Stock cubes are to homemade stock what packet soup is to homemade soup. I hate foodie snobbery so if you don't have homemade stock and some recipe's insisting on it, whatever, use a stock cube - but that is the difference. A considerable one. (Whereas the difference between fresh tomatoes or tinned is generally very minor. Provided you're making a sauce, not salad.) Some recipes are very insistent on homemade stock - the recipes that really need it are the ones that rely heavily on the flavour of the liquid, eg risotto, a broth, French onion soup, without much else (as opposed to bolognese, which has tons else). But sometimes the recipe writer is just demanding, so if they're also insisting that something has to be pancetta and bacon won't do, or that you must specifically use gorgonzola and no other blue cheese, then take their advice with a pinch of salt. They are living in their own, rainbow-filled unicorn-populated magical ideal world. Bless.
ALL THAT SAID - stock is very, very easy to make, especially if you don't forget about it and nearly burn the house down. Three times, people. Three times.
The first time, it was a shared house, and we all came home from work to find the door bashed down, resealed by the police, and blackened walls and a terrible smell of burnt bones in the kitchen. The neighbour's au pair had heard the fire alarm and called the fire department. The pot had melted to a singular blob of metal. The second time, I remembered while we were at the doctor's, and Will went racing back, to find big burly fireman in yellow already hosing down our kitchen - the neighbours had let them in over the garden wall. The smell wasn't too bad, but the pot was a blob of metal. I missed out on the firemen. The third time, I remembered while we were at the shops, and Will went racing back - yes, bit of a theme here, but to be fair both times I was in no condition to do more than gently shuffle, though obviously I'm very much to blame for the rest - and switched it off before it caught fire. The pot was still whole, but ruined. For my next birthday, what did he buy me? A giant stockpot! He reasoned that with a big enough pot, I could add enough water that it wouldn't boil down to nothing! Talk about trust. Since then, I've left my iPod next to the stove whenever I make stock. I can easily leave the house without my keys, but never without my iPod. I'm happy to say I haven't burnt anything down / left stock boiling since.)
All stock is the same principle: put stuff in a pot, simmer it gently for ages (without leaving it on while you're out the house), then drain it. I mostly make chicken stock. First off: roast a chicken! Eat a roast chicken! Always a good start to a recipe. You'll then need...
- the chicken carcass, not picked clean
- an onion or two
- some peppercorns, if available
- some bayleaves, if available
- any vegetable peelings you have to hand - so save the vegetable peelings from that lovely roast chicken meal you made
- a good-sized pot
- plenty of water
You could use the bone from a beef joint instead, or just vegetables, as you wish. If vegetables, generally onion, celery, and carrot are a good start - not potatoes or any root veg, because they have too much starch and you might make glue instead.
I've pulled the rest of the meat off the carcass, but not quite all of it, so there's bits left for the stock.
Quarter some onions and throw them in - one or two, as you wish. Pull off the dirty outer skins, but you can leave the clean inner skins on. They add a lovely golden colour to the stock. Plus it's less hassle.
Toss in some bay leaves, if you have them...
And some peppercorns. Probably about a teaspoon or so. The bay leaves and peppercorns will help flavour the stock, but they also make it smell nicer when it's cooking. Finished chicken stock is delicious, but without these two little helpers, I find the smell when it's simmering a bit overpowering. (Not a fan of poached meat, even though this has already been roasted.)
Leftover celery-stalk heads and leaves - we had a cheeseboard after the roast chicken, which is where the rest of the celery went. Celery's great if you have it; if not, don't stress. Carrot peelings would also be good here. Not potato peelings.
Cover everything very generously with water. Lots of water; don't worry if it's too much, you can reduce it down later. You want to be able to simmer this long time without anything catching fire. (Erhemm.)
Bring it fast to a nice rolling boil (remember the golden rule: heat fast, cool fast, to keep the invisible baddies away) and then turn the heat down, cover and simmer.
And simmer, and simmer, and simmer. Very low heat, as long as you can. I'd say at least a couple of hours, I know Delia thinks this takes 20 minutes but that's crazy. Actually Will left a stock on overnight a month ago... happily, he was using the big stock pot he bought me, and we just got a wonderfully rich stock. (And importantly, it wasn't me what done it.)
When you think all the tastiness had pretty much departed the objects and gone into the liquid, drain it (with a colander) into another pot, and squeeze the last of the liquid out of the mushy mashy mix that remains. Chuck the mushy mashy mix, or compost it if your council accepts meat in the compost, or compost it in your own compost if you're not using meat. Or bury it in the garden. We feed odd things to the sage bush, which is rapidly becoming a triffid.
Depending on how thick the stock is, you can reduce the liquid still further. Here's the one that got a gentle overnight simmer by accident, to make the most extraordinarily rich chicken stock.
I usually get about 1 litre of rich stock from 1 chicken carcass. If you're nervy about how much to reduce it, you could mark the 1 litre line in your pot (pour a litre of water into the pot to see where that line is) and reduce it until it reaches the line. And then I freeze it in 500ml containers (actually 600ml containers not quite filled up). You could also reduce it even further, until it's almost jelly-like, and freeze it into ice-cubes.
Use neat rich chicken stock for...
- rich winter stews
- rich autumn / winter risottos
- heavy soups which can take a stronger flavour, eg potato soup
- French onion soup
- aubergine, olive and sausage stew (mmmm... coming soon!)
- lighter soups and risottos, especially ones using spring vegetables
- more summery stews
- bolognese, which already has plenty of flavourful things going on