June 1, 1999

11 Min Read
Creating and Using  Stocks and Broths

Creating and Using
Stocks and Broths
June 1999 -- Culinary Connection

By: George M. Sideras, CEC
and Mickey McKee

  To outside observers, the abilities of a chef might be likened to those of an artist or craftsman rather than those of a technician. Upon closer inspection, however, it becomes apparent that the role is one more closely related to the tradition of the alchemist - one who, in ancient times, was thought capable of transforming basic elements into something of a higher order through technical wizardry. The art of culinary science is one that historically pays homage to the higher endeavors of the philosopher - using deductive reasoning with a creative eye and some sensory magic to achieve a harmonious blend of flavors. This combination of right- and left-brain creativity becomes no more evident than in the execution of one of the foundations of classical cuisine - the making of stocks.

  The process is steeped in culinary tradition and ritual, and no greater argument can be sparked between two chefs than that of the proper way to build and refine a stock. Long regarded as the building block of modern cuisine, in fact, the French word for stock is fond, which literally translates as "foundation." Without a proper foundation, a building may collapse, and the same holds true for any food derived from a stock. That is rule number one. The corollary is that an ill-prepared stock cannot be rescued, or made better, once it is incorporated into a recipe - no matter the skills of the chef.

  The proper technique for preparing a stock is subject to a great deal of debate and opinion. That very debate has yielded a culinary development process based on the chef's powers of observation and analytical skills, and tempered by the strongly held and differing opinions of his colleagues. Oftentimes, in our technically advanced society, we dismiss the knowledge that comes from experience, intuition and a keen understanding of ingredients and environment. However, one could make a case that the first chefs were indeed the first food technologists, and without question, oversaw the original research and development laboratories devoted to empirical study and the application of culinary philosophy.

The stock pot

  Stocks are nothing more than the results of an extraction process by which flavor and texture are rendered from animal and vegetable products. This blending of materials creates a liquid that can then be used as a flavoring and fortifying element in any finished product.

  Numerous factors contribute to the complexity of the process, although the beginning of any stock is an extraction of bones, meat, mire poix (carrots, celery and onions in a specific ratio), aromatics (herbs), acids and water. The process becomes a bit more complex after this point, however, with such steps as roasting of the bones to create a caramelized effect. This step adds flavor and color to the stock, but a point of controversy among chefs is how long to roast the bones.

  This is where the alchemy begins - the duration of the roasting time, the quantity of vegetables, the amount of water, the contents of the herb- and spice-filled sachet bag, and simmering time and temperature all affect the end product. The chef must rely greatly on past experience, as well as possess a clear understanding of raw ingredients and the changes they undergo in the cooking process. Experience may point to the need for tomato in a beef stock for the right acid balance, but trial and error surely lead to the refinements of concentrating the tomato (as in the modern use of tomato paste) and involving that tomato product in the caramelizing phase of bone roasting.

  Aside from these amount and ingredient variables, a few constants are universally followed. It is generally agreed upon that starting with cold water, using bones that are high in collagen, and maintaining a low simmering temperature over a set period of time are the ground rules. After these rules are observed, the finishing, or personalizing, process is wide open. The length of time committed to roasting bones and vegetables can significantly change the end product, and should be dictated by the intended application of the stock being prepared.

  A host of foods use stocks, from bases for soups and demi-glace to classical sauces and consommé. For each application, a different configuration comes into play. For example, in a soup, the intensity of stock flavor is less important, because soups are designed to present a multitude of flavors and act as pre-meal restoratives, stimulating the appetite in a general way. On the opposite extreme, a chef designs a consommé to highlight the flavor intensity and clarity of the stock from which it is made.

  A consommé begins with the clarification of stock by removing all suspended particulate matter. A beautifully translucent consommé results from the addition of egg whites - blended with ground meat and vegetables - to the stock, which is then simmered for an additional period of time. The "raft" of egg, meat and vegetables that forms on the top of the stock during simmering captures and collects particles of meat and vegetables, and helps to fortify the flavors and texture of the consommé. The result is a clear, sparkling stock that is further reduced and concentrated to form a very richly flavored consommé. This concentration process makes it very rich in gelatin; turn-of-the-century peoples thought this the perfect stimulant for the infirm and convalescing.

  The classical preparation of a demi-glace also concentrates flavor. This process reduces a stock to its essence, so that it becomes somewhat thick and viscous - intense in flavor and gelatinous in texture. There are two reasons for this reduction - one is to prolong shelf life and the other is so that, in its refined state, the demi-glace acts as a potent flavoring extract. By its very nature, it adds flavor without dilution or thinning of the sauce. This is extremely helpful to the restaurant chef in the preparation of a la minute sauces - sauces prepared to order for each dish. Here, the chef will use a stock reduction or demi-glace to adjust, build and flavor in the same way that a food technologist draws from his flavor libraries for added nuances of flavor or undertones to challenge the taste buds.

  Another addition to the chef's bag of tools is the ability to make and use broths. Broths contain many of the same elements as stocks, but differ in a key aspect - their flavor comes from flesh as well as the bones and vegetables used in stocks. Broths are generally cooked for shorter periods of time, but because of the added richness and protein of meat, they often yield a more broadly flavorful liquid. Who does not have a delicious memory of a chicken simmering on the stove and the resulting rich, wholesome soup with fresh egg noodles or dumplings?

  Broths are associated with the home cook, and are not considered to be the domain of the chef. This is undoubtedly because the origins of broths predate those of stocks. It is thought that once pots became available, the boiling of whole birds or pieces of meat became an acceptable means for using farm-yard animals that had outlived their usefulness. The home cook also realized that additional meals from the cooked flesh were an economy. Eventually the clever chef refined this last-chance procedure, and created a product that was less gruel-like and more elegant, due to the use of "less mature" ingredients. However, the chef also picked up on the fact that, while he could create a delicious broth, the cost of using whole muscle meats was prohibitive. While many people talk about stocks and broths interchangeably, it is important to understand the differences in cost and results.

Cataloging the classics

  Classical stocks are categorized into several types depending on their main animal or vegetable ingredient. The categories are beef, chicken, veal, fish (fumet), game and vegetable. Each group is further divided into subgroups of white and brown.

  A brief look at the creation of a fish stock, or a fish fumet, reveals a liquid with a character quite different from that of brown stock (where the objective is to create a big and robust flavor profile). With fumet, the idea is to obtain a delicate essence that will enhance and support a preparation of fish. The key to a fumet is to quickly extract the flavor and gelatinous qualities of the soft and porous fish bones, without allowing a bitter finished flavor to form.

  The fumet is often finished with white wine to add flavor and a slightly acidic edge, which is a perfect complement to the rich sweetness of cooked fish flesh. The bones in this case are not roasted, but kept color-neutral to preserve the subtleties of the stock. This fish stock, seasoned with a light mire poix and milder herbs, is used in a multitude of ways from creating a poaching liquor to forming the foundation of the classical French sauce, vin blanc.

  Vegetable stocks have not had much of a place in classical cuisine, but in recent years, with changes in lifestyle and continued interest in vegetarian cooking, they have grown in stature. In theory, a stock can be made out of virtually any vegetable, but there are limitations. Vegetables tend to be much more subtle in flavor, and require more effort to extract a suitable result. While a good product can be created, comparison with animal-based stocks is unfair.

  A vegetable stock can use any vegetable, save the starchy and bitter varieties such as those from the nightshade family (eggplant, tomato, etc.). Carrots, leeks, onion, celery and mushrooms all make good beginners, and work well in combination. The applications are the same as with other stocks, yet vegetable stocks are completely free of animal flavors and the body that comes from protein in bones. This results in lighter, more delicate liquids that infuse, rather than define, the vegetarian dishes they inhabit. The only caveat is that the addition of flavorful herbs and spices should come at the end of the cooking process, to preserve as much of the vegetable flavor profile as possible.

  In considering the applications of a brown veal stock, the complex flavors developed during the roasting and simmering processes are most important. Roasting veal bones creates a sweet, caramelized flavor and incorporates the all-important caramel/brown color. Also, the addition of an acid (in this case tomato, and possibly wine added later on) develops flavor and color to a further level. As the brown stock gradually builds, extracting flavor over a period of six to eight hours, the liquid becomes a more complicated essence of browned, protein, vegetable, herb and acidic flavors, and the body of the stock takes on a gelatin-enhanced, heavy texture that clings slightly. Once this full-bodied stock is achieved, a classical French mother sauce can be made - further enhanced with a brown roux - and then employed in the creation of such traditional and rich finished sauces as bordelaise, chasseur, and périgourdine.

  While these are just a few applications, many more modern dishes can be flavored with the inclusion of a well-made stock. Stocks are versatile tools in the cooking of grains, such as rice prepared with the hot-stock pilaf method for example, or arborio rice in risotto preparation or cous cous in Middle Eastern cuisine. All such dishes can be transformed from a simple side dish into a complex, center-of-the-plate entree with the use of a flavorful stock.

  Does every chef make his or her own stock? In reality, the answer is no. Ample evidence shows that most chefs utilize what the industry has come to know as "bases." Clearly, the production of stocks from scratch is a costly venture - both in time and in money. Necessity dictates, then, that most profitable organizations rely on manufactured bases. This does not mean, however, abandoning the practice of stock making. Beginning culinary students must understand the foundations of their profession, and have a point of reference to judge the quality and applicability of manufactured products that they may use in the future. And talented chefs know that when a scratch-prepared stock is made correctly, it is extremely difficult to find a manufactured product that can mirror that stock's performance exactly. Granted, industrial products are getting better all the time, but still, in the hands of a qualified chef, a well-made stock is a work of art.

George Sideras, a charter member of the Research Chefs Association and a member of its board of directors, is the executive chef of culinary services for Sysco Food Service, Cincinnati. He provides value-added services to Sysco customers by way of technical support, training and business solutions. He likes walks on the beach and puppy dogs, and holds out hope that world peace may be established during his lifetime.

Mickey McKee is a chef and senior consultant for Solganik & Associates, Dayton, OH, where she works directly with retailers and manufacturers in designing, implementing and merchandising products for fresh food programs. A certified foodservice professional, she is a frequent speaker at industry conferences, and often writes about fresh food preparation and foodservice issues for the supermarket trade press.

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