The best homemade stock. Guaranteed.

Quite the promise there in the title, isn’t it? And this from a guy that doesn’t have much experience making or using stock. But I have done a little bit of interweb sleuthing, and a small bit of experimenting, and what I am about to report is true.

If you are willing to take a little bit of time, you will NEVER have to search the bottom shelf at the grocery for your favorite low-sodium chicken or vegetable or beef stock ever again.

Now, you might want to keep a container or two of the store-bought stuff in the back of the pantry, because emergencies do happen, but with a little bit of planning you should be fully stocked with the homemade stuff in no time. And, for those watching sodium intake, our batch will be the lowest sodium.

The trick to the whole process is a pressure cooker. That’s right, that funny looking pot that your parents have in the cupboard and you remember seeing as a kid. The pot with the weird weight, wiggling on the top. The same pressure cooker that you didn’t register for when you were engaged because you figured there was no point. Well, I’m here to tell you, there is a point. And homemade stock is just the beginning. A pressure cooker, you see, changes the physics of cooking. And anything that can change physics without needing 1.21 gigawatts of energy and disrupting the space-time continuum, is alright by me.

At its core, the pressure cooker will allow its contents to cook at a higher temperature than boiling, which is 212F. Most standard pressure cookers create 15psi, which creates a lot of steam and a cooking temperature of around 257F, I think. The result is a remarkable extraction of flavor from whatever is in the pot, and a much reduced cooking time. 45 minutes for stock from a pressure cooker, versus 4-8 hours in a traditional stock pot.

If you are not familiar, pressure cookers come in a variety of sizes, ranging from 4 quarts to 10 quarts, generally in 2 quart increments. They aren’t the cheapest piece of kitchen equipment, but I’m willing to bet that after cooking a couple of meals and making a couple batches of stock, you’ll never question the price. Also, Christmas is coming, so maybe it’s something to add to your wishlist. I would imagine a 6 quart cooker will do for most everyone’s needs, but if you have a really big family, maybe 8 quarts is better. If it’s just 2 of you, or just you alone, 4 quarts would probably get the job done. Rachel and I registered for a “pressure cooker 2-pack”: 4 quarts and 8 quarts.

For your most flavorful batch of stock, you will need 2 things. More time and more chicken parts. By more time, I mean 45 minutes to an hour. If you don’t have 60 minutes or you need the stock in a hurry, cook it for less time. My guess is, you’ll see results starting at 20 minutes. It will still be better than store-bought, but not as good as 45-60 minutes under pressure. More chicken parts is just what it sounds like. If you’ve made a couple attempts at cooking a whole chicken, you should have a couple of backbones and possibly a leftover carcass or two. If you’ve been saving these in the freezer, today is the day to let them loose. In addition to your backbones and carcasses, you will probably want to add some actual chicken meat. Bones will provide a good amount of gelatin, but having some actual meat in the pot will provide the depth of flavor and quality that we are after. If you check at your local grocery, you will likely be able to find packages of chicken necks and backs, as well as livers and hearts. Trust me, I’m not ready to eat them either, but they will do wonders for your stock. And they are cheap. If you don’t see them in the grocery meat cooler, ask the butcher. Your other option is to add chicken wings. If you do add the wings, cut them at the knuckles so there is more surface area. For myself, I would rather eat chicken wings while watching football, but, to each their own.

To make the actual stock, you will just need a couple of things in addition to your pressure cooker and chicken parts. A carrot, some celery, an onion, (referred to as mirepoix), some herbs and some water. Parsley, thyme and bay leaf are the most traditional herbs. If you want to be particularly fancy, you can make a bouquet garni. If you’re feeling less fancy, or don’t want to buy kitchen twine, you can just add the herbs loose.

The process is then quite simple. Roughly chop the carrot, celery and onion. Add them to the cooker with the chicken and herbs. Cover with water. You don’t have to measure the water, just don’t overfill your pressure cooker. Check the user manual to see what is recommended. From here, lock down the lid on the pressure cooker and place the weight on top. Heat on high until the pressure cooker locks, then turn down the heat (usually between 3 and 4 is good) until the weight on top jiggles back and forth constantly. The jiggling weight is the key. This is your “simmer”. Let it jiggle for about 45 minutes. After 45 minutes or so, remove the pressure cooker from the heat and let the pressure dissipate.. This happens naturally and will take around 15-20 minutes. If you’re in a rush, or are impatient like me, you can run the pressure cooker under cold water. Regardless of the method you choose, DO NOT REMOVE THE WEIGHT FROM THE TOP OF THE PRESSURE COOKER UNTIL THE PRESSURE IS RELEASED. Once the lid “unlocks”, you can remove the weight. What you should have inside is the most flavorful, golden chicken stock you’ve ever made. Strain the stock into another pot or large bowl, through a mesh strainer lined with cheesecloth or coffee filters. Once it cools, you should have a layer of fat that separates from the stock. Skim and dispose. You can then store your stock in fridge for a few (3) days, or in the freezer for a few (4ish) months. If freezing, you can use ice-cube trays, which will allow you to use what you need in a reasonable portion. As well, if you like a more concentrated flavor, you can reduce the stock, on the stove top. After straining and skimming, before freezing. Feel free to experiment.

If your preference, or need, is to make vegetable or beef stock, the process is the same. For the beef stock, substitute beef bones and/or oxtails. You might have to make a request with the butcher, but this shouldn’t be a problem. For the vegetable stock, feel free to add leeks, parsnips, fennel, tomato, and/or mushrooms.

For those of you that are wondering, I used this technique for the first time last week, on Thanksgiving. I was in need of stock for the Turkey Giblet Gravy, and I didn’t want to go to the store. I also didn’t think it would be very good if I just used water. So, I used the turkey neck, carrots, celery, onion, leek, parsley, sage and thyme. My experience with a pressure cooker is limited, but the interwebs said to pressure cook for 30 minutes. My mom, the owner of the pressure cooker, insisted that 20 minutes was plenty. So we cooked for 20 minutes. The turkey neck absolutely fell apart, and the neck meat was “hand-shreddable.” And the gravy that we made later that afternoon was excellent, and gluten-free. A potato starch slurry worked quite well for thickening.

Hopefully one of you will find this useful. If you try it out I would love to hear how about it.

Thoughts? Comments?

-Nick

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How to cook a whole chicken

For any of you out there that are trying to find ways to make better food choices, I have a pretty good option for you.

Learn how to cook a whole chicken.

If you have 4 people (2 adults, 2 kids) to feed, it will probably get the job done for around $10-$15 if you go the organic route, and for much less if you go non-organic. If there are only 2 of you, it’s probably dinner for a couple of days, and if you’re going it alone you can get up to 4 meals or 2 dinners and a really killer batch of chicken salad, if that’s your thing….

A couple weeks ago, I was looking for the best (easiest) way to cook a whole chicken in the oven. I know there is a way that involves tucking wings and trussing and some other things, but I figured there had to be something a bit easier, or at least a bit more straight-forward. So, I headed to the interwebs, and there I found my answer. Spatchcock. If you are friends with me on Facebook or Instagram or Twitter, you might have seen the picture that I posted this past Sunday night, referring to Spatchcock.

To spatchcock is simply to butterfly the chicken. Something that I had never thought of, but once I did a little bit of research and reading, made perfect sense. And so, I set out to cook my first whole chicken in the oven. The ultimate goal of the exercise is to get a chicken that is perfectly cooked in all parts. Wings, Breast, Thighs and Legs. Other methods will yield one or the other, but not success all around. And if you’re going to cook the whole bird, you should be able to enjoy the whole thing.

The first one that I cooked 2 weeks ago was a 3.5lb organic from Meijer. It cost around $13. The one that I cooked this weekend, on Sunday was a non-organic. $7 for 3.5lb.

Spatchcocking is most easily accomplished with a decent pair of kitchen shears, but a good kitchen knife will do as well. Before you get started on the chicken, you might want to rinse and pat dry. Once dry, simply flip the chicken over so the breast side is down, locate the backbone and cut along both sides of said backbone to remove. If you are using a knife, just apply a bit of pressure with the knife on either side of the backbone and the bones should crack. Also, feel free to stand the chicken up and allow gravity and other laws of physics to help you out. Once the backbone is removed, flip the chicken over (breast side up) and apply some gentle pressure to the breastbone so that the chicken will flatten out. You might hear the cartilage crack. This is perfectly normal. Also, save the backbone, because we’re going to make homemade chicken stock later this week. And if you’re willing, we’ll get it done in 30-40 minutes, not the 8+ hours that you’re expecting.

If you would like a visual of this butterflying process, head over to Deliciously Organic and have a look. The photos are great.

Once butterflied, the rest is simple. Season and cook. You really can use whatever you like to season. On Sunday the recipe was as follows.  Preheat oven to 400 degrees with a rack one above the middle. Start with a couple tablespoons of Olive Oil and rub onto all sides of the chicken. Then season all sides and parts with Kosher Salt. At this point, you are only limited by your own creativity and spice rack. Rachel and I seasoned the breast-side only with a mixture of Garlic Powder, Black Pepper, Paprika, Cayenne, and Dried Sage. We didn’t really measure, but there were approximately equal parts of Pepper and Paprika, half as much Cayenne and 3 times as much Sage and Garlic. You really can season with whatever you prefer and there is no right answer. Just Salt and Pepper. Homemade herb butter. Your own spice mix. A commercially prepared spice mix, though this might be less desirable due to added ingredients that are not spices. The chicken is on a baking sheet that is lined with foil. It is in the middle of the baking sheet. The baking sheet is facing the “short way”, that is, long from left to right and short from top to bottom.

Pop the chicken in the oven and set the timer for 45 minutes. At the end of the 45 minutes it should be done. If you have a thermometer, feel free to check for doneness. The goal is 170°-180°F in the leg and thigh and 150°-155°F in the thickest part of the breast. If you prefer the government recommended 165°F in the breast, do your thing, but it really is overkill. The above chicken was cooked just shy of 180°F in the leg and thigh, which yielded just under 160°F in the breast. Perfect. We probably could have cooked a few minutes less and had results that were just as good, but any longer would have resulted in overcooked chicken breasts. At this point, remove your baking tray from the oven and cover the chicken in foil. Let it rest for 10 minutes or so and then carve.

Enjoy with some sauteed vegetables, mashed cauliflower, and some Russian Nog. 🙂

Two bites in, Rachel declared it to be the “best chicken she’s ever had“. That endorsement should be all the reason you need to give it a try.

Also,  if you remember and are in the mood, save any leftover bones for the homemade stock you’re going to make. In the freezer, in a freezer bag is a good place.

If you give it a try, let us know how it works out for you in the comments.

Thoughts? Comments?

-Nick