them myself. I typically end up with: legs/thighs, breasts, wings, and back. I’ve found that the wings and back together is more than enough meat and bone to make a gallon or so of stock. Back before I started buying whole chickens, I would buy a family-sized package of thighs or drumsticks, and use it to make stock. Spending $10 or so on chicken just to throw it in the stock pot may seem like a waste, but when you consider you’re going to get a few gallons of grade-A stock, and store-bought stock is $3 or so a quart, you’re still coming out way ahead. But like I said, the most cost-effective way to make stock is to use parts of a chicken that you wouldn’t have eaten anyway.
When choosing parts of a chicken for stock, I want both meat and bone to go into the pot. You can make broth with just bones, but it’s not nearly as good in my opinion. Dark meat, like thighs and legs, makes better stock than white meat. Also, cooked meat and bones is less than ideal, because a lot of their flavor has already been give up to the cooking process. You can simmer left-over bones from last night’s dinner—in fact, this is a great way to wring a little extra flavor out of what would otherwise be trash—but if that’s all that’s in your pot, the flavor of the stock may leave something to be desired.
How much chicken to use is a matter of personal taste. I have seen some sites recommend as much as 4 lbs of chicken to a gallon or so of water. I personally don’t know how they got any water in the pot at all, with all that chicken in there. Just tonight, I made some lovely stock with just the back and wings of a single chicken, so about 1 lb of meat in a soup pot gave me exactly (coincidence!) 1 gallon of stock. That might be a good place to start. Using more chicken will result in a richer, more concentrated stock, so don’t worry about the chicken going to waste. However, if you use a lot of chicken, you may want to economize by watering down the stock some before using it in cooking. At the end of the day, it’s all a question of flavor and cost. I once made about 6 quarts of stock using about 3 lbs of chicken. That was some rich stock, but boy did it make some good soup.
To make the stock, you put the chicken in a large pot, cover it with cold water, then bring the water to a boil and simmer the chicken for at least 4 hours, but longer if you can. Some people chop up their chicken with a cleaver, but I don’t bother. After the water has come to a boil, you may notice a scum collecting on the surface. You don’t want that. Skim it off with a slotted spoon and throw it out. Check back every hour or so to see if any more scum has formed. Interestingly, I never had scum collect with grocery-store chickens, but the chicken from Laurel Creek scummed up a storm. I don’t know what that means.
In addition to chicken, some people recommend putting in various vegetables, spices and seasonings. Onion, carrot, and celery are common. I’ve seen salt and pepper. I’ve seen olive oil. I’ve seen bay leaves. My philosophy is this: I’m making chicken stock, not chicken soup. I want this to be a versatile, general-purpose ingredient, not a finished product. If I decide later that it needs salt and pepper, I can put some in, but I sure as heck can’t take it out. So I don’t put any of that stuff into my stock, except for one thing: onion. Quarter maybe a single onion per gallon of stock and put it in the water with the chicken to simmer. The onion flavor really adds a lot, and chicken stock without it tastes a bit bland, in my opinion. With onion, the stock doesn’t taste like onion at all, just… better.
You’ll know the stock is done when the meat falls off the bones and the bones are soft and bend easily. If you’re inclined to taste the meat, it should be almost completely flavorless. There’s not really any harm in continuing to simmer the stock until this point, even if it takes all day. Stopping early leaves flavor in the chicken, and, hence, the trash. Get every bit of goodness out of that chicken and into the liquid!
Once the stock is done cooking, strain it through some cheesecloth or a fine mesh strainer into another container. Discard the chicken and vegetables. They’re worthless now. Stand back and admire your liquid gold.
Cooling Chicken Stock
Cooling the stock can be tricky. You’ve got a gallon or three of liquid at 180 degrees or so. The “danger zone” for food safety is between 40 and 140 degrees. Once that stock gets below 140, it’s going to start turning into a microbial nightmare. The rule of thumb is that you don’t want food in the “danger zone” for more than two hours. So, once the stock hits 140, you have two hours to get it down below 40. If you care about that sort of thing.
Now, if you’re like most people, you just take the hot stock and pop it in the fridge. Congratulations, you have just dumped 180 degrees times 3 gallons of mass into your nice cold fridge. Guess what the temperature is going to do in there. Not good, but hey, people have been doing it for years, and I don’t think anybody’s died of it. Maybe their milk spoiled a little early. Another method I’ve heard of is to set the stock in front of a fan. The moving air is very effective at carrying away the heat. Yet a third method involves actually pouring the stock band and forth between two containers in front of a fan. Seems like a lot of work, but I can see how it would decrease the temperature quickly. A fourth method involves freezing water inside plastic soda (or other) bottles, then stirring those bottles around in the stock. The icy bottles drop the temperature of the stock really quickly, and since the ice is contained, it doesn’t water the stock down, like it would if you just tossed a bunch of ice in there.
If I absolutely have to get the stock cooled quickly for some reason, I use the “icy container method.” I toss some ice in a zip-lock and use that. But usually, what I do is just let the stock sit out on the counter until it gets down to 140, then pop it in the fridge. My fridge has a “power cool” setting that cranks the compressor into overdrive for two hours. Yeah, I know that putting a 140 degree hunk of thermal mass into the nice cold fridge isn’t ideal, but it’s what works for me.
If your chicken parts were particularly fatty, the next morning, you will find a congealed layer of fat on top of your stock. This is known as schmaltz and can be used for cooking, or you can throw it out.
Storing Chicken Stock
The final step in the process is storing your liquid gold. I like to freeze the stock and then pop it into zip-lock bags once it’s solid. Ice cube trays would work, but I usually use a few cups of stock at a time, so ice cubes are a little small. I prefer muffin tins. The only problem is how to get the frozen blocks of stock out of the tins. The best method I’ve found is to boil water and then set the muffin trays over a 9×13 brownie pan (they fit perfectly) with 1/2″ or so of hot water in the bottom. The steam gently melts the stock-blocks until they will drop out, then I put them in the bag and into the freezer they go. If you had a pressure canner, you could easily can the stock, since it wouldn’t matter at all if it was boiled.