All that is wet and delicious comes from bones and feet and fins -- if you know what you're doing. A poorly made stock is just a pot of dishwater, a dirty bath that would make a catfish twirl his whiskers in disdain. As Michael Ruhlman wrote in The Making Of A Chef, "If you didn't know how to make a great stock, if you didn't even know what a great stock tasted like, you were doomed to mediocrity in the kitchen, at best, and at worst, ignorant foolishness."
Yikes. I've been working as a cook for seven years, in every position from dishwasher to sous-chef but I've never had to make a stock. How I escaped this responsibility in restaurant after restaurant, I don't know. (Unless it's the heavy lifting. Filled to the brim with hot liquid and bones, your basic stock pot could easily accommodate me as well, with room for my doppelganger.)
So I'm a cook who doesn't know how to make stock. A mediocre -- perhaps ignorant -- fool. Not good.
If forced to do it week after week, ingraining the process in my head, I'm sure I could make the finest stock known to humanity. But this hasn't been the case. To correct this screaming omission in my training, I talked to some young, up-and-coming Toronto chefs, to take the best advice from what their years of hard work has taught them about stocks, from an ignominious bare-bones start to the illustrious, satiny finish.
Nathan Isberg is Executive Chef at Coca (opened recently, it's been creating quite a bit of buzz) and Czehoski on Queen Street West. This young, serious chef is showing the gourmands of this city that you don't have to be over-the-hill and overweight to know food: young and hungry is the new black. When I talk to Nathan about stock, he pontificates a lot, quoting Escoffier and Harold McGee. He talks about the science that goes on, but he also stresses the importance of treating the stock-making process with the respect it deserves.
"Don't treat it as a way to get rid of scraps," he says. This is news to me. One of the basic tenets of a professional kitchen is to never throw anything away. When butchering meat, poultry or fish you keep the scraps and use them in a stock.
"Why would you put vegetables in at the beginning? Veg stock takes twenty minutes to make, not fourteen hours," he continues. He salts his bones before roasting. "The salt helps draw out protein and helps ensure that there's the right amount of salt just naturally in the stock. Roasting bones adds more layers of flavour. Roasting is of primary importance." When roasting bones for chicken stock he adds a bit of honey when he seasons them.
Once the bones are perfectly roasted, he drains the fat and chops the bones to release the marrow. Nathan then pours ice over the bones to just cover. "The ice allows the proteins to bond slower in large pieces, thus resulting in a clearer stock. Cloudy stocks come from lots of small particles of protein."
hspace="8" align="right">He brings this up to a boil slowly, then lets it boil rapidly for about five minutes, skimming constantly. Then he puts the stockpot in a 300-degree oven overnight. Not a lot of what Nathan does while making stocks is new except for this last bit. I've never heard of cooking a stock in the oven. He believes that too much agitation goes on when a pot simmers on top of the stove all night. Interesting. The next day the bones are taken out of the pot and the stock is strained through a fine chinois. Then the stock gets refrigerated. The fat congeals; a cook removes it. And there you have it. Perfect stock to be used any number of ways -- many of which will require that the stock be reduced.
"When you reduce stock to the level most chefs do it gives too gelatinous a mouthfeel." Nathan continues his lesson. "Straight reducing makes it more intense, not more complex. When trying to make a stock richer, take 250 millilitres and reduce, then add another 250 millilitres, deglazing the pan over and over with stock. Out of sixteen litres of stock you'll get the same amount of flavour but way less waste."
Nathan also thickens his stocks with cornstarch to to. He reduces to where he feels the flavor is right, then finishes with a small amount of slurry.
"Escoffier was a huge proponent of starch-thickened sauces. His thing was potato starch but cornstarch holds better."
I'm surprised, having been taught that thickening with cornstarch is only done in cafeterias and Chinese take-out joints. It makes sense though; when you have the perfect flavor but not the right consistency, you don't want to fuck it up by continuing to reduce if you have the option of maintaining that perfect flavor by thickening without reducing.
Nathan tried to show me how to clarify a consomme, which he fucked up twice until we finally gave up. We are in his restaurant, Coca, in between services on a Monday. There are no orders coming in, no chaos -- it's calm, he has all the time in the world to clarify this stock -- so of course it's going to go to hell on him. Whereas if he needed to clarify stock for an order of consomme that some screaming customer needed five minutes ago while the board was filled with chits and the whole place was booming, he'd do it no problem while also doing five other things. It's amazing what you can do when you have to.
After the consomme debacle, Nathan drags me across the street to his other restaurant, Czehoski, where he cooks me up an order of steak frites with tobacco-infused jus. He uses Cavendish-blend tobacco to infuse the sauce for ten seconds before straining. "I left the tobacco one second too long, I think it's over-infused," he tells me. I laugh, wondering how one second can make much of a difference.
"I'm not kidding," he says. "Hopefully it won't be offensive."
Offensive it is not. Silky and loose, softened by some last-minute butter, this jus is wicked. The tobacco adds a peppery heat and undertones of vanilla.
hspace="8" align="left"> hspace="8" align="left">Next I'm off to Niagara Street Café, where Michael Caballo (far left) and his sous chef Tim Duncan (left) put out a small, ever-changing menu of local, artisanal finds five days a week, from a kitchen that even the most libidinous cat couldn't swing in.
Michael is only 26. He's been cooking professionally for seven years, and he's got talent and passion to spare. The boys send out some beautiful dishes that leave me in tears, but the ultimate is a Spanish stew with bonito and Basque peppers. In case some of you food nerds out there don't know what bonito is (or think it is only dehydrated tuna flakes) and want to lord it over your friends at dinner parties, let me fill you in. I had to ask Michael (I thought it was only dehydrated tuna flakes). The bonito I knew was nothing like the tender, unctuous fish he served me.
"Bonito is from the mackerel family, which also contains some species of tuna. It is very hard to get and when I do find it, three-quarters of the time it isn't of ideal quality, so I don't buy it. When it is good it is probably my favourite fish."
I'm in total agreement; I have never tasted a fish like this in my life. It's so good it makes me want to punch something. The stock is delicious. I think it's everything a fish stock should be until Michael tells me there is no stock in it at all.
"The point of this dish is that everything is cooked together; it creates its own stock." He added that he'd tried making the same recipe with stock instead of water in the past and that the stock overpowered the delicate flavors of the fish. We agree that many fish stocks come out stale and bland. I ask how he makes a perfect fish stock.
"I can't give you a recipe for the 'perfect' fish stock but I can give you the method I use," he tells me modestly -- a nice trait to find in an industry where cockiness is usually king of the castle. "Whatever fish bones I'm using, I like to first remove the eyes and gills, as they tend to cloud the stock. I wash the bones in several changes of water to get rid of any blood or impurities. Then I simply cover the bones with cold water, bring to a boil, reduce to slow simmer and cook for 30 to 45 minutes, just until the bones have flavoured the liquid. I don't add any vegetables as I feel these can impart a staleness to the flavor. If I desire the flavor of a certain vegetable I will add later when making the sauce."
Is a sauce always necessary? Does every dish in the whole world need a sauce? Michael thinks so. "The role of sauce is very important in putting a dish together. It is the common link for all the ingredients of a dish to blend with, it is the link that enhances, balances and moistens the flavors of a dish. I cannot think of a dish that I have made that has not involved a sauce of one kind or another. I believe it is essential."
In my current position as menu consultant at the Rushton, I'm asked to put a sauce with every dish I come up with. Sometimes I feel a dish doesn't need a sauce, that it has enough going on already. Martin Kouprie, chef and co-owner at Pangaea, agrees with me. "Not every dish requires a sauce, just like not every occasion requires a present."
I ask Martin what changes he's seen in his 20 years in the business with regard to the type of sauces we use. "Over the past twenty years sauces have become lighter-- 'natural juices' flavoured with a last-minute dash of fresh herbs or whipped butter. This has been the rage since the eighties. But, everything old is new again and I'm seeing a resurgence of 'old school' methodology. The difference now from the time of Careme is that the sauces possess a higher concentration of flavour but stay simple and true to form. They are used more sparingly to add balance, to enhance. This trend is exalting the sauce to the craftsman or artisan level once again, and is spawning renewed interest from students and journeymen alike."
Nick Drake, 28, and head chef of the soon to be opened Balsam Restaurant (in the old Peppino's on Queen East in the Beaches) tells me, "I feel that the role of sauce has changed because of the world we live in now. Diners are a healthier group of people who don't want the heavy sauces of the past. I feel that diners now prefer to be satiated rather than stuffed. Fruit and veg waters, flavoured oils and vinegars have long been a trend for that reason. I don't always use a sauce. I've created plates in the past that haven't had sauces. The issue with chefs though, is that the sauce is a vehicle for extra flavour and that attracts chefs, that possibility of extra layers of flavour."
hspace="8" align="left">Another young chef, Alex Tso, sous-chef at Chez Victor, got wind of my saucy queries and met me for a few too many cocktails to talk stock. Well, you know how these things go, you start off innocently enough, stock talk, then after a few drinks you end up licentiously discussing another liquid asset that would be criminal to let go to waste: braising liquid.
"Braising liquid is a different kind of stock, it's more intense, so better for sauces. It may not have the same amount of gelatin but it's meatier. We have a veal breast on the menu right now that needs to be cooked a long time or it's tough as hell. It's slow-cooked for 14 hours in water, a little veal stock, mirepoix and aromatics. The veal, while slowly cooking, is adding its own flavour to the liquid, so you've got to use mostly water or it will end up too strong."
When Alex interned at Chez Panisse in 2002 they used bones, meat and a gelatin-producing agent like feet when making their stocks. "They did that to get a more rounded flavour in the stock. Just using bones is too one-dimensional. Since my chef won't let me throw meat into the stock pot, I can braise some meat in that one-dimensional stock and end up with a perfect rounded flavour."
Speaking of one-dimensional: vegetable stock too often puts the blah in blasé. None of the chefs I spoke with really had any interest in talking about veg stock; it doesn't get used that often, if ever, in fine dining kitchens. We can use chicken stock in our soups, or if we want to make the soup vegetarian, deglaze with a lot of wine or other booze, add some water and finish with loads of luscious cream.
I needed a vegetarian chef to help me out with this one. There's a new restaurant in Toronto that vegans, vegetarians and just about everybody else is flocking to. Sadie's Diner is a simple little place serving brunch and lunch, a kitschy, cozy hidey-hole with fresh flowers, tattooed servers and a flesh-free menu that actually tastes like food, rather than "Meat is Murder" pamphlets.
Malcolm O'Hara is the chef and my go-to guy for any veg-head culinary questions. He doesn't believe in any one way to make a veg stock; he prefers to play around with different things that will come together to bring the biggest flavors to the end product. When making a butternut squash soup, he starts by making a squash stock of roasted butternut that he's drizzled with maple syrup. That gets added to a saute of mirepoix; he doesn't always stick with the two-to-one ratio on that either. He might use more onions, less celery, and roast his carrots to get a nuttier and deeper flavor from them. "I just go with what I feel, always keeping the end product in mind."
For a really good vegetable stock, check out an article from the October 2000 issue of Cook's Illustrated by Kay Rentschler entitled, well, "Really Good Vegetable Stock." The most forgiving of stocks and the most open to anything in the end is probably the veg stock. It can be tricky because the broth can end up watery and flavorless, but it's a good one to learn on -- veggies are cheap.
The head chef at Chez Victor is David Chrystian, one of the greatest chefs I've ever worked for. Here's a wonderful meditation from his book in progress:
hspace="8" align="right">One of my favourite things to do and as a way to acclimatize myself to a busy kitchen and a busy service ahead is to skim the veal stock. The stock is always simmering, fat and impurities rise to the surface and need to be skimmed off. The water slowly transforming into a rich broth, getting deeper in colour, more viscous with gelatin and more infused with meat essence. Each time I hover over the pot and skim I am aware of the transformation happening; as the amber colour turns to caramel and then chocolate brown I am reminded of time, hours spent cooking. My time in the kitchen that day, that year and the days and years to come. I am reminded as to how slow and careful the cooking process is. Never step on the toes of your ancestors, never burn bridges and always cook a stock as though it is your future. It is your foundation.
I'm lucky: I can learn -- from the best -- how to make any stock, practicing over and over again, every week, until it is a part of me, like the part of me that seasons a salad before tossing, can touch a steak to feel its color or can whip up an aioli without glancing at a recipe. A stock is the one of the most basic and important things I can make as a cook. It's the mother of most mother sauces. Without it there would be no jus, no demi-glace, no bouillabaisse and no chicken noodle soup. Screw that.
When not writing about food for the eGullet Society and Gremolata, or pillow fighting as 'Vic Payback', Ivy Knight works for a living as a cook in Toronto.
Photos copyright © 2007 Leslie Vineberg. Used by permission.