the architecture of a good stock / by Annie Jefferson

Stock is unique in that by itself it represents both its own recipe, as well as a foundational ingredient for other recipes. Stock is a critical opportunity to achieve an excellent rather than average final (second) dish. It’s so nice to have it around, it’s hard to mess it up, and it’s something you can really personalize. It brings a richness and depth to soups and stews, and adding your own stock to dishes makes them so much more yours.

The idea behind the word ‘soup’ is about soaking. Soaking and slowly cooking ingredients achieves several goals that have been around since the beginning of cooking: softening to make digestible foods that would otherwise not be, while also opening up new flavors through various combinations of food, which come alive in direct contact with water. And – a friend of scraps and discards – it’s a cheap process, constituting the basis for the ultimate peasant foods…think France’s french onion, Poland’s borscht, Italy’s minestrone or Brazil’s feijoada, originally made by slaves from their master’s leftover ingredients. The concept of soup is one of the most ancient when it comes to cooking…and without stock there would be no soup.

Stocks typically include a mirepoix (carrots, onions, celery), often other vegetables, and then meat and bones if you’re doing the meat thing. A stock should act behind the scenes – it shouldn’t itself be too distinguishable so as to interfere with whatever you end up using it for. That said, the more you make it, the closer you get to your personal brand of stock and the more you can adapt it to your taste. For me, I go heavy on the garlic and chile since these are flavors I always want in my dishes, and an extra layer of them in whatever I’m cooking is very welcome.

Some stock recipes suggest roasting the vegetables first, some sautéing them first, some just go straight to boiling…I say try it all and see what works for you. No matter what, your kitchen will smell like Thanksgiving all day. This post is jam-packed with information, but if you aren’t an experienced stock queen, it will help you to be able to make the stuff without even thinking about it.

Traditional vegetable stock ingredients include onions, celery, carrots, mushrooms, garlic and herbs, such as bay leaves, parsley and thyme. The great thing about a stock is that you can really use up whatever cuts and trimmings of aromatics you have lying around the house. However, while I’m usually all for changing things up and using whatever’s on hand, this rather limited list is for good reason…a few considerations when it comes to choosing your vegetables:

When it comes to squash…
For example, acorn squash, butternut squash, zucchini, cucumber, pumpkins
Many of these tend to be too starchy for broths, but small amounts of the peel can add nice flavor. Cucumber and zucchini won’t bring much but a slight bitterness...there are better uses for the crispy, fresher vegetables  in my opinion.

When it comes to bitter greens…
For example, bok choy, broccoli, cabbage, bitter greens, kohlrabi, rutabagas, etc.
These will leave your stock noticeably bitter. Best to avoid.

When it comes to root vegetables…
For example, carrots, celery, fennel, parsley, dill, coriander, parsnip
Carrots and celery are fundamental to stock for their sweetness and bitterness, respectively. Use parsley, parsnips and fennel liberally, but be wary of the lingering intensity of other members of this family.

When it comes to onions….
For example, onion, scallion, shallot, leeks, garlic, chive
All great for stock, adding a hint of sweetness and pungency. Although it will make your broth darker, you can add the skin of onions, which contains more far more antioxidants than the onion itself.

When it comes to vegetables with a darker skin…
For example, tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, potatoes
Tomatoes are great for stock, but avoid the seeds as this brings bitterness. Everything else in small quantities, including potatoes and potato peels, which will cloud the water if used too liberally. However, some like the starchiness of a bit of potato thrown in.

When it comes to mushrooms…
For example, white, oyster, portobello, cremini, shiitake
Mushrooms are your ticket to depth in a stock. They contain high levels of glutamates, which is part of the flavor profile of MSG and a property of the sixth taste, umami (Japanese kombu works well too). In this recipe, we used rehydrated shiitake mushrooms because of their intense savory flavor.

When it comes to herbs…
For example, thyme, oregano, basil, rosemary, sage
Great in modest quantities, depending on your taste

Finally, as with anything that undergoes a cooking process, there are some important science principles that will help guide your stock recipe.

Get a fine chop on your vegetables
This increases the amount of surface area touching the water and facilitates an easier infusion of flavor to broth.

Treat your aromatics first
Either sauté or roast. Starting by sweating the onion, celery and carrot one way or another helps them develop a sweetness and adds a more layered flavor profile to your stock.

When adding water, be sure it’s cold
The goal in a stock is to find the best way to extract flavor from ingredients, not to cook the ingredients themselves. When we cook ingredients, we’re locking flavor inside them. The goal of stock is the opposite. Starting with cold water that heats from the bottom up allows all the compounds, which dissolve at a different temperatures, to have a chance to add their flavors at the temperature that’s best for them.

Be gentle with it
Get a gentle simmer going on your stock. It’s a delicate process and a high heat will boil out the flavors that are working hard to come through. Again, we are extracting, not cooking! Also, avoid stirring as much as possible as this will break down the vegetables, making them mushy.

With that, give it a go, and then try your stock with coconut black lentil soup or caramelized onion sweet potato puree, and see how the whole dish becomes your own.

Makes 2 quarts

2 tablespoon olive oil
2 medium onions, peeled and chopped into large pieces
8 medium cloves garlic, crushed
1 small fennel bulb, cut into large pieces
4 medium carrots, cut into large pieces
6 celery stalks, cut into large pieces (leaves retained)
8 ounces shiitake or porcini mushrooms, dried, rehydrated and chopped
6 sprigs fresh thyme
6 sprigs fresh, flat-leaf parsley
3 fresh bay leaves
1 tablespon whole black peppercorns
1/2 teaspoon salt
small pinch red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon coriander seeds
2 tablespoon tomato paste
1/4 cup soy sauce (optional)
4 quarts water

Warm oil at medium heat at the base of a large pot. Add onions, carrots, celery, garlic, fennel and mushrooms. Heat until they begin to soften. Add the remaining ingredients and stir until well combined. Cover with 4 quarts of water. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat, mostly cover with the lid and return to a gentle simmer for 1 to no more than 1 1/2 hours.

Pour the contents of the pot through a fine mesh sieve. Stock stores for 3 days in the fridge or several months in the freezer.