Fully Stocked

My First Chicken Stock
Photograph from iStockphoto.com

There once was a boy who bought his chicken stock in a box, no questions asked, and used this boxed stock in every recipe he cooked that required chicken stock. Did he stop to think about making his own stock from scratch? He didn't. He said to himself, "Why should I spend three hours simmering chicken bones and water? This boxed stock is fine, and this dinner will be fine, and anyone who thinks different gets a zero in my book."

OK, confession time, that boy was me. I am a chicken stock skeptic, a perpetual purchaser of those colorful boxes, the ones that help you save time and make a complicated recipe like risotto a cinch to pull off. Sure, it'd be nice to have homemade stock around to cook with, but I'm an impulsive person, and I rarely know what I'm going to make for dinner until the last minute. If I decide to make something that requires stock, I never have time to make it from scratch. And, so far, I've been living a very happy life as a consumer of store-bought chicken stock.

Until tonight. Tonight I looked at myself in the mirror and I said, "Adam, do you want to spend the rest of your life trading integrity for convenience? Stop being a stock whore. You need to pull yourself together and make this dinner count. Look up some recipes, go to the store, and have the time and patience to do it right."

After searching through multiple cookbooks, I settled on two chicken stock recipes that I liked. The first was from Patricia Wells's Trattoria, and the other from Jean-Georges Vongerichten's Cooking at Home with a Four-Star Chef. Both recipes called for chicken wings and necks as opposed to chicken carcasses, which I didn't have on hand. I mixed the techniques from both, the ingredients from both, and developed my own foolproof formula: Place chicken and vegetables in a pot, cover with water, bring to a simmer, and three hours later you'll have a stock.

And that's basically how it happened. I bought the chicken parts from the grocery store across the street. I tried to get the best chicken parts I could—I found free-range organic chicken wings—but there were no organic free-range chicken necks or backs. So I succumbed and bought one packet of super-processed chicken backs because I thought to myself, "Well, when you buy your boxed stock, you don't know where those chickens came from do you? Those may be super-processed too."

It's shifty logic, but it got me back to my apartment fully equipped for stock-cooking. I put it all on the stove, and brought it to a gentle simmer. Then I watched a series of edifying shows on TiVo, namely The View and reruns of Roseanne. When the stock was ready, three hours later, I ladled it through a cheesecloth and sieve into another pot (as suggested by Patricia Wells).

I tasted the liquid and at first felt disappointed. All that effort for this? (OK, it wasn't that much effort.) But then I realized that the stock was unsalted (probably so you could use it in recipes that you salt later) and, with that in mind, I tasted again and praised myself for the stock's color, complex flavors, and viscosity. This was good chicken stock.

Immediately I put the stock to use, following Wells's recipe for saffron risotto. I figured that risotto is the perfect showcase for a homemade stock. It takes in so much broth that it's basically broth-saturated rice. And this broth was my broth, and it would taste brilliant.

And sure enough: It did. Really! There was a quality to this risotto that was absent from my risottos of years past; it was enhanced by the complexity and authenticity of the stock, which held it all together.

Later, when I looked at myself in the mirror, I no longer felt cheap. What I saw reflected was the real deal, no cheap 30-minute Food Network atrocity, but an Italian grandmother.

For real. I have wrinkles and a wart.

Making stock is dangerous business, but—in the end—it's worth it.

The Amateur Gourmet's Chicken Stock
Patricia Wells's Risotto