Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Stock and the home cook

So as I've mentioned, I'm reading Ratio by Michael Ruhlman... yes, I'm reading a cookbook... so what? Really, it's more a book about cooking than it is a cookbook, so it's more well suited to reading snippets on the train to and from work than you might expect. Yesterday I got to his section on stocks, where he makes the familiar case that canned broths are terrible and everyone should be making stock at home. He then goes on to argue that the process is not as bad as you think it is, and even has an "everyday" chicken stock recipe to make every time you roast a chicken. Now, Ratio isn't the first time I've seen Ruhlman come out so strongly in favor of homemade stock... he blogs about it often enough... and anyone who has read the first part of The Making of a Chef knows that the dude can wax poetic about his "nectar of the gods." Of course, he's not alone... even somebody like The Minimalist Mark Bittman... a guy dedicated to simplifying recipes to make them accessible to the masses... has come out in favor of throwing canned broths out of your pantry. I think every home chef has been lectured about store bought broths more than once... it's one of those things a "real" home cook isn't supposed to use... or at least, never admit to.

So what's the argument? Well basically it's that store bought broths suck... but let's let Ruhlman flesh it out a bit:
I cannot say this strongly or loudly enough: DO NOT use canned stock/broth. Use WATER instead. I repeat. You DO NOT NEED to buy that crappy can of Swanson’s low sodium chicken broth! It will HURT your food. Use water instead. When that recipe says 1 cup of fresh chicken stock (or good quality canned broth), please know that your food, 90 percent of the time, will taste better if you use tap water instead of that "good quality" canned broth. Water is a miracle.

Last time I was doing a recipe for a book with one of the most lauded chefs in the country—he said to the recipe developer/writer, yes, ok to use canned if you don’t have fresh. I said, “Really?” He said, “yes.” I said, “When was the last time you used canned stock?” When he didn’t respond, I said, “Have you tasted canned stock?” He said he hadn’t that he could recall.

I repeat: your food will taste better and fresher if you use that wonderful and inexpensive fluid at the end of your tap rather than anything that you can buy in a can or a box.
A lot of people (I have) argue that there are certain dishes or sauces that need homemade broth (chicken soup obviously) and others where you can "get by" with store bought broth since the other ingredients will mask any imperfections. I mean, if I throw a quart of Swanson's into a Chicken Bouillabaisse, it's hard to see how it's going make much impact one way or the other over the strong saffron and anise flavors. But, of course, if that's the case... why not just use water? Then at least you know you're not putting off flavors into your food. Uhm... I dunno? 'Cuz everybody always makes such a big deal about how awesome stock is, so I figure I've got to use something? Well, O.K. maybe it's a fair point: there is no reason to put bad ingredients in your food just because they get "masked." But what I've never gotten... and been somewhat incredulous about... is why, if it's so important, that nobody can make a decent stock to sell... stock is easy but time consuming... something that industrial food techniques and wholesale purchasing should be perfectly suited for. Well, this review ($$$) of store bought broths makes the case that at the ratio of bones, meat, and mirepoix that homemade stocks call for... there just isn't any margin for profit at $2-$3 a quart... so they skimp on the important stuff and throw in MSG and other "flavor enhancers" to make up the difference. Certainly plausible... I have only ever made chicken stock as a step on the way to chicken soup, but I use a whole 3-4lb chicken to do so... and the cost factor helps explain why you never see something like veal stock in stores, where it's several dollars a pound for bones (for those of us not best friends with butchers anyway).

The problem of course... with small kitchens and smaller refrigerators... is storage. I don't think my vegetarian girlfriend is going to be so keen on quarts and quarts of chicken and veal stock taking up the whole freezer. While Ruhlman makes a pretty good case for always making chicken stock when you roast a chicken... thus defusing the argument about time and preparation somewhat... I don't roast chickens all that often, being that it's just me that's going to eat it. That said, in writing this I've sort of convinced myself to make more of an effort in the stock department... as I'm still planning to make cassoulet before Thanksgiving, that means a trip to Savenor's is in my future... so I'll grab a couple of pounds of veal bones and give Ruhlman's favorite-thing-in-the-world a shot... and, of course, let you know how it goes.

photo by flickr user amatern used under a Creative Commons license