How to Be a Cook Who Miraculously Finds the Time to Make (and Use) Stock
If we could choose just one magical transformation in cooking it would be stock. Infusing plain water with the flavors of meat, bones, and vegetables is an ancient yet elementary magic trick that never gets old. A good stock or bone broth is a miracle of rich flavor and nourishment. But with boxed and canned broth easily available, is it still worth it to make your broth and stock? Absolutely. Is it easy to find the time and space to create this kitchen magic? No, it’s not always easy. So let’s talk about how to bring this magic to you now, in the real world, as a human home cook. The magic of stock can be yours; you just need to discover the five mind-bending rules of stock. You’ll never go back.
Why Are Broth & Stock Important?
- Today’s Lesson: Stock & Broth
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So far in cooking school, we’ve learned about rice and beans, we’ve talked steaming and vegetables, and we’ve learned about meat, poultry and fish. And soon we’re going to be learning about sauces and seasoning. There’s one thing that ties all of these lessons together, however, and that’s stock (or broth). A well-made, well-seasoned stock is better than water in all of those things above, and can be the difference between a dish people thank you for making, and one where they lick the plates and demand your recipe. It’s literally the secret ingredient. And the best part of the secret is that you can make it from kitchen scraps, and most of the work involves waiting around.
Start Here: Your Broth & Stock FAQ
First before we start cooking, a few common questions and answers.
What’s the Difference Between Stock and Broth?
Stock and broth: What exactly is the difference? Is there even a difference? Well, yes. And it’s subtle, but important. And it boils down (sorry, sorry) to this: Stock is an ingredient in a meal, but broth can be a meal itself. In practice, however, the two terms are used interchangeably (even by food manufacturers) but there are three commonly accepted distinctions between the two.
- Broth is seasoned, but stock isn’t. Broth will have salt in it, while stock doesn’t (in fact, shouldn’t. More on that, below). This means you can throw some vegetables into a broth and call it soup (or warm it and drink it straight), but stock is just the start of a meal.
- Broth isn’t (usually) made with bones. Stock is (usually) made with bones. “Bone broth” and vegetable “stocks” notwithstanding, traditional stocks are made with lots of bones. This adds gelatin, which gives them body and richness that lets them reduce into strong, intense sauces. Stocks can generally be reduced for easier storage, or used to make sauces and glazes. Broth is more delicate and often won’t reduce as well.
- Broth is quicker-cooking than stock. A good stock can (but doesn’t have to) take hours to make. That’s because it takes time to release the collagen from the bones to make the gelatin. Broth, being thinner, can come together in an hour or so.
Okay, but What About Bone Broth? Is That Its Own Thing?
Okay, yeah, bone broth. That Paleo darling, the super-viscous, rich and wholesome broth that some cooks and eaters swear by. Look, bone broth is, despite its temptingly alliterative name, simply stock — but a very long-simmered stock. Some chefs recommend cooking it for up to 18 hours or even longer, to help the cartilage of bones and joints gently dissolve into the stock. Bone broth is gorgeous stuff, but it’s nothing new: simply the apotheosis of a long-cooked, perfectly gelatinized stock.
What Are the Main Types of Stock?
Most stocks are lumped into two categories: brown stocks (where the bones and/or vegetables are roasted) and white stocks (where they aren’t). Either kind of stock can be made from beef, chicken, fish, or even just vegetables. Brown stocks can add a deep, rich flavor, but white stocks are versatile, and can add subtle body to a variety of dishes.
Why Not Just Buy Broth?
Good question! You can just buy broth and stock, of course. Boxed broth is a wonderful grocery shortcut that we could never be without. (Here are some of our favorites.) But learning how to cook stock — at least in part — is a process of learning to make food your own. Homemade stock is one of the first places where the tastes and flavors are entirely dependent on your personal preference. Any stock you make will inevitably be unique to you: It will depend on the combination of ingredients that you put in — if you like more onions, or don’t want to add peppercorns, or want to combine beef and chicken bones, you can. And anything you then make with that stock will then be, in a real way, something that only you could make. Which is kind of neat.
Plus it is just so darn satisfying to line neat cubes of frozen stock up in your freezer. For sheer smugness there is almost nothing to rival it in cooking. But how to get to that point of pure satisfaction? Let’s tackle that next.
How to Make Stock (and Actually Fit It into Your Life!)
Okay, so how to get this magical stuff into your life? Stock is super easy and we’ve written about it a million times. But we bet you don’t make stock not because you don’t know how, but because it feels extra and who has time for extra? But it’s possible, we swear, for stock to feel not just effortless, but a complete victory over food waste. There are just a few rules you need to internalize, deeply.
Rule 1: Anything Is Better than Water
If you read chef cookbooks you might think you need a sous chef watching over an enormous stockpot day and night, lovingly skimming the top and delicately coaching it into perfection. No. No! Forget that.
The first rule of stock and broth, you guys, is this: The weakest stock or broth is still an improvement over water. Something is better than nothing. Don’t wait for the perfect stock or the perfect moment! Yeah, that’s kind of woo-woo but roll with it — this is so important. When you have a chance to make stock, make stock. Even if you’re like, Oh but I only have one onion and this recipe calls for two onions. Say that out loud. That’s ridiculous. Make the stock with one onion. It’s better than water.
Okay, but what is a chance? Recognizing the stock opportunity is half the battle. Stock doesn’t only start with a $25 trip to the butcher. Here is a short, completely non-comprehensive list of leftovers, meals, and scraps that could fuel your stockpot.
- Rotisserie chicken (Costco wins yet again)
- Bucket of fried chicken, any fast food joint will do
- Pork roast on the bone
- Pork ribs (yes, from the barbecue place down the road!)
- Pork chop bones
- Short ribs, picked clean
- Steak bone
- Chicken thighs, bone-in, roasted and picked clean
- Shrimp shells
- Clam shells
- Mussel shells
Fill in more below in the comments! What bones and scraps have you tossed in the stockpot, or in the freezer for later? Speaking of the freezer …
Rule 2: Stock Happens Immediately!
The biggest rule to making stock is that you do not wait. You do not say Oh I’ll make stock next Wednesday night. This is the temptation: You roast a chicken or a batch of drumsticks, look at the bones, and put them in your fridge for “later” or for when you buy that second onion. No! Mistake! Danger, Will Robinson! Danger! Make that stock right now.
OR, FINE. Because we are not completely unreasonable monsters, and get the fact that life sometimes doesn’t even let you start a batch of stock in the slow cooker, take action in a different way and immediately freeze your stock fixings. Either way, when you have something good for stock, you deal with it immediately. No waiting, no holding zone, no wishful thinking about how you’ll come back to it in a few nights.
The practical takeaway: Keep a couple of big resealable bags or plastic containers in your freezer: Fill one with chicken or beef bones left over from cooking. They don’t even have to be from the same meal! Fill the other with vegetable scraps. This is a great place to put wilted veggies, celery ends, carrot peelings, and onions and their skins. Really, anything you think might be a good aromatic goes here. Fennel tops? This is what they were made for. The green parts of leeks? Absolutely. Hard cheese rinds like Parmesan or pecorino also work well.
What you shouldn’t bother freezing or saving for stock: The only vegetables you don’t want to add are starchy things like potatoes, or cruciferous veggies like cabbage or broccoli. These will impart unpleasant flavors and textures.
Rule 3: The Best Stock Is Made by a Babysitter
OK so you have some bones or half a chicken you won’t get to, or your freezer is getting full of bits and bobs of odds and ends. Time for a stock babysitter. And we don’t mean ones that costs $20 an hour and a pint of ice cream. Stock should be made in whatever device or vessel lets you pop in ANYTHING you want to use, then walk away for as long as you can. This could be an Instant Pot or slow cooker or a deep pan in a low oven. Whatever works for you as a babysitter and that will keep the stock at a safe temperature of over 140F for as long as you want to leave it.
Our favorite stock babysitters: If you’re low on time, or want to make stock “quickly” a pressure cooker like the Instant Pot is your friend. It will still take about three hours total, but that’s about half the time — or less — of an all-day stovetop stock session. The pressure works very well for extracting flavor from the bones and vegetables. The only drawback is that you’re limited by the size of the machine you have.
Conversely, if you’ve got plenty of time, but are looking for convenience, a slow cooker works well for holding stock at a simmer for hours on end. Some people find that it never gets quite hot enough to draw out enough flavor, however. And indeed we recommend letting it go a lot longer than the stovetop method — up to 24 hours. But it’s hard to beat for ease.
Rule 4: There Is No Recipe, Just Water on Top of What You Have (Alternately: Over-Optimization Is Your Enemy)
If you’re just trying to be the kind of cook who makes stock, wastes zero leftovers, and lines up those frozen stock cubes for sweet, sweet bragging rights, over-optimization is your enemy. Forget the second onion. Ignore our lovely and amazing cousins at America’s Test Kitchen and mute Kenji on Twitter. La-la-la-la perfect stock roasted at this temperature let’s test another way — cover your ears! Don’t go for perfect. Just do it.
You can roast some vegetables some bones, or not. You can scrape the chicken drumsticks your kids kind of picked at off their plates and delicately dump them into a slow cooker. (Reclaiming the remnants of their pickiness will feel like a moral win of epic proportions. Savor this.)
Whatever is in your pot is enough. Cover it with cold water by a couple inches. Add herbs if you happen to have them. (Ignore this if you don’t.) Bring to a boil and then reduce to a simmer. (Pro tip: When making stock with bones, a tablespoon of something acidic like vinegar or lemon juice helps break down the cartilage and makes the stock even richer.) Then you turn it over to your babysitter (slow cooker, Instant Pot, the oven) and go do something very non-kitchen-y. Feel relaxed and virtuous as you consider your babysitter turning your compostables into a liquid miracle.
You can skim the fat and other bits off the top, (a fat skimmer is particularly helpful here) but this isn’t, strictly speaking, required. Either way you’ll have a delicious, thick stock that you can use in soups, to flavor grains, to make sauces, or do a hundred other things with.
How long to cook your stock? As little as an hour (again better than water!) or for days, as long as the stock is kept at a safe temperature. If your stock is babysat by a reputable responsible babysitter, you can walk away and come back only when you are ready to deal with it.
Rule 5: Season Your Stock (but Don’t Let That Stop You!)
Stock is traditionally seasoned with a combination of herbs and spices called a bouquet garni. Some cooks like to wrap them all up in a cheese cloth or small bag, to get them all out again quickly without hunting around. Other cooks don’t bother — and strain out the herbs when they remove the other ingredients. Traditional French versions include thyme, parsley, peppercorns, bay leaves and even a clove or two. But you can switch up the seasoning depending on what you like, and how you want to use the stock! For more Asian-inspired fare, lemongrass and ginger are great additions. If you’re looking to experiment, try fennel fronds, or even juniper berries. Just don’t add salt!
It might sound fussy, but it’s worth investing a couple bucks in a small bag for holding herbs, peppercorns, bay leaves and any other small aromatics you might want to infuse your stock with. Crunching down on a stray peppercorn or picking a bit of bay leaf out of your soup isn’t the worst thing that can happen, but it’s not pleasant, and the solution is both cheap and easy.
And again — sense a theme here? — for the love of Julia Child, don’t let the lack of anything above stop you from throwing a leftover pile of chicken wings, ribeye bone, or all those half-dead onions in the corner of your kitchen into the soup pot. JUST DO IT.
On Salt in Broth & Stock
Throughout this course we’ve insisted that you put more salt than you might be comfortable with into your pasta water, onto your steak and chicken, and even onto your dried beans. In stock, forget that. Do not season your stock with salt.
There are two reasons for this. First: Stock is an ingredient, and it’s one where, ideally, we’re concentrating flavors, so even a mild amount of salt could end up being excessive in the finished product. And second, you don’t know how much of that ingredient you’ll want or need for future dishes. It’s best to wait and add the salt to the final dish. Don’t worry if the stock tastes “bland” — it’s not the finished product.
Level Up! Stock and Broth Pro Tips
Don’t let anything stop you from starting your stock. But here are a few extra tips for special cases.
How to Make Vegetable Stock Taste Amazing
Vegetable stocks are slightly different from bone-based stocks, as they don’t take nearly as long to cook (and they don’t have gelatin in them either, of course). In this way, they’re closer to broths, though they are as flavorful and versatile as any good chicken or beef stock.
In fact, vegetable stocks can have a much wider variety of flavors due to the sheer amount of produce available to use. Carrots, celery, and onion are starting points (and as we noted above, potatoes and cabbage or broccoli should be avoided), but if you’re looking for a “meatier” stock, try adding deseeded tomatoes (look for instructions in our pasta day video), mushrooms, or beans. For a sweeter stock, add squash trimmings, corn cobs, or increase the amount of carrots. And of course if you have a particular soup in mind, you can concentrate the stock on vegetables that you will use in the soup, to align the flavors.
When making vegetable stock, it helps to cut the veggies up into smaller pieces — especially since it cooks for a shorter time, this increases the surface area available, and will help the ingredients flavor the stock better.
The Last Obstacle to Becoming a Cook Who Makes Broth: Cooling It! (Don’t Worry — We Have a Plan.)
Okay, so once you’ve made your stock — roasted the bones and vegetables, covered them with cold water, dropped in the bouquet garni, and then read your favorite M. F. K. Fisher collection cover to cover while it simmered — it’s done! It tastes delicious.
Now what? First, you strain out the now-have-fulfilled-their-greatest-destiny ingredients with a colander or spider, and lay them to rest in the compost or trash. You’re left with a giant pot of very hot liquid, that needs to be cooled down before you can put it in the fridge. What do you do? Here are some options:
- Cool it on the counter: Pour the stock into several quart or pint-sized plastic containers (not glass!) and set them on the counter to let them cool, then transfer to the fridge or freezer. This is the simplest and least messy solution, though the quart jars especially can take a while to cool down on the counter, and putting hot liquid into a fridge or freezer risks warming up the milk or ice cream (or anything else in there) too much.
- Make an ice bath: Plug up your sink and fill it halfway with the coldest possible water (ice helps), then just pick up the entire pot and, making sure the water won’t spill into the pot itself, set the pot down into the water. This is a lightning fast method for cooling stock quickly — sometimes within 20-minutes to half an hour, depending on the temperature and size of your pot. If you stir the pot with a ladle, it will cool even faster.
- Make stock cubes: One of the best ways to store stock is frozen, in cubes. You can pour your hot stock directly into ice cube trays, let them cool on the counter slightly, and then slide them into the freezer. The increased surface area of the hot stock will help it cool much more quickly than when it’s in quart jars.
A Magic Trick for Storing Stock More Easily
There is one more trick that also happens to feel quite fancy and chef-y. But it’s one of the best ways to deal with homemade stock with a minimum of hassle. Stocks keep for a few days in the fridge but they’ll keep for six months or longer in the freezer. Since real estate in the freezer is often at a premium, one thing you can do for long-term storage is to concentrate the flavors into a smaller package, by reducing the stock, and freezing it into cubes. (These extra-large stock cube trays work really well, though any ice cube tray would also do.) This is similar to the idea in packaged bouillon — though not as extreme.
How to reduce stock: The easiest way to do this is to remove the bones and vegetables from your stock, then return to the heat at a boil. As the water boils off, the stock will get thicker and thicker. How concentrated you want to make it is up to you — depending on how long you want to let it go, and how much space you need to save. To use it, just dilute it again with water!
See there we just took the worst part of making stock out of the picture: lurching around your kitchen with a sloshing pot of hot liquid.
If You Learn Just One Thing Today…
OK, do you need to ask? Let’s say it all together: JUST DO IT. Take those scraps and trimmings and the bones you’re about to sweep into the trash, and sweep them into the slow cooker instead. Do it now, do it right after dinner, and if you’re not ready to put that stock away after 12 hours, turn the slow cooker back on for another 12 hours.
What You Don’t Need to Learn
What don’t you need to learn? Anything that would stop you from making stock, when you have a scrap of leftovers that can have a second life, simmered and squeezed into one more moment of nourishment. An example: Professional chefs at high-end cooking schools traditionally learn to “clarify” stock. This removes the fat and any small bits of leftover food. The goal is to get it “so clear you could read a newspaper through it” — it’s called consommé. But just as most of us no longer get newspapers delivered to our homes, we don’t really need stock to be clear, either. Especially as home chefs, where the real value is the flavor, you might as well leave those things in.
Our Favorite Gear
We have recommendations for basic gear on our equipment checklist, but here are a few more tools specifically for vegetables that can save time, and frustration.
5 Essential Stock Recipes
All of our assignments have three options, depending on how much time you have today. Do what you can; come back for more later!
15-Minute Assignment: Watch & Read
Watch the video and meditate on the five rules above. If you haven’t yet, watch the Crash Course video above. After that, read over the five rules above and think through them with your own life in mind: where do you get tripped up in making broth from your leftovers? What would it take for you to transform into a Potion Master, Soup Division?
45-Minute Assignment: Practice!
Do a vegetable broth science experiment: While meat stocks can take all day, vegetable stocks come together a little faster. So for a quicker assignment, read through this recipe and make a vegetable stock. Use whatever ingredients you have on hand or would like, but try to include some onions, carrots and celery, if possible (and avoid broccoli or cabbage). As the stock simmers, set a timer for ten minutes, and scoop out about 1/4 cup of stock, and label it. Repeat every ten minutes for up to 30 minutes, or as long as you have time for, up to an hour. Then strain the stock and cool it.
Check Your Work: Place the stock from various times next to each other and compare. Are there changes in color? Smell them: Do they smell different? If they’re cool enough, give each a sip. How much different is the final stock from the first?
2+ Hour Assignment: Stretch Yourself
Make chicken stock! If you saved your bones from our poultry lesson, now is the time to get them out! If you did not save them, or did not complete that lesson, you can purchase chicken. We recommend wings: These small but mighty chicken parts are full of connective tissue, plenty of tender bone, and a decent amount of fat — all of which result in a richer broth.
Choose one of the following chicken stock recipes: Stove top, electric pressure cooker, or slow cooker, and begin making your stock. You may choose to roast the ingredients (the carcass from the poultry lesson should already be roasted) or leave them unroasted for a white stock. However you flavor it, remember not to add any salt! (Residual salt from the roasted chicken is fine.) If you’re not using the pressure cooker method, try to simmer the stock for at least two hours, and up to six, or more, and pull out about 1/4 cup of stock every 30 minutes, and label it. Then strain the stock and cool it.
Check Your Work: Place the stock from various times next to each other and compare. Are there changes in color? Smell them: Do they smell different? Give each a sip. How much different is the final stock from the first? If you’ve made the pressure cooker stock, you will be unable to do this. But you might purchase store-bought chicken stock, and compare the flavor and color. Optional: Once you have compared the stocks, return all but a quarter cup to the pot and reduce it by half. Then compare the reduced stock, addressing the same questions.
What It Takes to Be an Expert Stock-Maker
Making stock is one of the few kitchen techniques that you can become an expert at almost immediately: It is very simple, very easy, and hard to get wrong. It’s a great way to gain a lot of confidence in the kitchen, and using homemade stock practically any time you would use water in a savory dish is a great way to begin making recipes your own.
Meet Your Classmates
You can also join your Kitchn Cooking School cohort in our Kitchn Facebook group, which is devoted to all things Cooking School this month.