What’s the Difference?

Stock and broth are not the same thing, although a lot of people use the terms interchangeably. Even well-respected, knowledgeable foodies get it wrong and since it’s one of my biggest culinary pet peeves, I’d like to set the record straight. Here are the definitions I found in On Cooking, a textbook used in culinary schools (emphasis mine):

stock – a clear, unthickened liquid flavored by soluble substances extracted from meat, poultry, or fish and their bones as well as from a mirepoix, other vegetables, and seasonings

broth – a flavorful liquid obtained from the long simmering of meats and/or vegetables 

Stocks are richer and more flavorful than broths. For this reason, I always have stock on hand and make broth for specific dishes only. When I make chicken broth, I usually freeze it with the meat and use it for things like chicken & dumplings, chicken noodle soup, chicken pot pie, etc. But I almost always add a little stock to the final product for richness. Since stock is more universally used, that will be our focus for the next couple days.
To give you an idea of how important stock is in cooking, I’ll turn to Escoffier. I found this quote in the 1941 English print of Le Guide Culinaire  (strangely, it’s not in the 2008 edition).

“Indeed, stock is everything in cooking, at least in French cooking. Without it, nothing can be done. If one’s stock is good, what remains of the work is easy; if, on the other hand, it is bad or merely mediocre, it is quite hopeless to expect anything approaching a satisfactory result.”

Since most American cooking techniques derive from the French, this applies to us, too. You may not think you eat much food with stock or broth in it but almost all soups and hot sauces (hot as in temperature, not spice) contain it in some form. So if you open a can of soup or if you ever eat at restaurants without a drive-thru, you eat stock. 
Because the flavor of stock is so important, I rarely buy it. The boxed stuff, even the expensive boxed stuff, is just plain terrible. And unbelievably expensive. Not to mention it packs tons of preservatives that I’d rather not eat. It costs a small fraction of the retail price to make it yourself and while it takes a while, it requires very little effort and tastes infinitely better. The technique, however, is crucial so there’s a little more to learn before we get started.

Types of Stock

There are two main classifications of stock; white and brown. In white stock, you simmer raw bones and vegetables in water. White stock stays relatively colorless. For brown stock, you caramelize both the bones and the vegetables before simmering them in water. This improves the depth of flavor and gives it a rich, dark color. I like white stock for chicken and brown stock for veal. 

Why the Bones Are Important

The bones make all the difference and they are the most important ingredient in stock. They add flavor, richness, and color. All animal bones have collagen in them and when it’s cooked out, it turns to gelatin. When gelatin is cooled, it forms a jelly-like substance which makes it a great thickener or stabilizer. In addition, gelatin (real gelatin, not the packaged sugary stuff) is great for your digestive tract. 
Here is a rundown of the best bones to use for stock, what to look for, and where to get them:

Beef and Veal Bones

Because younger bones have more cartilage and other connective tissue (which are high in collagen), veal bones make the best stock. If you make your own beef or veal stock, stick to back, neck, knuckles, and shank bones (they have the highest collagen contents). You want bones that are cut into 3- to 4-inch pieces so you’re sure to extract all the collagen out. You can get beef or veal bones from a butcher. Most communities still have butchers, even if it’s in your local grocery store. They may not keep them in stock but they should be able to source some for you.

Chicken Bones

Back and neck bones are the best for chicken stock. When using the whole carcass, separate the rib cage from the pelvis so it takes up less space in the pot. The best way to get chicken bones is to buy chickens whole and break them down yourself. You can make stock right away or freeze the bones and make it later (as described in my post on breaking down a whole chicken).

Fish Bones

Stick to lean fish for making fish stock. Fatty fish like salmon and tuna have too distinct a flavor to make a good, universal fish stock. We used sole in culinary school but other flat fish like flounder and turbot are also good choices. You can get fish bones from your fish monger. Just like butchers, every community usually has one, even if it’s in your local grocery store. And just like with veal bones, they may not stock them but they should be able to source them for you.

Seafood Shells

Shells from crustaceans (like crab, lobsters, and shrimp) make good stock. I only buy shrimp in the shell so when I cook them without the shell, the shells go into the freezer. I make shrimp stock when I get enough. Skip mollusk shells (like clams, oysters, and mussels) when making seafood stock, they don’t have any flavor. I don’t make seafood stock often so relying on shrimp shells and the shells from cooked crabs and lobsters works for me.

Other Bones

You can make stock from other animal bones (turkey, ham, game, lamb) but beware of mixing bones. Beef, veal, and chicken bones are pretty mild so if you mix lamb or game bones with them, they can overpower the stock. 

Mirepoix

Mirepoix is the second most important ingredient in stock. It’s a French term and it refers to a mixture of onions, carrots, and celery. The ratio of mirepoix should be 50% onions, 25% carrots, and 25% celery. Mirepoix doesn’t have to be chopped very small for stock due to amount of time it cooks. However, the carrots should be cut half the size of the onions and celery since carrots are more dense and take longer to cook. Cutting them smaller means they’ll cook at the same rate as the onions and celery.

Seasonings

Typical seasonings for stock include black peppercorns, bay leaves, thyme, and parsley stems (and/or leaves, if you like). Because the stock cooks for a long period, there’s no need to chop them. It’s recommended that you include them in a sachet – several layers of cheesecloth filled with flavorings and tied into a small sack with twine – so you don’t remove any of the flavorings while skimming your simmering stock. Leave a long piece of twine on the end of the sachet and tie that piece of twine to the handle of the pot. Then toss the sachet in and you’ll be able to easily fish it out at the end of cooking.
While salt is your friend, it’s not your friend when cooking stock. It may seem to go against everything I’ve taught you so far but hear me out… stock is the basis for sauces. Some of those sauces will get reduced down, which concentrates their flavors. If you salt your stock and then reduce it for a sauce, it will end up way too salty. To prevent this, leave the salt out of the stock and instead, add salt when making your dish.
Escoffier talks extensively about the importance of using the best ingredients when making stock, which reminds me of Chef Brad, my first chef instructor in culinary school. Chef Brad taught my Soups, Stocks, and Sauces class. He told us about how some of his employers threw all kinds of stuff into their stocks instead of throwing them away; potato peels, onion roots, pepper stems, etc. None of this stuff adds good flavor and a lot of it can have dirt trapped (like potato peels and onion roots). Since I don’t want my stock to taste like dirt, I leave it out. Like Chef Brad said, “garbage in, garbage out.”
We’ll learn the principles of making stock in my next post so stay tuned!!
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