Flavor, the basis for why we eat what we eat! Think about it. We like the tastes of the foods we eat. In fact we like some of those flavors so much (thinking about chocolate) that it can cause us to have weight and other problems. Of course the biggest flavoring agents in our western culture are the basic Salt and Pepper found on most every table of any restaurant in the whole western hemisphere.
Salt is a major ingredient in too much of our food, but its it used widely because it bring out more flavor in things that would otherwise be very bland. Today I want to look at some ways to increase the flavor of your cooking with out necessarily having to add more salt.
Think back over the last year and remember the best meal that you ate. I am guessing that for the US audience that the “Thanksgiving” meal would be close to the top of the list. The day has gained a reputation for being a day where we usually eat too much of many foods. One of the highlights of the day is usually the turkey and a huge portion of mashed potatoes and gravy. I wont make you feel guilty about that extra portion of pumpkin pie with the big dollop of whipped cream.
The care taken to put that meal together means a day in the kitchen roasting the turkey and boiling the giblets to make a gravy out of the drippings of the turkey when it finishes. That gravy is just outstanding and you will have to wait for next year to have another taste just like that. Well you don’t have to wait you can do this any day of any week that you want.
I am talking about food stocks or soup bases here, but not the kind that you find in the store. Stocks are the way you can intensify the flavors you add to your foods. For beef dishes, or chicken dishes, for stir fried dishes or even your vegetarian combinations the addition of a stock will add an extra zing to your cooking.
Food stocks are used in most commercial kitchens, they take a long time to make because they need to be cooked very slowly to get the maximum flavor out of the ingredients. Typically the bones of beef or chicken are roasted first to heat the bones thoroughly and then put into cold water with the vegetables and very slowly simmered for up to 48 hours in some cases. I know this sound daunting and highly impractical for the average homemaker/family cook, but it can be simplified with great results.
You will want to pick a time when you expect to be around the house for a day so you can keep an eye on things. For the vegetarians who may have continued to read to this point; this will work for you as well so read on.
The end result we are looking for is a concentrated cube of vegetable, chicken or beef flavor which is made by making our stock and reducing it down to a few quarts of concentrated flavor which can be cooled, cut into cubes, put into freezer bags and then frozen for use any time you need to make a sauce or enhance the flavor of your cooking adventures. I have put three recipes below, describing three kinds that you can make. A stock can be made out of any type of bones, which also means that fish and shrimp and even lobster shell are not excluded. For fish stocks you just skip the roasting and go straight to the simmer.
A note before we begin. Some vegetables, just like some herbs do not combine with others that well in that they are so strong in their own flavor that they overpower the other vegetables in the mix. I would recommend that you avoid using bell pepper in any stock unless you want a distinctly pepper flavor; you wont taste much else if you do.
The classic stock base for all stocks is called “Mirepoix”.(“meer-pwah” HatTip – indepthinfo.com ) This is simply celery carrots and onion, that have been roughly chopped. You can use the whole onion, skin and all. The whole celery stalk and just wash the carrot you don’t need to skin it.
For the vegetarian stock you can add other vegetables like parsnips, turnips, squash, spinach and cabbage. I would also recommend a small can of tomato paste to increase the thickness of your stock in the final stage. The meat stocks release collagen proteins which turn to gelatin thickeners. Vegetables have no collagen proteins, ( some vegetables contribute to helping our bodies to produce this necessary muscle/cartilage protein in our own bodies*), so the paste helps to thicken the stock in the final reduction.
The official ratio is supposedly 2 to 1 onion to carrot/celery, you can do what you want. Remember that carrots tend to have more natural sugar so the more carrot you use the sweeter the taste.
So Lets Begin
You will need a large pan to roast your ingredients, a disposable turkey roasting pan will work great. You will also need a 2-3 gallon stock pot for simmering.
6 lbs onions
3 lbs celery
3 lbs carrots
1 12 oz can tomato paste
Rough chop your vegetables and put them into your roasting pan. Use a rubber spatula and take the can of paste and smear it onto the vegetable mixture. Put the pan into a hot oven 375-400 degrees for 30 to 45 minutes. You want this mixture to slightly caramelize so don’t worry if the tomato paste turns a little black in spots, the sugars in the veggies will be released. Next transfer the mixture to the large pot and cover it with 1-2 gallons of water. For vegetable only stock you could add other leafy veggies and some mild herbs like thyme or savory at this point (spinach, zucchini, turnips etc.). Turn the stove to high to get it to a boil and then reduce heat until it is just trickle boiling. Now you will want to let this boil for at least a couple of hours. If the water level gets too low you can add another quart or two to keep the veggies covered.
2-3 hours is all you will need to extract the flavor from the veggies. Next you will next you will need to strain this into a smaller cooking pot. You can use a chinois (china cap) or a fine mesh wire strainer to drain just the liquid of the stock from the vegetables. You have now extracted the flavor, the veggies themselves are used up and can be thrown away or composted. You should have a gallon to a gallon and a half of stock at this point. Now, it needs to be put back on the stove and reduced by 50% of the total volume. This step concentrates the intensity of the flavor.
Next pour your stock into a couple of large baking dishes. I have a couple of 2 x 10 x 14 Pyrex baking dishes that I use, which will hold 3 quarts between them. You want the liquid depth to be about an inch or slightly more. Let it cool on the counter for an hour and then refrigerate it until it is cold. It will thicken up as it chills.
The final step is to take a simple table knife and cut the paste up into small 1 x1 x 1 squares. Vegetarian paste will not be as easy to separate as the meat stocks due to lack of gelatin so you may need to put the dish into the freezer for an hour or so to get it firmer. Now you can use a square turning spatula to lift out your pre-cut “flavor” cubes and put them into small (Pint-size) zip-lock freezer bags. Each cube will flavor at least an 8 oz. cup of water for your cooking purposes. Your concentrated flavor goodness is ready for your next cooking project. Add them to stir-fries, use them in soup, or make a rich veggie gravy. These will keep in the freezer for a very long time.
Basic Beef Stock:
(Disclaimer) I don’t want to compete with the Larousse Gastronomique or Escoffier on the subject of stocks. You can find many subtleties on the whole art of making espagnole, demi-glace and fumet’s in the pages of their works. This is just a simple version of basic stocks which produces excellent flavor and the best part is that you know exactly what you put in it so there is no mystery as to the ingredients. This is not strained 5 times with a sieve or clarified with egg whites to live up to some purist standard. It simply tastes good and works to add excellent flavor for your cooking needs.
You will need:
10 lbs Beef or Veal knuckle bones
5-7 lbs yellow onions quartered
3 large stalks of celery 1” dice
4 lbs carrots unpeeled, 1” dice
1 12oz cans tomato paste
2-3 cups red wine (optional)
2 ounces fresh thyme for more flavor (Stem and all)
A large roasting pan and a large stock pot for boiling
Turn your oven on to 400 degrees. Put all the bones into the roasting pan along with the onions. If you have room you can add the carrot and celery, but it is not necessary. Put this into the oven and cook it for 30 to 45 minutes. You want the bones to begin to soften in the marrow part and the vegetable to caramelize a bit. Next take your pan out and smear the bones with the tomato paste, this adds color and a slight tomato hint of flavor to your stock. Put it back into the oven for 20 more minutes, the paste may burn and turn black but that is ok.
Next take the pan out of the oven and transfer the ingredients to the stock pot. Set the roasting pan aside, if it is disposable you will not be able to use it for the next step. Cover your your bones and veggies with cold water and set it on the back of the stove on medium heat. Reserve the red wine to use in de-glazing the roasting pan. You are looking for all the flavor you can get so the next step is to de-glaze the roasting pan.
With a disposable pan this might be difficult, but it is doable if you are careful. The challenge is that the whole thing is flexible and this makes it tough to use a scraping motion to loosen the encrusted puree and albumin on the bottom of the pan. To start put the pan on top of an accessible burner, make sure that you will be able to slide the pan back and forth with-out running into anything else. (as in your stock pot)
Now you want to start with one corner of the pan directly over the heat coming from the burner. Turn it on and start heating, pour the red wine into the roasting pan and take a basic dinner fork and begin to stir on the bottom of the pan in a circular motion to loosen any crust which formed during the baking. the wine, the heat and the stirring will quickly begin to dissolve that crust. Do this for the entire bottom of the roasting pan, working only on the place where the pan is directly above the burner. Surprisingly it will clean up the crust very quickly as you stir using the side of the fork in a scraping motion. When you have finished loosening the entire bottom of the roasting pan you can now pour the entire contents into your stock pot. Don’t worry about the fat which is also present, we will be getting rid of that later in the process.
For a good beef stock it should take at least 24 hours. The good news is that it is a set it and forget it process. As the stock comes to a boil, turn it down to the lowest setting that will still show a trickling boil. Check it every three or four hours and if necessary add some more water to insure that everything is covered. In 24+ hours most of the gelatin (Collagen) will be removed from the bones.
The next step is to strain this into a smaller pot. The easiest way to do this is to use a pair of tongs to get all of the bones out first. Throw these away as they have been extracted and are no good even for your dog. Now you can carefully pour the rest into a chinoise (Chin Wah=China Cap)or a large wire strainer. The end result is just the liquid that you are looking to save. This will now go back onto the burner to reduce; ideally you will have a gallon of liquid stock left when you finish reducing.
At this point you could strain the stock one more time through a couple layers of cheese cloth to remove any specks of tomato crust although it is not really necessary, they don’t harm the taste. Now pour your stock into baking dishes at an 1.5”depth and refrigerate. Of course as it cools all the grease will float to the top and rest there. This can be easily scraped off with a rubber spatula when it is cold. With the grease gone now you simply cut it into squares1 x 1 x 1, lift them out with a square metal spatula, put them into small freezer bags. You now have a years worth of beef flavor cubes to use in any place where you want to enhance beef flavor.
For chicken stock the process is essentially the same as the beef above with just a few exceptions. Beef bones are easy to find; chicken bones are not. So instead, just buy inexpensive chicken parts like drumsticks, thighs and wings. Three or four large value packages will work just fine for your purposes. Also tomato paste is not a useful flavor to add to the more delicate chicken stock. Fresh thyme and savory are excellent additions if you like those herbal flavors
Just follow the steps for the beef stock above. With chicken stock you will not need to cook it for more than 8 hours, nor is it necessary to de-glaze the pan unless you want to do so to grab every last bit of flavor. If you do de-glaze the pan use white wine or plain water instead of red wine the rest is identical.
This is probably more than you wanted to know about soup bases and stocks, but having read this far; now you do know. I thank you for taking the time to do so and I welcome any comments and experiences you would like to share about soup bases and food stocks.
*Collagen is a group of naturally occurring proteins. In nature,
it is found exclusively in animals, especially in the flesh and
connective tissues of mammals. It is the main component of
connective tissue, and is the most abundant protein in
mammals, making up about 25% to 35% of the whole-body protein
content. Collagen, in the form of elongated fibrils, is mostly
found in fibrous tissues such as tendon, ligament and skin, and
is also abundant in cornea, cartilage, bone, blood vessels, the
gut, and intervertebral disc.
In muscle tissue it serves as a major component of endomysium.
Collagen constitutes 1% to 2% of muscle tissue, and accounts for
6% of the weight of strong, tendinous muscles. Gelatin, which
is used in food and industry, is collagen that has been