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Stocks -- Straining, defatting and reducing Unit 3

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Please post your questions related to this Unit here --->>> Unit 3 Q&A

Unit 3, Day 2 or 3, Monday or Tuesday: Straining, defatting, reducing

At the end of your many hours of simmering, you'll end up with something like this:

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Straining

This is the only part of stockmaking that requires any actual effort. Unfortunately, the equipment we consumers have doesn't allow any shortcuts here: you're just going to have to pick up the stockpot and dump the stock through a strainer into another pot.

In commercial kitchens, stock is usually made in something called a steam-jacket kettle. This is a freestanding stock kettle -- a big one. The really nice thing about a steam-jacket kettle is that it has a spout at the bottom, through which you can drain the stock. You just put a strainer and a pot under the spout, open it up, and stock pours through, leaving behind all the byproduct -- the spent bones and vegetables -- for easy disposal. A steam-jacket kettle even has its own plumbing so it's easy to fill with water and easy to clean.

There are some consumer-level stockpots available that have spouts, but I don't recommend them. Too much can go wrong.

So, we use a regular stockpot. The best thing to do is get as much stock out and through the strainer as you can before you lift the pot. In other words, take a big ladle or even just a jar or other vessel, and transfer as much stock as possible to the receiving vessel. This will substantially cut the weight of your stockpot (the liquid is heavier than the solids, which is why the solids float), making it easier to lift and pour. If you allow the stock to cool for an hour first (or, see the ice-cube trick below) it will be easier to handle -- and safer.

My preferred method of pouring is to do so with the lid affixed slightly off center. This holds the big chunks of bones and vegetables back so as not to damage the strainer or fall outside the smaller receiving pot. I also advocate putting the receiving vessel in the sink, with the sink cleaned and the drain shut -- just in case there's a spill you can still recover all your product that way.

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Hold the lid on tight and pour, making sure you get as much precious liquid out as possible

Once you've poured off your stock, you're going to have quite a lot of meat remaining -- assuming you used a lot of meat to start with. This isn't going to be the tastiest or most useful meat, because most of the flavor and texture have been cooked out of it. But I like to pick it off the bones and save it for a variety of uses. It's great in fried rice, hash, tacos, and pretty much any spicy dish that calls for shredded or chopped meat. And remember, when you have stock, you can add a couple of tablespoons to most any dish to enrich and enhance it, so if you make hash, stir in a bit of stock -- ditto for fried rice. It makes a big difference. Also, if you have pets, they will very much appreciate this meat, which is salt-free and therefore especially good for pets.

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This is why I gravitated towards the soup bones with so much meat on them -- I knew I'd be able to extract that meat later

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Even after extracting the chicken breasts, there's a ton of meat left in this stockpot

Defatting and reducing

Once you're done straining your stock, the easiest thing to do is put the whole stockpot in the refrigerator (you can invert the lid if it's a close call on height). As the stock chills, the fat will solidify on top, making it very easy to remove -- this is also the best way to get almost all the fat out of your stock, because it's so foolproof.

If you can't fit the stockpot in the refrigerator, the next best thing to do is go with a few smaller vessels. Quart-sized plastic takeout soup containers work well, as do plain old bowls.

If you don't want to use any of the refrigerator methods, you can also defat by running several small batches through a defatting pitcher, or you can just go in with a ladle and try to get as much fat off as possible. These methods don't work as well as refrigeration, but they're effective.

To cool a pot of stock without using the refrigerator, drop a Zip-Loc bag full of ice cubes right into the pot. Repeat as needed. You can get your stock pretty cold this way. What you don't want to do, however, is leave stock sitting at warm temperatures (what, in food-service, they call "the danger zone") for too long. It's not that the stock itself will go bad, but, rather, that it is an excellent breeding ground for bacteria. In fact, if you want to grow bacteria, beef stock is a preferred medium -- laboratories traditionally used beef stock for this purpose.

Once you've defatted the stock (if you're having trouble washing the fat down the drain, remember to run the tap hot not cold), you officially have usable stock. But if you want to save some space, it makes sense to reduce all of it right away rather than storing it as larger-volume stock and reducing as needed. So, bring it up to a simmer again -- a gentle boil really, though not a totally vigorous one -- and let it reduce. You may have to skim off a few impurities from time to time, but if you've made your stock well up to this point there will be very little of that.

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Defatting and reducing our two stocks

How much you should reduce your stock isn't a question answerable by an easy statement like "reduce by half." It depends a lot on how much product you started with, and how rich your stock is in the first place. I don't consider it an exact science -- I will typically reduce stock based on my storage-space requirements and, later, when I'm actually using it, I can always dilute it to taste or reduce it some more in the rare instance that I need a true old-world glace (as in a 20x reduction). If you follow roughly the same procedures I have, you will get very good results from a 3x reduction: You would have strained the contents of a 16-20 quart stockpot into an 8-quart stockpot, and reduced that to 2-3 quarts. But really, that 3x reduction will be a heck of a lot stronger than a typical restaurant 3x reduction -- probably more like a 6x-8x restaurant reduction because our stock was so rich to begin with (restaurants use a lot of water in their stockmaking, relative to what we've been doing in this lesson).

Your stock, thus reduced, can be refrigerated or frozen. Ice-cube trays are excellent for making individual-dish size frozen cubes of stock. Zip-Loc baggies are very space-efficient. Reduced stock will keep in the refrigerator for a very long time, and in the freezer literally for years.

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An ice-cube-size chunk of frozen stock is ideal for making a quick pan sauce for two people

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Zip-Loc baggies are perhaps the most space-efficient storage vessel for stock because they fit in the nooks and crannies of your refrigerator or freezer; once refrigerated to a gelatinous consistency or frozen solid, there is no fear of leaks or spills; squeeze out as much air as possible and, if you're freezing the stock, immediately stash the filled bags in the freezer on their sides, horizontally (you can stack three or four on top of one another); when they're frozen solid, they can be stored vertically, essentially in sheets, which take up far less space in the freezer than a "slumped" bag.

Refrigerated stock, reduced as we've done here, will take on the consistency of Jell-O. This makes it convenient to handle. Some chefs cut their reduced stock into cubes for portioning purposes, though you can also just keep it in a tub and spoon it out as needed.

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Proper texture, after refrigeration, for heavily reduced stock

Beware, however, that stored stock is visually nondescript. In the freezer, after awhile, you'll have no idea if you're looking at meat stock, poultry stock, shellfish stock, brown sauce base, chili, or stew. Or is that frozen meatballs in tomato sauce? Thus, clear labeling is a must. It's also a good idea to date the packages so that, if you make new stocks before exhausting the current inventory, you can use the oldest ones first. Write on the packages -- especially the Zip-Locs -- before you fill them.

Three quick non-recipes with stock

Before moving on to technical sauces, it's worth looking at how stock can energize and improve a couple of simple, informal, home-cooked dishes. The point of this exercise is to give you ideas and demonstrate possibilities, not to give actual recipes. Once you start thinking about the dishes you can improve with stock, you'll be using it all the time.

Vegetable soup-stew

At any given time, I'm likely to have a bunch of unused vegetables lying around, headed towards rottenness. A little stock and a few other basic ingredients will transform these vegetables into a delicious, healthful, filling vegetable soup.

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The stuff from my refrigerator, much of it on its last legs

This is improvisational cooking at its easiest. This time around I decided to make a Thai-curry-style vegetable soup, tending towards a stew. But you could easily use different seasonings, vegetables, and chopping methods to create a unique soup. Here's what I did:

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1) Sweat some diced onions, minced garlic, and minced fresh ginger in the pot

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2) Add Thai curry paste

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3) Moisten with stock so the curry paste dissolves and the onion-garlic-ginger-curry-paste mixture becomes a rich base; I also added a little fennel, because I had some around; add a little salt

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4) Add the vegetables that take the longest to cook first, stir to coat with the base and let them cook a bit; add a little salt

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5) Add more stuff; plus a little salt with each new ingredient

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6) Add it all

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7) Top off with water and let the whole thing simmer until everything is cooked through but not mushy; add any additional necessary salt (in this Asian-style preparation, you can also use soy sauce instead of or in combination with salt)

This stuff stores and freezes very well, and even tastes good at room temperature for a portable lunch.

Braised anything

When braising short ribs, brisket, or anything else, the addition of even a little stock to the braising liquid has two benefits: 1) it improves the flavor of whatever you're braising, and 2) it provides the basis for a delicious sauce based on a reduction of the braising liquid.

For demonstration purposes, these are some short ribs braised in a mixture of water plus two of those reduced-stock ice-cubes.

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Even a small amount of stock transforms your braising liquid

To enhance that liquid, you could also add a fresh mirepoix (carrots, onions, and celery, plus herbs) and some red wine or beer.

When you're done with the braising, strain the liquid, skim off as much fat and as many impurities as you can, and bring it to a gentle boil. Keep skimming the crud off the top as it reduces. Eventually, you will have an amazing gravy that has been thickened with nothing but itself -- no roux, Wondra, arrowroot, or corn starch; just a clean meaty flavor. When the braising liquid is reduced to a nice spoon-coating consistency, and not before then, add salt to taste.

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The sauce will be so rich, you won't need to serve very much of it

If you're not familiar with the basics of braising, ignore this information for now -- you'll be brought up to speed later in the eGCI and then you can come back here for reference.

Egg-drop soup

This is a warming, nutritious version of egg-drop soup made with stock only -- no corn starch or other thickeners. You can use this soup as a base and add vegetables or meat, but it's quite good on its own as a light lunch or side dish.

The first step is to take our blank-slate chicken stock and convert it into something approximating an Asian chicken stock. This is accomplished by combining some slices of fresh garlic and ginger with a few tablespoons of our rich reduced chicken stock.

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We're going to remove these pieces, so their appearance is unimportant

At this point, add a pinch of salt.

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Top off with water, bring to a simmer, and simmer together for 5-10 minutes to flavor the stock

Next, run the stock through a strainer to remove the ginger and garlic pieces, or just pick them out with tongs or a skimmer. At this point you should add a little more salt to the stock -- enough to start bringing out the flavor.

Crack a couple of eggs into a Pyrex pitcher or any bowl from which you can pour easily. Whisk the eggs thoroughly and add a pinch of salt. Then, with the stock boiling moderately, start making circles in the saucepan with a whisk while drizzling in the egg. Continue this process until you have egg-drop soup. Taste and add any necessary additional salt, and you're done.

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Other stocks

With the same basic techniques we've discussed in these past few units, you can make pretty much any kind of stock. A few of the more commonly utilized procedures are:

-For a fish stock: chop your onions, carrots, and celery into small pieces because this stock cooks quickly and there won't be time to extract all the flavor from big chunks of vegetables. Use fish trimmings, bones, and heads -- about a pound per quart of water -- and for aromatics you may wish to add white peppercorns, bay leaf, and a bit of lemon peel. Simmer for approximately 30 minutes and strain. Fish stock freezes well, but whatever you don't freeze should be used right away.

-For a shellfish stock: a shellfish stock cooks just like a meat stock -- for a long time -- and can be based on lobster shells and bodies, crab shells, or any other crustacean shells in combination. It makes a wonderful base for shellfish bisque as well as for interesting sauces. If you're cooking lobster or crabs for dinner one day, save all the shells and roast them in the oven the way you'd roast veal bones for a brown stock. Add shells, onion, carrot, celery, and half a fennel bulb to the stockpot and cook, strain, and reduce it as you'd do for a meat stock.

-For a vegetable stock: saute onions, whole cloves, garlic, carrots, celery, and leeks in a small amount of oil. Add water and a bouquet garni of bay leaf, peppercorns, thyme, and parsley. Simmer for half an hour, skimming any impurities off. Strain, skim, and freeze or use soon. Don't simmer it too long or reduce it heavily because vegetable stock gets bitter easily. You can add bits and pieces of most vegetables, especially if you want to match the stock to a given vegetable in a dish, but avoid anything like cabbage or broccoli that gets that bitter/acrid flavor when overcooked. Add tomato paste or tomato byproduct (such as skins and flesh) for color and flavor if desired. You can also recycle the water from soaking dried mushrooms or sundried tomatoes for use in a vegetable stock (be sure to strain it, preferably through a cheesecloth or paper coffee filter).

That's the end of my portion of this lesson. In the remaining units of this class, Carolyn Tillie will take you from stock to sauce, with many examples both classic and contemporary. The great thing is, now that you have the basic stocks on hand, there's nothing complicated about making even some of the fanciest-sounding restaurant-style sauces.

Many thanks to Ellen Shapiro for her help with so many of these photos.

Good luck, and enjoy.

Please post your questions related to this Unit here --->>> Unit 3 Q&A

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