I’m a self-confessed stock cube snob. I never buy those little packets of brownish, sticky substances that look like something suspect rather than something edible and always seem to leave a rather synthetic taste. I used to use them; I used to add twice the amount of water as recommended by some chefs who promised this would make them OK; I’ve tried the granules variety that some chefs wax lyrical about as having an ‘authentic’ flavour. There’s only one ‘authentic’ – the real thing! In desperation a few months ago, because I was cooking for friends and had run out of stock in my freezer, I bought some vacuum-packed ‘real’ chicken stock from the cold shelves of the supermarket, apparently made to a superchef’s recipe. It was so awful – such a strong, foul aftertaste – that it almost ruined one of my favourite recipes: ‘Lamb with Prunes, Chilli, Coriander and Spice Mix’ – a kind of lamb tagine – from Skye Gyngell’s A year in my kitchen. And that dish has such strong (delicious!) flavours anyway, goodness knows what would have happened if I’d just been trying it out in a simple risotto.
My son rang me a while ago to ask how long I boiled my stock for. I had to think about that one; I didn’t really have an exact time. He’d found 3 to 4 hours recommended in one book – that seemed a bit long to me. I looked it up in that old standby – Elizabeth David’s French Provincial Cooking where she recommends not boiling the stock for too long or it takes on a bitter taste. However, she doesn’t give any indication of what ‘too long’ might be …
What seems to me important is that the stock doesn’t have too strong a taste because it’s to be used as the base for other dishes. For that reason, when I make it I keep things very simple. Real chicken stock is one of the true delights of a roast chicken. Whenever I roast a chicken (and again, I keep that fairly simple when I know I want to make stock), I put the carcass and remains in a big pot, all the bones and even the skin, and cover it with water. I try to leave some meat on the bones to give the stock as much flavour as possible, so don’t strip every last bit off. Put in about a teaspoon of salt – not too much because as the stock concentrates you don’t want it to become too salty – a few black peppercorns, one roughly chopped medium onion, one roughly chopped carrot, one roughly chopped celery stick, a couple of bay leaves and maybe a few stalks of fresh parsley if you have some. Bring it all very gently to the boil and simmer gently – don’t boil as that will spoil it – for about an hour. If any scum rises to the top, then skim that off – though I’ve found since using filtered water that doesn’t happen so much.
After an hour or so, turn it off and allow to cool in the pan. Then strain it through a sieve into a large jug – or two, depending on how much stock you have. Put some cling film over the top and put the jug(s) in the fridge to get completely chilled. Then fill ice-cube trays – with fairly good-sized cubes – with the stock and put in the freezer. I usually have to do this in batches. When each is frozen, tip them into a freezer bag and top up the ice-cube tray with more stock till all your stock is frozen into cubes.
Now you have a supply of real chicken stock cubes in your freezer. Anytime you want stock, you can just take some out – exactly what you need – and either heat it up in a separate pan or I sometimes just throw a few straight into sauces and gravies. Remember: don’t use the frozen cubes for anything you might want to freeze again, e.g. don’t make soup with them if you’re going to freeze some of the soup.