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.