A couple of weeks ago, Whole Foods ran a two-week special, selling entire broiler-fryer chickens for 99 cents a pound, which amounted to roughly $4 for an entire bird. Boneless, skinless chicken breasts typically cost at least $4.49 a pound, and since the entire breast of one bird usually runs 1 to 1.5 pounds, it was cheaper to buy the entire bird and butcher it myself than to just buy those boneless, skinless, tasteless breasts anyway.
Of course, when you buy the whole bird, you get the thighs, legs, and wings, all of which have more flavor than the breasts do. You get the giblets, most of which I just put down the disposal, but I suppose you could use them for gravy if you’re so inclined. But the best part of buying and butchering your own chicken is what you get after all of that other stuff is gone: The bones, and bones mean stock.
For each bird, I’d keep the carcass (the bones and bits of meat after all of the “parts” are removed), the wings (not enough meat to worry about and very good for stock-making), and the neck (the one part of the giblets packet that I don’t toss) and stick them in the freezer for the next stock-making day. I also keep parts of various vegetables in a bag in the freezer – the top rings (not stems) and bottom bits of peppers, the white parts of celery stalks, etc. – that are all also stock-worthy. This avoids the expense of buying lots of vegetables just to put them into stock.
(If you’re wondering about that whole butchering-the-chicken part, I’d eventually like to shoot a video I can use here to demonstrate how easy it is. I’ve done it with a timer and I can butcher a chicken into its eight pieces – two each of breasts, thighs, legs, and wings – in about four and a half minutes. That’s under five minutes to get parts that would easily cost you $10 more if you bought them already butchered, plus you get the bones.)
Making stock requires no cooking skill at all other than patience and the ability to not turn your damn stove knobs up to 11. Dump everything in a pot, throw an upside-down steamer basket (preferably a crappy old one – I have one that’s just for making stock now) on top, skim a few times, wait 5-6 hours, cool and store. Nothing in there you can’t do if you have the time.
Anything frozen can go right in the pot without defrosting.
6 quarts water (the better the water, the better the stock – I buy spring water for this)
1 chicken carcass, including wings and neck
2 ribs celery, cleaned and snapped in half
1-2 carrots, washed well (or just peeled) and cut in half
1 red or green bell pepper, seeded and stemmed, or just various pepper parts
(You can use pieces of hot peppers too. I’ve used jalapeño and poblano pieces before.)
1 medium onion, halved, or half a large onion
2 peeled garlic cloves
A few sprigs of parsley and thyme
2-3 sage leaves
1 bay leaf
1 tsp whole black peppercorns
1 pinch celery seeds
1. Put everything in a stockpot or other large pot capable of holding at least 10-12 quarts. Place a steamer basket upside-down on top of the contents to hold everything under the surface of the water. Bring to a simmer – not a boil, but a gentle simmer – and cook for at least four hours, skimming any scum off the top (every half hour should work). Overcooking it will prevent the liquid from dissolving the collagen in the bones, so take it easy on the heat.
2. When you start to see a thin, clear film on the surface, congratulations – you’ve made stock. That’s gelatin, the thing that distinguishes stock from broth and makes soups taste like soup instead of flavored water. The film will usually appear sometime between the fourth and fifth hours of cooking. I usually let my stock go for another hour or so to make sure I’ve leached all of the collagen out of the bones. Six hours is about the max time you need to do this; if you’re nearing that point and don’t see any gelatin, you probably have your heat on too low.
3. You need to cool your stock quickly. Empty and clean your sink, close up the drain, fill it with ice (two bags should do the trick) and add cold water to fill the sink about halfway. Place a pot or bowl capable of holding at least six quarts in the sink and strain the contents of your stockpot through a fine-meshed strainer into the empty pot. Chill in the ice-water bath until the temperature of the stock drops enough for it to go into the fridge – at least to 60 degrees, and preferably all the way to 40.
4. Chill several hours of overnight. Remove any fat that has congealed at the surface (but don’t discard it – you can cook with it!), portion the remaining stock into containers and refrigerate or freeze. It’ll last in the fridge a few days, but you can keep it for months in the freezer.
You may want to use a bit of damp cheesecloth to strain the last of the stock and remove any dirt or off bits that have settled at the bottom of the pot while it chilled.
You may also notice the absence of one ingredient: Salt. Don’t salt your stock – add salt when you cook with it. If it’s salted, and you reduce it as part of any recipe, you’ll end up with an overly salty finished product. You can add many different herbs, spices, and vegetables, but avoid any members of the cabbage family (including broccoli), which will give the stock a strong and not-desirable flavor. I’ve used mustard seed, cloves, tarragon, and leeks, among other items. Think “aromatics” and you’ve got the idea.
I’ll post some recipes using chicken stock over the next few weeks, but it’s great for basic soups, for moistening stuffing at Thanksgiving, and for reducing and using to thicken some sauces. Any decent cookbook should have soup recipes that start with chicken or some other stock as their bases.