Taking stock 

Winter calls for flavor, mo' bones about it.

When people speak of "stocking up" they often refer to gathering provisions to survive the winter—putting pickles and jam in jars, drying tomatoes, freezing chunks of deer meat, to name a few. These are the makings of what the wise call a "third-world, first class" diet. Few items epitomize this hybrid better than stock itself.

Made from the humblest of ingredients—bones, usually—a good stock dramatically elevates the quality of the final product, be it French onion soup, mushroom risotto or huevos rancheros. Beyond the benefits of great taste, making stock also puts good use to the bones of that elk, deer or antelope you bagged during hunting season.

But first, a few basics: Unlike soup or broth, stock isn't something to sip au naturel. Instead, it's an enriching agent that adds flavor to a multitude of soups and other dishes (including some that are decidedly un-soup-like). In some cases, stock is made with fish heads, chicken backs, veggies or mushrooms.

When made from mammal bones, however, stock is known as brown sauce. Prosaic as it might sound, brown sauce is the gateway to demi-glace, a gold standard in French cuisine—the glistening accompaniment makes all things taste and feel better in your mouth.

Young bones are best for brown stock because they have more collagen, a connective tissue that melts when properly heated, giving the liquid a full, creamy feel when hot. Younger marrow is also more active at producing red and white blood cells that add complexity. Recipes for classic brown stock typically call for veal bones, but calf, elk or fawn bones work just fine.

click to enlarge CHAD HARDER

For optimum results, make your stock with long bones, like femurs. If you're processing game at home, use a bone saw to cut 2-inch rounds; if you're buying the bones, have the meat guy carve them down to size. Put the bones in a roasting pan in a 300-degree oven for two to three hours, until golden brown.

Remove the bones from the oven, strip off any clinging meat or fat, and rub them with tomato paste. Roast them for another 20 minutes, checking often to make sure the tomato paste doesn't burn.

Then take the bones out of the pan and put them in a large, empty pot. Pour the fat from the pan. Then put the pan on the stove over medium heat and pour red wine into it to deglaze it, capturing the flavors.

As the wine boils in the pan, use a spatula to scrape and suspend the fond—the bits of goodness stuck to the bottom—and pour the resulting mixture into the pot with the bones. Add a bay leaf, a few peppercorns, and enough water to cover everything. Cook very slowly for 12–24 hours, keeping the bones covered with water. You don't want the stock to boil, because that will make it cloudy in both sight and taste. Instead, keep it at the "lazy bubble" stage, the point at which a single bubble lets go from the bottom every three to four seconds.

Although it goes against my every instinct to do this, it's also important to skim the fat after about 12 hours of cooking. That's to make sure the stock's creaminess comes from the melted collagen alone. The easiest way to get the fat out is to let the stock cool to room temperature and put it in the fridge overnight. By morning the fat will be floating in a solid raft that's easy to remove.

Finally, reheat the stock back to the lazy bubble stage. Turn the oven to 350 and dry roast (in the oven, sans oil) a mixture that's equal parts celery, carrot and onion—a mirepoix, since we're having French class today. For two pounds of bones, use roughly a bunch of carrots, half a celery head, and two onions. Stir the veggies frequently for even cooking. When they're golden, add them to the stock and cook for three hours, maintaining the lazy bubble.

Strain out the bones and mirepoix. Pour the finished liquid into jars. If you wish, save the soggy mirepoix for a snack—but be warned, the veggies have already given most of their body and soul to the stock.

Refrigerated, stock will last about a week. For longer storage, freeze it in plastic (to avoid busted glass). If you want smaller portions, freeze it in ice cube trays and keep the cubes in bags or plastic containers. Then, when you want to make a little fried rice, or a pan of huckleberry sauce to go on a steak, or some pad thai, you'll be ready.

And after a blissful day on the slopes, or when the mercury drops so low your expletives freeze as you hurl them, your stock's virtues will reveal themselves in bone-warming ways. The winter will be worth savoring.

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