Taking Stock

I‘ve been away from here for a week, working furiously on a “super seekrit cooking project” that I alluded to on Facebook. While I’m not quite at liberty to divulge the nature of the project, I can tell you that it started with a fundamental technique that separates the pros from the amateurs: making beef stock.

Chicken stock is easy: toss some bones and scraps in a pot, cover with water, bring to the barest of simmers, skim the gunk off the surface, and toss in some aromatic vegetables during the last hour of cooking. I do this every other week, when the bag of chicken scraps in the freezer gets full. Beef stock, on the other hand, cannot be made on a whim. It requires planning and a two-day time commitment, which I was prepared to make for this project.

I wanted the best, most refined stock I could make, so I used Thomas Keller’s method, a page-long sub-recipe from the Bouchon cookbook. I started with five pounds of beef shank bones cut into three-inch lengths. Since the bones weren’t particularly meaty, I also added two and a half pounds of oxtail cut to the same size.

I preheated the oven to 475°F and put a roasting pan in to preheat for ten minutes. I filmed the pan with a tablespoon of canola oil and added the bones. I roasted them for forty five minutes, turning once when they were well browned on the bottom. While they roasted, I prepped all of the aromats: one and a half onions cut into quarters, one large carrot cut into quarters, a large leek, split and cut into two-inch lengths, a large sprig each of thyme and parsley, three bay leaves, a quarter teaspoon of black peppercorns, and a head of garlic cut in half horizontally.

I removed the roasted bones from the oven and lowered the temperature to 400°F.

As I transferred them to a colander set over a baking sheet to drain, I realized I had a pan full of roasted bone marrow. I sacrificed one bone’s worth for a chef’s treat:

A slice of toasted country bread, a sprinkling of fleur de sel, and I had a snack worthy of Fergus Henderson. I briefly considered whipping up a quick parsley salad to accompany this lovely slice of heaven, but realized that I would then have to eat all of the marrow, to the detriment of my final stock.

Feeling virtuous about my exercise of superhuman restraint, I pushed on. I drained the fat from the roasting pan, placed it over medium heat, added a cup of water, and scraped the fond from the bottom of the pan.

I transferred the fond to a large stockpot, added the bones, and then enough cold water to just cover the bones. Fat immediately rose to the top, which I skimmed off.

I added a large pinch of salt and the remaining half onion, which I had charred on a non-stick skillet while the bones roasted. I brought the pot to a simmer over medium heat, then lowered the heat to a very gentle simmer. In the meantime, I tossed the vegetables in another tablespoon of canola oil and roasted them in the oven until they were caramelized.

So far, so good. All I had to do now was continue to skim the impurities out of the stock for the next five hours. Which I did, imagining that this would be the same task that would have been assigned to me as a commis in the Per Se or French Laundry kitchens. All that skimming did result in very clear stock:

At this point I turned off the heat, covered the pot, and went to bed because it was one o’clock in the morning. The next day, bright and early, I brought the pot back to a simmer, then added the caramelized vegetables, herbs, peppercorns, and garlic, and simmered for another hour.

I let the stock rest for ten minutes, then began the laborious process of transferring the finished product to a new pot one ladleful at a time, passing it through a chinois. (The force of pouring the stock out of the pot would have carried any impurities through the strainer.)

So, sixteen hours later, I wound up with the four quarts of liquid love you see at the top of this post. After a few hours in the fridge they turned into beef gelatin with a thin layer of solidified fat which I skimmed off.

I had one of my basic ingredients ready. Now it was time to do some serious cooking. But that will have to wait until the next post.

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