There is something so comforting and nostalgic about a steaming bowl of homemade soup. It is both lovely to eat, and lovely to make. Many of us rely on a pre-made stock for our soups, which is a perfectly acceptable substitution—both convenient, and (depending on the brand) satisfactory in taste. However, if you want to take your soup to the next level, it’s time to make some homemade stock.
Homemade, high-quality stocks are the foundation for sauces, soups and many other dishes in restaurant kitchens. While we don’t need our home kitchens to keep up with restaurant standards, this ridiculously easy process will improve the flavour of your cooking immensely.
Soup essentials: Bones, vegetables, herbs and spices
The first component in a flavourful stock is bones (or vegetables, if making veggie stock). Next is aromatic vegetables—typically onions, carrots and celery. The ratio of vegetables should be: two parts onion to one part celery and one part carrot. Finally, a stock requires seasoning, which comes in the form of herbs and spices (you do not salt a stock!). Dried spices and herbs are suitable, but should be used in their whole form (not ground). Use herbs such as thyme, bay leaves, peppercorns and parsley. Depending on your stock you may also opt for garlic, but you will taste it in the final product so be sure your final dish will suit the garlic flavour. Herbs and spices can be tied in a cheesecloth sachet, making them easier to retrieve after cooking, or they can be removed once your stock is strained.
The most useful stocks to make are chicken, beef, fish and vegetable stock. It’s also a good idea to make it in large batches—it freezes beautifully and then you always have it on hand. Your stock should consist of 100% water, 50% bones and 10% vegetables. In other words, 6 L of water would need about 2.5 kg (6 lbs) bones and 454 g (1 lb) vegetables*.
*Fish stock is the exception. It cooks very quickly so less water is required. Fish stocks need half the amount of vegetables to 4 L water ad 2.5 kg bones. Often a cup of white wine is added to fish stock for flavour.
Tips for making chicken, beef and fish stock
It’s recommended to cut the bones into smaller pieces (4 inches or so) in order to extract the most flavour and gelatine from the bones. If you’re not in the mood, throw them in whole—life is short.
Vegetables should be cut in a size proportional to the cook time of the stock. You want the flavour extracted from the vegetables, but don’t need them turning to mush or it will interfere with the clarity of your stock. Beef stocks should be cooked for 6 to 8 hours, so vegetables can go in whole, or halved. Chicken stocks are cooked for 3 to 4 hours, so vegetables should be cut into 2-in. pieces. Fish stocks cook very quickly, so in order to get the most flavour they should be coarsely diced.
Cover the bones with fresh, cold water. Bring the water to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Skim off any residue that has risen to the top. Add vegetables and seasonings. Keep the simmer low to prevent any residue that rises to the top from boiling back into your stock. Skim and add more water as needed to keep the bones covered. Remove pot from heat and let cool. Strain. Admittedly, this is not technically the “chef-y” way to do it, but I’ve found the best method is to chill your stock and let the fat solidify at the top. The residual fat will rise to the top and form a solid film, making it easy to remove. Then you are left with a flavourful, clean stock that is free of fat.
Vegetable stock tips
Vegetable stock consists of vegetables, herbs and spices and water. Wine is also sometimes added. Depending on the vegetables you use, the flavour of your stock can vary greatly—so be careful with what you choose. Using particularly strong vegetables (fennel, cauliflower, cabbage) will result in a stock predominantly flavoured with those vegetables. If you are looking for a relatively neutral flavour, opt for onions, celery and carrots. Avoid starchy vegetables (like potatoes), as they will turn your stock cloudy. Also important: consider the colour or the vegetable you are selecting for stock. If the vegetable tends to leech a lot of colour (say, beets), your finished product will be that colour. And lastly, the size of your vegetables should be cut relatively small as vegetable stock generally simmers for only 45 minutes. (The ratios for vegetable stock are the same as fish stock.)
Now that you’re inspired, whip up a batch of our homemade chicken stock. Some of my personal favourites include this crazy good cilantro soup or our turkey and white bean soup. Homemade vegetable stock would take this Chatelaine Kitchen favourite over the top: hearty quinoa and bean soup. And who can resist the ooey-gooey French onion grilled cheese made with homemade beef broth?
Originally published October 2nd, 2015.