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When water is as good or better than using stock


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This topic about the cost of chicken stock got me thinking about how stock/broth has become a standard ingredient in many recipes. We are inundated in the US with ads extolling the major deliciousness of cooking things like vegetables and rice in stock instead of water. I have rethought my knee-jerk "add stock" reaction lately and have been enjoying the cleaner flavor of plain old water as the liquid in numerous applications. Thoughts?
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Perhaps the only food I regularly cook with only water with nothing else added is steamed rice.

One problem with water is that it is a solvent. It takes away flavour from anything that is cooked in it. The only way to avoid this is to make sure the water is not discarded (along with the flavour) and it is incorporated back in the dish somehow. Of course, if it was your intention to tone down the flavour of something (say, salt cod) then by all means use water.

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Marcella Hazan agrees with you for much the same reasons. In The Classic Italian Cookbook she includes water in her list of essential ingredients and praises it as "the phantom ingredient in much Italian cooking," cautioning against "an overindugence in stock, wine, and other flavored liquid."


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I have recently heard a lot of the *star/famous/top/celebrity* chefs extolling the virtues of using water to dilute a sauce or a braise that has gotten too thick or too reduced. I mean people "we" respect, like Bayless, Bastianich (Lidia), Pepin and such, not Guy and Rachael. I've been doing it as well recently, and I agree. It just smoothes out the flavors, and lessens the intensity, but without washing away the flavors you worked so hard to build. I still like cooking rice and orzo and couscous in broth (in certain applications), but for the final touch on a pan sauce or braise, I do think water is the way to go. You may then need to adjust salt/acid, but it will mellow that over-reduced stuff right out.

--Roberta--

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I think what got this in my mind was seeing either a blog post or a post here about doing simple vegetable soups with water to retain the delicate nature and true vegetable taste. I have been playing with that idea and also not using stock/broth as a default. Sometimes just more salt brings out the essence of the dish I am working on. I suppose what I took out of wherever I read it was that we may be muddling flavors that could be highlighted.

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Why not just do a remouillage? This second stock made with the same bones that have already been used to make a stock is a better option than water when you don't want delicate flavours overwhelmed by a full-flavoured stock.

Nick Reynolds, aka "nickrey"

"The Internet is full of false information." Plato
My eG Foodblog

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Why not just do a remouillage? This second stock made with the same bones that have already been used to make a stock is a better option than water when you don't want delicate flavours overwhelmed by a full-flavoured stock.

Oh I get that concept- but I was thinking more about when or why stock is really needed and is water not a substitute but a better starting point.

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I agree, for certain soups and sauces, I'd rather taste the ingredient than stock. I've had artichoke soup where all one could taste was chicken stock. In a lot of cases, I would prefer to have a stock made from the main ingredient of the soup, like carrot stock for carrot soup, or a complementary flavor like some onion stock in a miso soup. But, I have been places where everything tasted the same because they cooked everything in one stock. I have really become enamored of clean, pure flavors as of late and the easiest way to accomplish this is to not throw everything into the pot, so to speak.

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I can think of zillions. Veggie soups have been mentioned, and I'd like to put one in for water-cooked rice and grains, water as an agent for thinning down gravies and sauces, and water to cut milk in scalloping recipes. All of those are places where stock is extolled, but it's not necessarily better - you just get food that tastes of stock. I'm also big on steaming vegetables rather than boiling them, and in that case using stock would be more than a little silly. I've also seen it suggested to use stock as the liquid in some savoury breads, and I can only see that ending in tears.

I'm only really 100% behind using stock as a base for its own soup (ie chicken stock for chicken soup, as Lisa mentions) and in risottos, where it is striclty called for.

Elizabeth Campbell, baking 10,000 feet up at 1° South latitude.

My eG Food Blog (2011)My eG Foodblog (2012)

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Michael Rhulman makes a very good case for cooking with water in this post. I belong in both camps using stock when I deem it appropriate and water when not. Years ago when making a German short rib recipe (Beef Short Ribs w/Spiced Lemon And Caper Sauce) I thought I knew better than the instructions. Where asked for water, I used stock and the result was great. I had no stock available when I next went to make it and there was absolutely no difference in the quality of the dish, nor the flavour.

There is always stock in my house, but I no longer use it unthinkingly.

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Speaking of risotto, not everyone believes they should be made from a meat stock. A few years ago, the NY Times with Mark Bittman did a video with Mario Batali in the kitchen of Del Posto doing a demonstration of how they did their asparagus risotto. Batali said that they don't use chicken stock for their risotto, but instead use a garlic broth. He made quite a point of how good water can taste if properly seasoned. Ever since then, I've been doing my risottos (risotti?) usinga garlic broth and I actually agree - I like it much better. I find it is a little lighter and not as heavy in the mouth without all the gelatin. You already have that mouthfeel coming from the starch...

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Indian recipes (meat and non-meat) generally call for added water in my experience. Being a solvent is only bad when the dish is not meant to be diluted. (On the other hand Indian recipes that include meat generally want you to include the bones - if it calls for boneless meat, the dish may have been Westernized, and you may want to add stock for richness and texture in that instance.)

Somewhere that I can't find, Richard Olney rails against the idea that a meat stock (or indeed a vegetable stock) is required to make a good soup. I can't find the place, but there is this passage from the introduction to Soups, page 264 of Simple French Food:

"Plunge, for instance a handful or two of fresh and finely shredded spinach into salted, boiling water for 2 or 3 minutes and pour it over dried bread crusts that have been rubbed with garlic cloves and dribbled with olive oil; boil a lot of crushed garlic cloves with a leaf of sage and one of bay and strain the water over oil-oil soaked crusts; boil together practically any combination of vegetables, cut up, sliced or diced, add a piece of butter, and it will be delicious."

Along similar Mediterranean lines, Patience Grey's Honey From A Weed always seems to assume water, not stock, is the basis of soups and stews.

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Interesting subject. That's a mistake I made all too often way back when I was just a beginning cook. Figured if water was good, then something with flavor was better - stock, wine, milk, etc. It didn't take me too long to figure out that wasn't right. I tried making my mom's beef stew. She used water, but I thought beef stock would obviously be much better. And I'm sure there are plenty of folks that would tell me right now that beef stock is better for making beef stew. But mine was absolutely not as good as Mom's. It was good, but Mom's beef stew had a subtlety that mine didn't. In Mom's, you could also discern the flavor of the seasonings and vegetables - the carrots, celery, onions, potatoes, bay leaves, etc. - in addition to the beef. With mine, you got beef and that was about it. I didn't figure it out at first - just kept making it with beef stock. And although everyone else was happy with the results, I wasn't. I had to make it a great many times before I decided to try it with just water, and whatdayaknow... Perfect.

I've got a great many recipes that are that way. You want a flavor other than a strong chicken or beef. I have a Mexican vegetable stew with potatoes, tomatoes, onions and green chiles. Had to make that only once with stock to realize I had screwed it up.

Not to mention the obvious, of course, and that's cooking for vegetarians.

Yep, sure can't do without good ol' water.

Edited by Jaymes (log)

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About risotto, I know this isn't perhaps traditional, but, when I was in culinary school, on the day we made risotto, I decided to be a rebel and use water instead of the chicken stock. I doubled up on the herbs and cooked them in the water as a huge bouquet garni before starting. I got the top grade in class that day, and only after the grade was recorded did I tell the instructor that I didn't use the stock. -He didn't believe me until I showed him my pot of hot liquid.

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About risotto, I know this isn't perhaps traditional, but, when I was in culinary school, on the day we made risotto, I decided to be a rebel and use water instead of the chicken stock. I doubled up on the herbs and cooked them in the water as a huge bouquet garni before starting. I got the top grade in class that day, and only after the grade was recorded did I tell the instructor that I didn't use the stock. -He didn't believe me until I showed him my pot of hot liquid.

This sounds great. I'm gonna try it. Thanks!

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I find stock and dairy can be tricky to work together. Sometimes, they harmonize but other times, they clash and form a weird, chemically aftertaste. When I make polenta, it's usually half milk, half water as that provides a nice neutral flavor to absorb the stronger flavors of what I top it with. Occasionally, I'll use half milk, half stock if I want a more intense flavor.

PS: I am a guy.

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For me its water almost all the way. I rarely use stock for anything - just stock-based soups (ie chicken noodle) and the very ocassional risotto. Purchased stock isn't all that great, and homemade stock takes time, effort and money. Like others i went through a phase of using stock for everything, but ... the most delicious and clean-flavoured soups I make are with just vegetables, herbs and water. Rice cooked in water is always preferable to stock (unless it's hainanese chicken rice) and potato should taste of potato.

I will make stock from a roast chicken carcass and use it in a gravy or chicken soup, and quite happily use meat trimming as the basis of a sauce, but unless it's a very special and particular recipe, stock ain't stocked in my place.

And having read the different variations on risotto using mostly water, I'm keen to try those too!

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When I was testing for Twenty, Michael wanted me to do a french onion soup with water. I thought he was crazy because I've always used stock. The results from using water just totally blew me away. it was a much lighter, clean tasting soup than I ever expected. French onion soup can be heavy when stock is used. This soup had all of the flavour and none of the heaviness.

Edited by Marlene (log)

Marlene

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Practice. Do it over. Get it right.

Mostly, I want people to be as happy eating my food as I am cooking it.

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it depends on mood and whim, and what I'm making.

sometimes I will use plain water for soup (for example, sopa de ajo), sometimes Evian or Poland Spring in a pot of lentils and vegetables.

if I want a "clean" or "neutral" taste, I am more likely to use water instead of stock.

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When I was testing for Twenty, Michael wanted me to do a french onion soup with water. I thought he was crazy because I've always used stock. The results from using water just totally blew me away. it was a much lighter, clean tasting soup than I ever expected. French onion soup can be heavy when stock is used. This soup had all of the flavour and none of the heaviness.

That soup recipe is on his website and I'm planning to try it before the end of winter. His intro made perfect sense to me, and I love the frugality of it. Glad to hear its such a success.

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BTW, When I think of Ruhlman on water, I think of these:

http://ruhlman.com/2008/09/in-defense-of-w/

http://ruhlman.com/2007/11/thanksgiving-th/

And, as an aside, I'd like to point out that vegetable stocks can be made for pennies by using scraps, peels, etc. I freeze scraps until I have enough to make vegetable stock. But, for a lot of things, I like water.

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