“Bone broth,” the latest and stupidest of food trends, gets a hard time, here and elsewhere. But really, that’s only because the term “bone broth” is a sequence of mouth-sounds the actual semantic content of which is, “Our educational system has failed.”
That is to say, the gripe is with the terminology, and the shameless and embarrassing trend-food mania it powers. The actual foodstuff the term “bone broth” purports to describe (while actually describing the nitwits who will pay nine bucks for a mug of it) is stock—and stock, my friends, deserves better than this shameful association with fad-diet hucksterism. Stock, dammit, is too good for this shit.
So, what is stock, then? It’s an infusion, rather like tea or coffee. In simplest terms, you put some stuff—most commonly meat or poultry bones, vegetables, and aromatics—in some hot water for a while, and the water extracts the fragrance and flavor and nutritional virtue from the stuff, and then you junk the stuff and keep the infused water. It is ancient and hugely important to cuisines all around the world, as the basis for soups and sauces and braising liquids and steaming liquids and so on; its culinary applications are too numerous for listing even in a column as godawful long and overstuffed as this one.
Importantly, stock also is—or will be when you prepare it in your own kitchen, instead of making reservations to help some craven, toque-wearing shithead use it to pay off his goddamn condo—cheap as hell. That’s the whole idea! Stock, like so many other slow-cooking techniques, originated as a way for very hungry people to wring some nutrition and flavor out of whatever sad, nigh-inedible shit—leftover bones and joints, fibrous vegetation, fragrant twigs, etc.—happened to be around. People who could choose, say, going and getting something else to eat over waiting for hours to see if a pot of hot water with a bunch of gnarled bones in it might magically transform into nutritive sustenance would never have come up with stock. The people who did invent it could not make some other choice, because they were poor. Stock is poor-people food. This is no small reason why the jerks currently selling it for king crab prices belong in hell.
It’s also fairly easy to make, if you want it to be. People have been tinkering and experimenting with stock forever (again, largely moved to do so by the necessity of getting as much nutrition and flavor as possible out of some pretty dire ingredients), and so have discovered that, yes, certain practices will make the stock clearer or more vibrantly flavorful or whatever—but, still, at bottom, you’re dumping a bunch of stuff in a pot of water and heating it for a while, and you can make a delicious stock without concerning yourself much with details beyond that. That’s not to say you shouldn’t do more, of course, but you’ve got lots of room to adjust things to suit your own shameful laziness, and that’s good. Because, damn, you are one lazy fuckin’ bum.
But, not too lazy to make some stock! Let’s make some stock. There are many different varieties of stock, whites and browns and fumets and seafood stocks and so on; chicken stock is one of the best, easiest, and most versatile, so we’ll do that. Then you can screw around with other types of stock and burn your damn kitchen down on your own time.
The first thing to do is to acquire a couple of chicken carcasses. The most pleasant way to do this is to roast a couple of chickens for eating (for the obvious reason that roast chicken is a perfect food, and this method gives you lots of it), and then save the picked-over carcasses for stock-making; you can bag and freeze them until you’re ready. The drawback, here, is that cooked chicken carcasses will not yield as rich or flavorful a stock as raw ones will, because a lot of its best attributes will already be in your stomach and/or rendered into the bottom of a roasting pan.
If you live near an actual, real-deal butcher shop—as opposed to a chain supermarket that gets its packaged chicken parts from some centralized chicken-sectioning operation—you might be able to score a couple of chicken carcasses just by asking if they’ve got any. (If you’re going this route, ask them for a couple extra chicken necks, too; including these in your stock will give it noticeably richer flavor and texture.) If you don’t live within reach of a butcher shop and also feel weird about saving the picked-over carcass of a roast chicken, you can use a whole, uncooked chicken for stock-making, so long as you don’t plan on eating that whole chicken, because simmering it for several hours will make it gross as hell. If none of these options appeal to you, even then, no, you may not use the discarded bones in the bucket of fried chicken you’ve had festering behind your TV since the goddamn Super Bowl. I mean just what the hell is wrong with you.
As you might guess, a higher ratio of chicken matter to water will yield a, uh, chickenier stock; if you’ve got room in your pot for more chicken and are inclined to go balls-out for a really strong stock, feel free to spring for some more chicken. Just make sure that, however much chicken you get, you’re leaving enough room in the pot to submerge that chicken a couple inches underwater.
Some more exacting stock preparations will instruct you to cut the chicken carcasses into pieces roughly the length of the chicken’s leg bone. This can help minimize the time needed to simmer all the flavor and nutrition out of everything in the pot by ensuring there aren’t any especially large pieces that will lag behind the rest; on the other hand, it maximizes the time needed to get the damn stock started, as well as the grossness of doing so, so feel free to skip it. The only circumstance under which you’d have to cut up your chicken carcasses is if your stockpot is too small to accommodate them otherwise.
Next, get the chicken carcasses started on their way to simmering. This is pretty straightforward: if they’re raw, give them a quick rinse under cold water to wash off any blood or other assorted nastiness; then, dump them into your stockpot, sprinkle them with a couple of nice big pinches of salt, cover them with the coldest water your tap can produce until they’re two inches beneath the surface, and set the pot over medium-low heat on your stovetop.
But food person, you are wailing, probably a bit more dramatically than necessary, what with the crazily helicoptering arms and the jumping up and down—I do not have a stockpot, but only this wee saucepan that I wear as a helm to the hobo battles down at the railyard. Well, shit. You are going to need a stockpot. Make it a tall, narrow one, if you can; the narrowness will minimize evaporation while the stock cooks. The good news is, a stockpot is good for lots more than just stock-making; you can use it as a steamer, or finally be able to cook long pasta without breaking it in half like a fucking schmuck. Find a stockpot! I hear your admirably trusting neighbor with the unlocked patio door has a lovely one and a long commute.
You’re bringing the pot along to a simmer slowly; the overall theme, here, is being gentle to its contents so that your stock doesn’t wind up with too much unsightly particulate matter floating in it. It should take a while to heat up to a state you can describe as “simmering” without feeling as though you are lying to yourself the way you lie to your parents about having a job; as soon as you can see the occasional bubble breaking on the surface of the water, lower the heat juuuuust a little bit and set a timer for three hours.
In the meantime, while your chicken is coming along in the pot on the stove, prepare some other stuff for going into the stock. You’ll want two or three big celery stalks, two or three big carrots, and a big onion or two; chop these into pieces, oh, maybe sorta roughly the size of the bottom joint of your middle finger. No need for perfect exactitude, here; you just want to get them to a state of vaguely uniform smallness so as to get as much flavor as possible extracted from them.
Also, gather together a bay leaf, a couple sprigs of thyme, a few parsley stems (just the stems, not the leaves), and some black peppercorns, and stick them somewhere handy, for later. If you want to tie this stuff up in a little cheesecloth purse—or just tie the bay leaf, thyme, and parsley stems together with some twine or wire or a bent paperclip—and then prance around your kitchen saying satchet d’epices over and over again in your most revolting put-on French accent, suit yourself, but it’s not necessary, and also deeply disturbing.
Oh, also! A cool thing to do, if you’re cool—and, I mean, you’re cool, right?—is to hack a nice, thick rind off a wedge of good Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and set this somewhere handy, too, for chucking into your stock later on in the cooking process. The only thing to consider before doing this is that it might make you feel like you’re committed to using your chicken stock for Italian-y stuff—but, again, being a cool person, you were probably going to use this stock to make chicken soup and serve it with acini di pepe and teeny little meatballs, anyway, so, what the hell. Or, [sigh], you can be a dour, joyless golem of a person and not put any good cheese rinds in your stock.
In any case, now your vegetation and aromatics (and cheese rind!) are ready to go. Place them somewhere near the stove and go do something for the next couple of hours. Really, it’s fine. Go see a movie that isn’t a bloated summer blockbuster, or take the dog for a stroll in the park, or watch four pitches of a Red Sox game. You may stay home and keep an eye on your stock if you wish, skimming away any particulate junk that accumulates at the surface, but it’s not really necessary, unless you’re planning on having your stock judged by a weenie at some point. As long as the water’s at a very low simmer, you’ll be fine.
Eventually, that three-hour timer you set a while back will beep or buzz or whatever; if you’d taken my advice and not gone to see the friggin’ 14-hour superhero epic, you’d be around to hear that timer beep or buzz or whatever, and you would add the celery and carrot and onion (and cheese rind, if you’re cool) to the pot, return it to a simmer, and set the timer for another hour. Alas, you are still watching Sergeant Deltoid and Tools Man team up to jump-kick justice into the world, and will have to attend to your stock in 2016, long after it has evaporated away to nothing, you damn asshole.
The chicken’s been in there long enough, now, that you may safely taste the stock without fear that it’s basically salmonella tea and will cause you to become dead. Taste it! Mmmmmmm. Does it need some more salt? Maybe it does. Too bad, because you can’t add any! The problem is, if you add salt to the stock while it’s simmering, you’ll have to stir it, to diffuse the salt through the stock, so that you can taste it again and know whether you added enough (or, heaven forbid, too much). And stirring will cause all manner of mushy chicken residue to circulate through the stock, which will make it wildly unappealing.
So, yeah, taste it, but don’t adjust the salt until later, after the solid stuff has been strained out of it.
When this latest timer goes off, add the herbs and peppercorns to the pot and set another timer, this time for 30 minutes. Maybe just hang around for this part.
Okay. So. The timer has gone off for the third time. That’s it! The cooking part is over. Strain your stock through a colander or a sieve or (best option) a colander with some cheesecloth laid in it to capture as much of the solid matter as possible. This will be a nightmare if you do not have another large vessel to strain your stock into, because, unlike with, say, simmered beans or boiled potatoes, this time you’re keeping the liquid and discarding the solids. This means you can’t just dump a colander into the kitchen sink and pour everything through it, or you will be pouring your stock down the drain and making a waste of all this cooking. You already did, didn’t you. Dammit. You never listen.
Maybe you’ve got a few big bowls you can use, or a large jug, or a pitcher, or even a clean vase; you only need to get the stock into standby formation for a minute so you can dump the solid stuff in the trash, and then you can pour the stock back into the pot if that’s your only big vessel. And hey, look, there it is, steaming and golden-brown and filling your home with the most wonderful and strangely familiar smell: your chicken stock.
If you want to use your stock right away, like by adding some solid food to it and serving it as soup, look to see if it has what strikes you as a lot of liquefied fat floating on its surface; if it does, skim that fat off as best you can with a spoon, and then proceed soupward. Now that the solids are out of it, you can season it to your liking.
If you’re not using it right away, cram that stock in the fridge and let it cool overnight; the fat will congeal on the surface and in the morning you should be able to remove it as a deeply gross and perversely fascinating puck of solid fat for which you will consider finding some culinary use before muttering, “No, that way lies madness” to yourself and frisbeeing it into the trash. After that, your stock will be ready for whatever use you’ve got for it. Again: Season it to your liking.
Hey, you made stock! You may use it in place of water to improve braises and sauces, to simmer or steam vegetables, or as the cooking liquid for rice, and so on. You may add some solid food to it and have a spectacular bowl of chicken soup; you may serve tortellini in it, sprinkled with some of that Parmigiano-Reggiano you hacked the rind off before. You may serve it hot in a mug by itself and hold it between your hands so it warms your palms and sip from it and be happy. You may experiment with it to your heart’s content.
You may not call it “bone broth.” Not if you want to be friends, anyway.
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Albert Burneko is an eating enthusiast and father of two. His writing appeared in Best Food Writing 2014 by DaCapo Press. Peevishly correct his foolishness on Twitter @albertburneko, or send him your creepy longform hate-missives at firstname.lastname@example.org. Image by Sam Woolley.