Chicken stock is one of those things that it seems TV chefs are constantly telling people to make at home but that most people just buy. They say we should make chicken stock because it’s healthier, because we can control what goes into it and decrease the sodium content, but they are also saying involves cooking whole chickens and vegetables to inedible mush. I could never get behind making stock with so much food that would otherwise be edible but instead ends up waterlogged and flavorless (because you’re keeping the salt levels down, right?). Still, I make my own stock and keep it in the freezer and it is pretty amazing. Not only because it is delicious but also because it is incredibly, incredibly cheap. As in, the pretty-much-free kind of cheap. Let me explain:
I buy mostly organic produce and it generally comes from local farms in Northern California. I also buy organic free-range meat, including chicken, from a local farm in Marin County. It costs me more than buying groceries at Safeway but I generally like the taste better and I feel good about buying it and I can afford it so all in all it’s a good deal. But because of the added expense, I am loathe to waste any of it – and I am pretty vocally anti-food wasting to begin with. So it was frustrating to me to see onion skins and carrot peels, leafy celery tops and herb stems, which piles up on my counters when I prepared vegetables and which I then threw away. That is a not-insignificant amount of food that I paid for right there which I am not able to eat. I felt the same way about chicken bones – for a four pound chicken the bones, including any uneaten meat, make up almost a quarter of the weight. And I was throwing it away.
At some point a few years ago I decided to try make stock with just these scraps rather than using whole produce, mostly because I just could not bear the idea of spending $8-10 on fresh organic produce just to boil it beyond all recognition. The result was indistinguishable from the stock made with the whole vegetable and I haven’t looked back since.
My method works something like this: I keep two bags in the freezer at all times – one with leftover chicken bones and backs and one with vegetable scraps. When I cook chicken I save the bones, excess fat that I didn’t want to cook, backs from a whole chicken and freeze them in the chicken bag. When I peel onions or carrots, roast garlic, cut the leaves off celery, find myself with extra herb stems (except cilantro, the resulting flavor is just too weird for me) I put the scraps in the vegetable bag. When those bags are full, I dump them into a large pot with enough water to just cover them, 5-10 peppercorns, and a few bay leaves. I put the oven on to 180F (nope, I don’t even bother to preheat it), put the pot in the oven, and go to bed. And in the morning I have a very large pot of beautiful chicken stock which cost me a negligible amount in herbs and water, no additional money for vegetables and chicken, and a relatively small amount of time to make sure I save those things.
The only downside here is that you do have to wash those vegetables to get rid of the dirt before you peel them, and I would not feel as comfortable doing this with non-organic produce since any chemicals on the skins will get right into your soup. But the outcome is completely worth it. The bones of two chickens combined with a gallon bag of vegetable scraps (this takes us about a month’s time to accumulate) generally produces about 4 quarts of chicken stock. I freeze it in two cup and quart size containers and often make a tray of ice cubes as well which is the perfect amount to add to quickly add to a dish to give it some extra liquid.
That’s really all it takes: vegetable scraps, chicken scraps, water and herbs, cook at 180F for 6-8 hours, strain, and freeze. That’s the whole recipe so there’s no need to belabor that point. The reward is rich stock to add to soups, sauces, risottos, gravy, braised meats and vegetables; I could probably go on for a while here. And it won’t cost you a dime.