How to make better chicken stock

Photo by Bil Harding, via Flickr

Here is the deep dark secret to developing the “chickeniest” chicken stock you’ve ever tasted. Plus, my genius (stolen) ideas for straining and cooling. With my apologies to the vegetarians.

The goal for this recipe is to achieve a deeply flavored bone stock that is fundamentally “chicken.” It takes on a jello consistency when chilled. It can be used to make soup or to flavor other dishes for any type of cuisine (ok, except vegetarian). Also, I’m sorry for the intro photo.

There are a ton of chicken stock recipes out there. Most of them call for an addition of aromatic vegetables, and flavorful spices or herbs.

But I’m here to tell you to knock it off.

Here is the recipe:

A large stock pot (tall, not wide), pressure cooker large enough to fit everything, or a crock pot .
A fine mesh strainer
A large metal bowl sitting in an ice bath
A variety of freezer-safe containers. I find 32 oz, 16 oz, and ice cube trays (with lids) the most useful.

1-3 chicken or turkey carcasses (with some meat still on), leftover wings, neck, skin, or any other tendon-rich pieces. I keep carcasses in my freezer and when I have a couple of them, I make stock.
Water
Optional: 1 tablespoon of salt or less

Put the carcasses in your stock pot and put just enough water to hit the top of the bones. Do not overfill the pot. Bring the pot to a boil over high heat, then turn the heat down to simmer for 8 hours or overnight. If using an electric pressure cooker, follow the same directions, then check your manual for heat, time, and release instructions. With a crockpot, be sure everything fits (you will not be able to make as much at one time).

When the stock is ready, fit a fine mesh strainer over a large metal bowl sitting in an ice bath. A fine mesh strainer is usually good enough for my needs. However, sometimes, I prefer clearer stock. If you do also, run it through the fine mesh, then, in a secondary process, add a cheese cloth to the stainer and run it through again. (If you try to do the cheese cloth during the first run, it will get clogged really quickly.) The bowl sitting in the ice bath is a great method to start the cooling process quickly. The faster you can get it cooled and into the freezer, the less time there is for bacteria to set in.

Empty the strained stock into your smaller vessels often so you can get them into the refrigerator for a few hours. The fridge-first method is a good idea—it reduces steam condensation and deters freezer burn, and it allows you to gauge the success (does it look like jello) of your stock. Once the stock is cold you can move it to the freezer and keep it for 2-3 months. If you use ice trays, freeze them overnight then pop the cubes into a freezer safe bag for storage.

What is missing?

Do not add any onion, celery, carrot, garlic, ginger, chiles, parsley, cilantro, or any other fresh plants. Sure, adding these things are traditional and make you feel like you are “adding flavor” to make your stock.

But these other ingredients turns your stock into chicken/vegetable stock, and the result is usually not very good because vegetables release flavor much more quickly than bone and don’t improve with long cooking. Make a vegetable stock on its own in about 30 minutes and you’ll like the flavor better.

I’m not opposed to adding some spices, such as peppercorns, bay, and thyme. However, I have found they aren’t necessary, because you will likely use them in the secondary process. Others such as anise, cinnamon, can bring in either an Asian or Middle Eastern influence. Be cautious, however, because those distinctive flavors can clash with other cuisines. And again, you will likely add them to your final dish.

One note: It is better to under salt than over salt. I have two reasons: One, if you are using a leftover carcass, it is likely there is already salt on the bird, particularly if it was brined. Two, you are going to add salt to your final dish. This is a base ingredient and it does not need to be salty.

One more note: I do not talk about fat. There are ways to remove it. I’m not going to go into those methods, because I like the fat in my broth. Fat is flavor.

Make the Stock Even Better

There are additional ways to improve this stock. I’m approaching it from the idea of using what is leftover after a holiday or Sunday night dinner with family. If you really want to get exceptional stock, buy chicken feet from your butcher and use that alone or along with your carcass and pieces. Tendons, cartilage, and connective tissue are what make stock great. Chicken feet are nothing but tendons, cartilage, and connective tissue.

A pressure cooker is the best way to get a really “essential” stock flavor. The way pressure cookers force liquid into food at a high heat produces a caramelization that simply cannot be achieved with slow cook methods. The result is a deep and complex stock in a fraction of the time. It is great for cooking in the summer as well. My only problem with the pressure cooker is that mine has a 10-cup capacity, which includes the bones. It is a lot of work to make stock for such little output.

So there you have it. The best chicken stock recipe I’ve found is the one that emphasizes technique and contains no extra ingredients.

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