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I'm not satisfied with the flavor of my stocks—they don't taste anything like the rich broths I eat in restaurants. What can I do to make a really good all-purpose stock?
Chicken stock is the secret ingredient of restaurant food. A good chicken stock should have decent body, along with a mild savory flavor that enhances, rather than competes with, the sauces, glazes, and soup bases you make with it.
There are a lot of tricks for beefing up a basic chicken stock—adding beef not being one of them. For example, I'll often throw in some chicken feet for extra gelatin, which makes a huge difference in the viscosity of the stock. Instead of being thin like water, gelatinous stock has more body and a slightly sticky texture when it dries on your lips—some of the qualities necessary for a great sauce.
I'll also use my pressure cooker to make stock at home, since it speeds the process up quite a bit, and helps seal in flavor that otherwise boils off into the air as the stock simmers and steams.
Some people use ground chicken meat and heavily hacked-apart bones to increase flavor and body, as any increase in surface area can help with flavor and gelatin extraction.
I've even taken a page from the dashi rule book by steeping kombu—a type of seaweed that's rich in glutamic acid, the amino acid that's responsible for the satisfyingly savory flavor of umami-rich foods—in my chicken stock.
But all of those stock upgrades require special shopping trips, equipment, or extra work. For those of us who already make stock frequently and are willing to take the trouble, that's great. But there are too many people who never make their own stock at home, and complicating it with those kinds of extras does little to encourage them to try.
So here, instead of coming up with the most tricked-out, labor-intensive chicken stock, I want to look at some of the factors that can affect the quality of a very basic white chicken stock—arguably the most versatile type of stock, and one that requires no roasting of bones or vegetables. My goal here is to give you a very simple stock recipe that is extremely easy to make at home without any special ingredients.
What Makes a Good Stock?
In my eyes, a good white chicken stock should have the full, clean flavors of chicken and aromatic vegetables, and have more body than water. If it gels at least slightly when chilled, that's a good sign as far as body is concerned.
At the same time, a good basic stock should not have any particularly strong or unconventional flavors. The goal here is versatility, so we want to make sure it will work with all kinds of recipes. An infusion of ginger or aroma of tarragon may be lovely in certain applications, but they're also very specific flavors that we may not want in a basic stock. We don't necessarily want the flavor of stock to dominate a dish made with it; we just want that dish to be enriched by the stock.
In fact, a lot of the rich restaurant broths mentioned in the question up top aren't made from stock alone: One of the ways restaurants arrive at such deeply layered broths and sauces is to start with a stock (instead of water) and then enhance it further, cooking even more aromatics and meats into it and reducing it to fully concentrate the flavors. These are almost like double stocks, with whatever specific ingredients the chef has built into them.
So, instead of thinking of stock as a finished product that should taste like the broth served at a restaurant, it's better to think of it as a building block that's helpful in arriving at that final deep and complex flavor.
The Building Blocks of Stock
A very basic white chicken stock is a pretty simple affair: It's made with water; chicken; aromatic vegetables, like onion, carrot, and garlic; and herbs. The exact ingredients are up to the cook. I worked for one chef who hated celery, and there wasn't a stockpot in the restaurant that ever contained a celery rib—his stocks and sauces were exemplary, by the way. Some cooks will add other aromatic vegetables, like fennel or leeks, or a variety of herbs, from parsley to thyme and bay leaves.
There's no right or wrong here; it's just a matter of preference and the flavor profile you're looking for.
For this stock, I'm keeping it incredibly simple: chicken, carrot, onion, garlic, celery, and parsley. That's it.
Let's take a closer look at each of these.
Consider the Chicken
Stock can be made with a whole chicken, any of its parts, or a combination. In practice, it's usually made with the scraps and bones of a chicken that's already been butchered for other uses. Still, it helps to know how each part of a chicken can change the flavor of stock.
To find out, I made several batches of stock, each with the exact same amounts of chicken, aromatic vegetables, and water. The only thing I changed was the cut of chicken: boneless breast meat, boneless leg meat, wings, bones, or a whole chicken.
To account for differences in pot size and evaporation rates, I measured the final stocks and added water to bring them all up to the same volume. This diluted them a little, but should have helped correct for differences in flavor intensity due to variations in water volume.
As you can see in the photo above, the color of the final stock is affected by the cut of chicken used. But this is where it gets interesting: The lightest, most washed-out-looking stock was the one made with boneless chicken breast. I expected that stock, based both on its color and on the lack of flavor in chicken breast relative to the other parts, to be the least flavorful. But here's how each stock actually tasted:
- Instead of tasting flavorless and washed out, the chicken breast produced the cleanest-tasting stock, with the most intense chicken flavor. But it also produced the thinnest stock in terms of body.
- The thigh meat also produced a light-colored stock, but it had a muddier, less clean flavor than the breast stock.
- The wings produced the stock with the most body, which makes sense, given the number of cartilage-rich joints in each wing. But the flavor was also not as chicken-y as that of the breast stock.
- Bones also made a stock with a less distinct chicken flavor, but they contributed some bass notes that were pleasant.
- The whole chicken produced a middle-of-the-road stock: not as tasty as the chicken breast stock, but not as muddy as some of the others.
I initially didn't believe my results, since I generally think of chicken breast as the least flavorful part of the bird. So I sent a message to Kenji to see what he thought. "Actually that maps exactly with tests I did for my book and tests I did at Cook's Illustrated. Chicken breast has the cleanest flavor, though not as much body," he wrote back.
Okay, then, maybe I'm not crazy after all.
This is helpful, and certainly challenged some of my own assumptions, but I can't really recommend making stock from expensive cuts like chicken breasts, unless money really is not a concern. If you are gathering scraps of chicken for stock, though, this at least shows that it's better, if at all possible, to try to get some white meat in the mix, along with bones for bass notes and wings for gelatin.
Given the issue of quality versus cost, I'd lean toward wings as the single best option for providing a good balance between rich texture, decent chicken-y flavor, and relatively low cost. But if you're the type who likes to collect chicken scraps and carcasses (or can find them on sale for cheap at the market), then you'll do just fine with whatever combination of inexpensive scraps you choose to use.
If you do make a thin-yet-flavorful stock, adding a little unflavored gelatin can help boost the body. I found that one packet of unflavored gelatin, softened in a quarter cup of cold water and then mixed into one quart of stock, did a good job of enhancing body without pushing the stock into weirdly sticky, jellied territory.
Arming the Aromatics
Another big question with stock is how to handle the aromatics. It's common to just throw halved onions and big chunks of carrot and celery into the pot. But is that the best way?
To find out, I made a new round of stocks. In one, I added the aromatics straight to the water in large pieces—halved onions and big pieces of carrot and celery. In another, I diced the aromatics and added them straight to the pot of water.
In the third, I diced the aromatics and sautéed them in a neutral oil until they were softened and translucent, then added the water and chicken.
From the photo, you can see that the sautéed aromatics produced the darkest stock (though I should point out that I didn't let them visibly brown at all while sautéing), but they also created a stock with a vegetable flavor that tasted less fresh to me, as if the vegetables had been overcooked to the point of murkiness.
The whole aromatics, meanwhile, made the stock with the least flavor, which suggests that surface area really does make a difference in terms of flavor extraction, even with the extended cooking time of a stock.
The plain boiled diced aromatics tasted the best to me and my fellow tasters, producing a stock that was both clean and flavorful.
The Skimming Question
One of the things that scares home cooks away from making stock is the idea that it needs to be carefully tended to, skimmed frequently of oil and scum that float to the surface.
I wanted to see whether skipping the skimming was really such a big deal, so I made two more batches of stock, both exactly the same, except one I skimmed and one I didn't. Because skimming removes liquid, I adjusted volumes after cooking, as I had done with the above-described stocks, to make sure we were tasting approximately equal concentration ratios.
I made sure to keep both stocks at a very gentle simmer as they cooked, since the turbulence of boiling can work a lot of that surface scum back into the broth, which wasn't my goal. Once they were done, I fine-strained both.
The final stocks were remarkably similar. If anything, the not-skimmed stock was a tiny bit clearer than the skimmed one, which definitely contradicted my expectations.
I don't have a great explanation for this, but here's one theory I've come up with: A lot of the scum that initially floats to the surface of a stock is protein from some of the meat's fluids. When you're making consommé, which is concentrated, crystal-clear broth, one of the classic techniques for clarifying the liquid is with a protein raft on the surface, often made from egg whites. Perhaps, at a gentle enough simmer, the protein blobs that come to the surface of the stock end up working like a consommé's protein raft, trapping particles in the broth and clarifying it in the process. If the stock is simmered and handled gently enough, those impurities won't be distributed back into the broth and can be fine-strained out.
Either way, this test suggests that as long as you keep the heat low and have a fine-mesh strainer, you're safe letting the stock be without skimming it. As for the fat that accumulates on the surface, I find it easiest to remove once the stock has chilled and the fat has congealed on the surface.*
* It is worth mentioning, though, that I tested these stocks in smaller batch sizes. It's possible that larger batches could generate a deeper layer of grease on the surface, which, in turn, could affect the stock's flavor and clarity in a different way.
The Ratio and Cooking Time
One of the keys to good stock is simply to not dilute it too much. When I started my tests, I was limited by pot size and dimension, and had to use one pound of chicken per two quarts of water (any more, and I'd overflow my smaller pots). But that produced stocks that were a little too weak.
In subsequent batches, I bumped the chicken up, and found that you want at least two pounds of chicken per two quarts of water, a 1:2 ratio by weight. Ideally, though, you'll add even more chicken: In a large stockpot, I was able to get a full eight pounds of chicken submerged in a gallon (four quarts) of water, which yielded the richest, most flavorful results. For every two quarts of water, I also added at least one large diced onion, two large diced carrots, two ribs of celery, and about four crushed cloves of garlic. A nice tuft of parsley completes it, though fresh thyme and bay leaves are also good to include.
That minimum ratio—a pound of chicken per quart of water—was sufficient to extract enough gelatin from the wings to give me the loosely gelled stock above. If you can pack in even more chicken and aromatics, your stock will only get richer and more gelatinous.
As for time, if you don't cook a stock long enough, you risk not extracting sufficient flavor or gelatin. Cook it too long, though, and you get into a case of seriously diminishing returns. Throughout my testing, I tasted my stocks as they cooked, and I generally found about one and a half hours to be a reasonable endpoint—plenty of time for a flavorful, rich broth, but not so long that it's a major commitment to make it.
Once you've got this basic stock down, you can either stick with it or try some of the more ambitious upgrades that I mentioned above. Just think how badass you'll feel buying chicken feet!