by Margaret Cabaniss
It’s a truth universally acknowledged that canned stock is kinda crap. That’s not to say I never use it, but I always feel a bit disappointed in myself when I do. Homemade stock is far tastier and healthier than the store-bought variety (for a real scare, try checking out the sodium content in one of those cans next time) — and yet, for all that, it’s dead simple to make. There’s really no comparing the two, and with just a little advanced planning, you can keep a ready supply of it on hand.
Chicken stock is the classic, of course, but vegetable stock is a nice alternative when you need a vegetarian option, or when you simply don’t have a chicken carcass on hand but still want to amp up the flavor of homemade soups, grains, or sauces.
First, a quick word on the “stock vs. broth” debate: While the word “stock” may have at one time meant a liquid cooked with bones, today it’s commonly applied to any liquid used as a building-block ingredient in something else (think of stocking your pantry), while “broth” is anything ready to serve as is. You’ll see both words used to describe what we’re talking about today, and for our purposes, they’re pretty much interchangeable.
Pick Your Vegetables
Just about any vegetable is fair game when you’re making stock, but for me, a solid base always includes the mirepoix standards: onions, carrots, and celery. Use roughly equal amounts of your veggies to make sure you end up with a balanced broth.
Beyond that, different groups of vegetables will add different characteristics: garlic, shallots, and leeks add great flavor; mushrooms add some depth; potatoes will add body; and herbs like parsley, thyme, and bay leaves round everything out with some nice herbal flavors. While you can add more adventurous veggies like tomatoes, asparagus, broccoli, etc., they tend to be more assertive and will change both the color and flavor of your stock — so proceed with caution.
An easy way to build up your stock base is to save your vegetable trimmings throughout the week — mushroom stems, carrot peels, leek tops, etc. — and store them in the fridge; when you have a good amount saved up, throw them in your stock pot! If your vegetables are getting past their prime, chop them up and store them in the freezer for later — but don’t wait until they’re too sad-looking: Limp veggies make for limp stock.
Sauté for More Flavor
While you can simply throw your veggies in a pot with some water and get going, I like to start by giving them a quick sauté to help develop their flavors. If you have the time, let them sweat for up to 30 minutes — or roast them in the oven first. But even just a few minutes of browning will do wonders for your stock.
Simmer, Don’t Boil
Once your vegetables are sautéed and ready, add water to cover them by an inch or so and turn up the heat. You want to bring the liquid almost to a boil, but not quite; you lose too much stock by boiling it, and the resulting liquid will be cloudier. Once you see bubbles appearing around the edges of your pot, turn the heat down to low so it simmers gently (sending up an occasional bubble), partially cover your pot, and let it sit for one hour.
You really don’t need more time than that: While bone stocks benefit from a long simmer time — up to 8 hours or more — vegetables will give up their flavors within an hour; after that, they just start breaking down and muddying your stock. (Don’t worry if you end up going a little longer or shorter; your stock will still turn out fine.)
Strain and Store
(So, yes — I realize the bag reads “chicken stock,” and we’re talking about vegetable stock. I have no idea how that happened. But learn from my mistakes, kids: Double-check your labels.)
Once the stock is done simmering, remove the larger vegetables with a slotted spoon and then strain the liquid through a fine-mesh strainer. (For an even clearer broth, you can line your strainer with a coffee filter.) Taste and adjust your seasonings as necessary — soy sauce, vinegar, and white wine all add some nice complexity — but remember that you’ll be adding the stock to other recipes later, so it’s best to keep a light hand here; you can always add more salt and other flavorings later.
Vegetable stock can be stored in the fridge for 4-5 days, or in the freezer for a few months; after that, it’ll start absorbing off flavors. I like to use quart-sized bags in the freezer, laying them flat so they take up less space. You can also freeze stock in smaller amounts in muffin trays, then pop the pucks into freezer bags for when you just need a bit of stock in your recipe. Be sure to label your bags with the contents and date — and again, be sure to label your bags correctly, unlike me. (Sigh.)
And that’s it! With a little advanced planning, you can have lovely homemade stock at the ready all winter long.
Basic Vegetable Stock
I find this mix of veggies gives me the best flavor with the fewest ingredients, but feel free to make substitutions or additions based on what you have on hand. Suggested variations are below.
- 2 T vegetable oil
- 3 stalks of celery
- 4 carrots
- 2 medium onions
- 5-10 mushrooms
- 3 cloves garlic, peeled
- 1/2 t salt
- 10 stems parsley
- 1 T peppercorns
- 1/2 c white wine
1. Rinse and roughly chop the celery, carrots, onions, and mushrooms (no need to peel). Heat the vegetable oil in a stock pot over medium/medium-high heat, then add the vegetables, garlic, and salt. Let the vegetables brown for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.
2. Cover the vegetables with water by about an inch (4-6 cups) and add the parsley, peppercorns, and white wine. Return to medium-high heat until the liquid is just about at a boil, then reduce the heat to low, partially cover the pot, and let the stock simmer gently for one hour.
3. After an hour, remove the vegetables and strain the stock through a fine mesh strainer. Let cool, then store in the fridge or freezer.
Other variations to try: roasted parsnips, turnips, and potatoes; leeks, scallions, or shallots; dried seaweed (for a briny flavor); dried mushrooms; herbs like thyme, dill, bay leaves, or lemongrass; whole spices (in very small amounts) like juniper berries or cloves; a splash of vinegar or soy sauce (a couple teaspoons per quart of stock is plenty)
Images: Margaret Cabaniss