By reader request, we’re going to cover the basics of making soup stock today: how to make it and how to use it.
Let’s start with the why you’d make it and how you use it.
Why you make stock:
- It is the basis of good cuisine: everything tastes better with stock
- It boosts the nutritional value of anything you cook with it.
- It’s thrifty: it puts all your odds and ends and slightly past-prime veggies and leftover meat and bones to good use.
- Because boxed and canned stock is foul. Seriously. It’s terrible. In an emergency you’d be better off using a bouillon cube than that stuff.
- It’s easy.
How do you use it?
Think of it as super water. Substitute stock for water whenever you can. Use it:
- As the basis of any soup or stew
- To make sauces and gravy
- To cook beans
- To cook rice
- To cook any whole grain
- To cook pasta and couscous
- To make risotto
- To make polenta
- For braising vegetables or meat
- For sauteing vegetables
- Straight, as a broth
Preparing for stock:
Stock is traditionally made with scraps. So you may want to start a scrap bin for stock in your fridge or freezer. Save those parsley stems, that half onion, those carrot stubs and celery tops! Similarly, meat stocks are made with scraps and bones. Chicken stock can be made with a whole chicken carcass. Fish stock is made with fish bones, shellfish stock is made out of shrimp, lobster or crab shells. Save it all!
How to make vegetable stock:
Whether you’re a vegetarian or a meat eater, veggie stock is the fastest, easiest stock to make and all around useful in the kitchen. I’m hesitant to give measurements here because stock is improvisational by nature. You really can’t screw it up. A higher veggie to water ratio will result in a stronger stock–but there’s nothing wrong with a mild stock. With stock, it’s all good.
The three fundamentals:
For me, the heart of all stock is the triumvirate of carrot, celery and onion. I could settle with a stock made with only these three ingredients, plus salt and pepper–in fact, I’ve often settled for this! Still, stock being what it is, it’s okay if you don’t have carrots or celery on hand. Of all the ingredients in veg stock, the onion is the only ingredient which I’d consider indispensable– but I’ve substituted green onions for onion. Leeks and shallots are also good substitutes.
A sample stock:
Stock is really about what you have in your fridge. You shouldn’t have to shop to make stock. (Although the more you cook, the more you’ll consider having these basics on hand a necessity.) So consider this ingredient list a suggestion, not a command. And interpolate if you’re using scraps– a handful of carrot trimmings equals a carrot, etc.
Of course, this recipe doubles easily, and if you have the freezer space, consider making a double batch so you have it on hand.
- 1 onion, quartered. It’s okay to leave the skin on if it’s organic.
- 1 or 2 carrots, chopped into a few pieces (or a bunch of baby carrots-that half bag drying out in the fridge, perhaps?)
- 1 or 2 celery stalks, also chopped into a couple of pieces
- A handful of parsley or parsley stems
- 1 small potato, roughly chopped, skin is fine
- Any mushrooms or mushroom trimmings you have. Shiitake stems, particularly, add great flavor.
- A garlic clove or two, if you like.
- Herbs, if you have them: a bay leaf, a sprig of thyme or chevril or dill. Mild herbs, generally.
- A few whole peppercorns
- Salt to taste (Omit the salt if you’re planning to use the stock to make beans–you can always add it later.)
Throw all this stuff in a big soup pot and add about two quarts (8 cups) of water.
Put a lid on it and bring it to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer and let it cook for about a half hour, or until the veggies look like they’ve given up the ghost. Keep the lid on, unless you want to boil the stock down to make the flavor stronger.
Strain the stock through a colander or strainer set up of some kind to separate the cooked bits from the broth. I like to store my stock in canning jars, so I use a canning funnel with a strainer nested inside of it, and pour the hot stock directly into the jars.
If you’re not going to use your stock within a few days, freeze it.
A few things you probably don’t want in your stock
Though I say there are no rules, some veggies have strong flavors that will really dominate the stock, and maybe take over the flavor of whatever you’re trying to make with the stock. Stock should sit in the background, gently making everything taste better in some undefinable way. Therefore, I don’t use broccoli or cauliflower or cabbage or turnips or mustard or collard greens–really, anything from that brassica family–in stock. They’re great in soup, but I like to add them further down the line.
Similarly I avoid spinach and chard, even though they have milder flavors, those flavors carry into the stock. You could add a single tomato to a veggie stock, but if you add more than one you could easily end up with tomato soup.
You can add spicy stuff to your stock if you want spicy stock and have a plan for what you’re going to do with it. If you were preparing stock for a Thai soup, for instance, you might start with a stock made with lemongrass or ginger. Otherwise, I’d skip adding the strong flavors until you’re actually cooking with the stock.
Keep it simple.
Want to work harder?
I learned this one from Mark Bittman. To bring out more savory flavors in a veggie stock, you can chop all of your veggies (except the parsley) into smaller pieces and then saute them in some oil in the bottom of your soup pot til they soften and start to brown. Then add the parsley in, add water, salt and pepper, bring to a boil and simmer for about a half hour as above. You can even take it to 11 by adding a spoonful of soy sauce.
Similarly, you can pre-roast your stock vegetables in the oven — or better, make stock out of leftover roasted vegetables. Roasting really brings out nice meaty flavors in a veg stock. Add the roasted veggies to water and proceed as above.
Frankly, I only do either of these things for special occasions, when I’m pulling out all the stops. Simple veg stock is my workhorse around the kitchen.
Meat and Fish Stocks
I have to admit I don’t make meat stocks very often, because we eat meat so rarely. A simple googling will reveal many detailed recipes, but the following will give you the basics. Again, don’t be nervous about making any type of stock. Just boil some stuff up and you’ll have stock. If anyone makes meat stock regularly and has tips, please chime in!
If you’ve just had a roast chicken or turkey, save the carcass. Put it in a big pot along with the basic vegetable stock ingredients from above–celery, onion and carrot at minimum. You can increase the amount of onion and garlic. Add enough water to cover the bones, bring to a boil and simmer, covered, for about 4 hours. Skim off any foam or scum that appears on the top.
If you don’t have a carcass, you can make chicken stock with leftover meat and bones and skin– or with cheap parts like backs and wings. These can go into the pot raw, but the flavor and color will be better if you roast them or braise them in a pan first to brown them.
As with the veg stock, strain the finished stock through a colander or similar. If you want very clear stock, line the strainer or colander with cheesecloth.
Beef stock begins with meaty marrow bones roasted in the oven to brown them and bring out flavor. Some people smear them with a little tomato paste to really bring out those umami flavors. If you’re roasting the bones, you may as well throw in the veggies to roast as well, so they also brown and soak up the meat flavor.
Use all the basic veggies you’d use for veg stock, and at minimum, carrots, celery and onions. Use more onions than with veg stock, maybe two or three, instead of one, because the meat is so flavorful, it needs balance. For super meaty broth, add some stew meat to the mix along with the bones. Roast all of this in a roasting pan in an oven set to 400F for around 40 minutes. You want it to brown but not burn.
Transfer the meat and veggies to a soup pot. See if you can deglaze the roasting pan and transfer all those tasty little brown bits to the pot, too. Add water to cover all the bones. Maybe add a cup or so of red wine. Add lots of peppercorns. Add a bay leaf or two. And salt.
Bring this to a boil and then reduce to the barest simmer. Cover loosely and let it continue to simmer for at least 4 hours. If you want a pretty, clear stock, don’t stir it. Just skim off the fat or scum which rises to the surface, and if the water level drops so that the bones are exposed, add more water or wine.
When it’s done, strain the stock through a colander or strainer, lined with cheesecloth if you want the stock to be particularly clear. When the stock cools you’ll find a layer of fat floating on the top, which you can lift off.
Fish stock is, obviously, used as the basis of various classic fish soups and stews: chowder, cioppino, bouillabaisse, lobster bisque, etc.
You can make fish stock with fish bits–bones, heads, tails, scrap meat and other fishy leftovers, or you can make shellfish stock with shellfish peelings, like crab, shrimp or lobster shells. Again, this is about letting nothing go to waste, and these parts are full of flavor. Save them! Put them in the freezer if you don’t have time to make stock at the moment.
Making fish stock is pretty much like making chicken stock with a carcass. Gather all the fish bits or shells you have and add them to the basic ingredients for veg stock. Skip the mushrooms and potatoes, though. Maybe add a little more onion. Parsley goes well with fish, so try to use that if you can. A bit of thyme is also very nice. White wine is a traditional addition to fish stock, maybe 1/2 cup or so. Don’t forget the whole peppercorns, salt, etc.– just like all the other stocks. Add enough water to cover all the bones and bits. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to a bare simmer, cover and let cook.
Stock made out of fish bones is ready in as little as 20 to 30 minutes. Stock made out of shells takes about 45 minutes or so.
When it’s done, strain and store, as above.
Dashi is the traditional Japanese stock made with seaweed and dried fish, though you can do a veggie version with seaweed and mushrooms instead. Dashi is used extensively in Japanese cooking, and is so light and tasty, you might be tempted to use it in all your cooking. It’s fast and easy to make, but the technique is quite different than the stocks I’ve been discussing, so I’m not going to cover it here, but instead direct you to Just Hungry for some good instructions.