Stock Smackdown

It’s fall, and that means one thing.

Okay, actually, that’s dumb. Everyone says it and no one means it. Fall means a lot of things to a lot of people. At the Nest, my scarf menagerie comes out, I attempt to roast every food item I can get my hands on, I go out of my way to step or run my bike tire over crunchy leaves, and I begin– reluctantly– to wear socks. But whatever.
Fall also means CHICKEN STOCK.
As far back as my fall memories can go, there’s a very tall man in a high-ceilinged kitchen, standing over a very tall stock-pot and a mangled bird carcass, separating viable meat from mysterious poultry skele-bits. (Weeee, graphic!) If there was a roasted chicken for dinner the night before, Dad made chicken soup. If it was the day after Thanksgiving, Dad made turkey soup. The bird would spend some some time in the stockpot, thinking hard about what it had done. Often this reflection time started under a sturdy lid in a November garage– partly, I suspected, to get it out of the way while we cleaned the kitchen and called it a night, and partly so that the water could spend some extra time absorbing the bird’s flavors. The pot then returned to the kitchen, “got the crap boiled out of it,” and then once the stock tasted less like chicken-water and more like, well, stock, it was time to take out the bones & debris and add the vegetables or rice or pasta or whatever else we had lying around. Et voila: homemade chicken soup.

Chicken stock is one of the few things I can think of that is, categorically, inescapably, unquestionably, always– always, always, ALWAYS– better when it’s homemade. And I wish I could back this up with hard data from, like, my hardscrabble days of working at Super Steve’s Stock Packaging Plant or something so I could identify differences in the quality or processing of ingredients. But I don’t. I only know that the homemade result is superior. (But hey, you could also count this as a vote of confidence in your skills as a home cook, for I am 99% certain that you can do a better job than Super Steve and his broth-house).

“But gra, how do I even make chicken stock?? Don’t I need, like, fresh herbs and vegetables and powdered unicorn horn and the Pope’s blessing?” No gra. You need a chicken carcass and a pot. You need to barely cover the bird with water and you need to bring all that to a boil. Then you need to let it simmer away for as long as you’ve got, covered or not (depends on how much water you feel comfortable losing through the miracle of steam). Then you need to salt & pepper to taste. Then you need to pat yourself on the back.

(You could go all textbook and add vegetables and other things too, if you wanted, and they do give the stock a more rounded flavor. But truly, they are not a necessity.)

These days, I value a good chicken stock for several reasons (or beef, or, you know, because I’m a big deal: veal) (not really… I mean, I know it’s like, kitchen gold and that restaurants [and Bitten contributors] cook with it, but I just don’t know how I feel about making my own veal stock, considering my inability to afford a veal cutlet, and my vague ethical misgivings about veal in general. But that’s another post). But aside from its more obvious virtues as a soup base and deglazing agent/tasty reduction component, I think I can boil (hah! boil! see that? hah!) the rest of my admiration down to, I will admit, a rather folksy, homespun notion, but one that just makes sense and has stood the test of generations for good reason:

Waste not, want not. Now, you might be saying “uh, well, I don’t normally waste a chicken carcass because the day you see me roasting my own chicken is also the day I start making my own soap and, like, hah, using lemon juice as deodorant.” You laugh. But really, roasting a chicken well– and simply (though you, enlightened reader[s], probably know that the two often go hand in hand in the kitchen)– is not hard to do. There are a zillion and one sets of instructions out there– pick your favorite and go with it. The alternative is, of course, getting one of the (relatively) freshly-roasted ones from the grocery. Anyway, at the end of both of these paths, you will stand before a lovely roasted bird with two things to gain: tasty meat (that you can and should save and/or freeze) and SHEER POTENTIALITY. By using the parts for priceless stock, you not only save yourself the money you’d otherwise be throwing away on the pathetic excuses for “broth”/”stock” at the supermarket, you’re truly using the whole item you purchased in the first place. And you’ll get a quick anatomy lesson. And your whole house will smell lovely.

Remember: chicken stock comes from chickens. Not a box. So have at it! You’ll be glad you did and you probably won’t ever go back to the box*.

*But if, heaven forbid, you do find yourself thinking longingly of boxed stock, maintain at least a modicum of self-respect and see if you can’t get your hands on this brand. Admittedly… it is pretty damn good in a pinch.

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