Throw me a bone …

… and I’ll make stock.

A year into Starving, the waste-not mentality has taken root, and it makes me look at everything differently. If I see a downed branch, I think firewood. Bacon fat gets turned into chicken feed. Fish guts? Lobster bait!

It’s gotten to the point where not only do I want to save every stray piece of metal, plastic, and cardboard that comes our way, I want to get other people’s cast-offs from the scrap heap at the dump. “Just what are we going to do with those vertical blind slats?” Kevin asks, quite reasonably, as I emerge triumphant from the construction pile with an armload of them. “I’m thinking maybe edging?” I say, a bit tentatively. “For the garden? Or maybe the stone patio?”

I had thought that this tendency was new, born of the seat-of-the-pants, food-procuring lifestyle we’ve embraced since we moved here – a lifestyle that has us doing things that actually seem to require stray pieces of metal, plastic, and cardboard. And vertical blind slats. Last night, though, as Kevin and I were finishing the beer-braised rabbit I’d made for dinner, I realized I’d always been like this.

Kevin finished a leg and held up the bone. “Do you have a receptacle?” he asked. I opened the freezer and rummaged through my collection of Ziploc bags. I found a partly-filled one marked “chicken scraps.” Close enough. In went the rabbit bone.

We never throw away a bone. The remains of any animal that graces our table – bones, scraps, and innards – get put in a bag in the freezer until I have enough to make a pot of stock. I’ve been known to take bones home from restaurants, and I’ve even taken them from dinner parties at other people’s houses.

“You’re not going to throw that away?” I ask, as I see the hostess prepare to dump a carcass in the trash. “Well … yes,” she says. “You should make stock out of it,” I say, on the pretext of being helpful. I know that anyone who’s throwing away a carcass won’t be making stock any time soon, and she will gladly give said carcass to me. Which she does. (She doesn’t catch me eyeing her vertical blinds.)

I’ve always been a re-user. I just never had so many uses.

Because I’ve settled into winter cooking routine, which focuses on stock-rich stews, soups, and braises, and because it’s the middle of January and not much else is going on, I’m going to depart from my usual navel-gazing and use this post to be an advocate. I’m advocating home-made stock. And not just because stock-making is an excellent waste-not habit, but also because stock you make at home is in a different league from stock you buy (a few exceptional butcher shops excepted). And stock is critical to food.

Don’t take my word for it. Ask Auguste Escoffier, who’s generally regarded as the father of classical French cooking. His Guide Culinaire, first published in 1903, is still thought of as definitive. This (in translation) is how the book opens:

Before undertaking the description of the different kinds of dishes whose recipes I intend giving in this work, it will be necessary to reveal the groundwork whereon these recipes are built. And, although this has already been done again and again, and is wearisome in the extreme, a textbook on cooking that did not include it would be not only incomplete, but in many cases incomprehensible … .Indeed, stock is everything in cooking.

Escoffier’s way fussier about his stock than I am, but with good reason. Like any professional chef, he has to make stock exactly the same way every time because he has to make dishes that taste exactly the same way, every time. Home cooks can play fast and loose.

If you’ve been scared away from making stock by recipes that call for bouquets garni and constant skimming, forget all that. All you need to make stock is bones and water, heat and time. That’s it. You don’t need vegetables or herbs, wine or salt. The meals you make with your stock will have all those things, and then some. Your stock provides backbone, mouth feel, richness, and none of that comes from carrots. It’s all about the meat. (Vegetable and fish stock are also useful, but in a different way.)

Which is not to say you shouldn’t throw in a carrot – or an onion, or a celery stalk – if you’ve got one. A few vegetables won’t hurt. But you don’t need them, and I generally don’t bother.

Here’s the simplest way to make stock: put bones and meat scraps in a pot, cover with water, simmer for three hours, and drain. You can even mix species. If I have enough lamb scraps to make a batch of lamb stock, that’s what I do. But if I just have a few rib bones, and I’m making chicken stock, in they go.

When your stock is done, it should taste like the makings of soup. If it doesn’t, either it hasn’t been cooking long enough, or you started with too much water. Either way, concentrate it by cooking it down until it seems like stock. Then refrigerate it and let the fat solidify on the surface. Skim the fat, and you should find gelled stock underneath. If it hasn’t gelled, you can still use it, but adjust your water-to-scraps ratio for your next attempt.

If you’re more in Escoffier’s camp than mine, you care a lot more about the niceties. Some dishes call for white stock, others brown. Some need veal, some need chicken. To accommodate those needs, you’re going to have to be more persnickety about your stock. But if you’re a throw-it-together type cook, just about any stock will do.

Stock-making isn’t so much a chore as a habit. The chicken bones go in the freezer in the same way the apple cores go in the compost; it becomes automatic. Boil ‘em up when you have enough. Making stock isn’t any harder than making compost, and there’s no heavy lifting.

If you’re not convinced, come over to our house for some beer-braised rabbit. The stew of beans and carrots, which melt into the beer and stock, will convince you. You’ll be sneaking the rabbit bones into your handbag. But keep your hands off my blinds.

10 people are having a conversation about “Throw me a bone …

  1. I’d been freezing my vegetable stock for several years, but with freezer space at a premium last summer, I canned it, which was easy enough. At Thanksgiving, I watched my sister-in-law throw away a beautiful turkey carcass with lots of meat on the bones. As a 24 yr vegetarian, I still cringed & quietly mentioned the possibility of soup or stock. I like you, have always leaned to a more frugal nature. Just seems sane to me. And I have kept & used blind slats- the horizontal kind- for plant markers when I start my seeds.

  2. I’m a stock maker too. I don’t feel I’ve properly used a joint of meat unless I get a pan of soup from the stock. We had chicken, duck and a boiled and roasted ham at Christmas, my freezer is groaning with stock and I’m enjoying some lovely ‘vegetable’ soup.

  3. Laurie — Next time your sister-in-law tosses a turkey carcass, give me a ring, won’t you? That turkey remains call even to a long-time vegetarian is telling.

    Sarah — Funny what a ham bone can do for vegetable soup, isn’t it?

  4. Tamar I’ve never had such nice soup! Dh has always loved soup but it was soup from a can before we got married. Now he boasts to his colleagues about the fantastic soup I make. I’m embarrassed to tell him how easy it is.

  5. Tamar, I almost always use my chicken bones for soup, and sometimes lobster bodies for bisque, but with this last post, I’ll now be holding on to the scraps that YOU normally and oh so casually take off my hands when ever the opportunity presents itself. Gone are the days of easy pickens at my house. Like when you got all the pig bones from our pig roast, or the ½ dozen regifted blue fish bones. We’ll probably be dividing up the bones of this next pig adventure too.
    What do you recommend for storage? I’d prefer to not use plastic. Recycled milk or juice cartons maybe?
    PS I have some nice white blinds you can have……………

  6. Sarah — Don’t tell him! It’ll be our little secret.

    Linda — The jig’s up, I see! Oh well. Those pig bones sure made a fine stock … As for storage, I’m afraid I use plastic. Freezer bags do help prevent freezer burn. But if you’re not going to leave things frozen too long, it doesn’t really matter. Use what you’ve got.

  7. That’s a great article, Tamar. Good stock is a joy but I never considered mix and match of different meat bones. But why not? And Laurie’s idea of canning to reduce freezer usage is another gem. Every time we sort out our freezer, a number of tubs of stock are always discarded. Such a shame, but they invariably display no clue as to their provenance.
    We nominated you for the Humor award in the 2010 Bloggies. Good luck!

  8. I love good stock and often use my slow cooker (crock pot) so it can sit and cook and I can leave it to get on by itself.

  9. Jen — It SO doesn’t matter! Just cover the thing with water and boil it up!

    Danny — Thanks for the nomination (and the pressure to now be really, really funny)! That’s very kind. And I have to say that one of the miracles of modern science that my new lifestyle has me appreciating is the Sharpie. It writes on plastic tubs, plastic bags, milk cartons — anything. Labels are your friend.

    Sue — I wish more things would cook themselves!

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