When you think of stock, which of these comes to mind?
I used to buy stock as a staple. It has about a thousand uses, not least of which is making homemade, custom-seasoned soups in 30 minutes. As I've gotten more and more aware of how many insane things are in our food chain (thank you to every parent of a child with significant allergies that I've ever met, for starters), I got a lot more careful about reading labels. I expected to see something like "water, chicken bones, carrots, celery, onions, salt, pepper, and seasonings" when I read the ingredients list, but here's what I actually found:
...and that's for a premium brand stock! Sugar? Yeast? Organic chicken flavor? What IS organic chicken flavor?
The same brand discloses the ingredients list of their beef broth as follows:
- Beef Stock (Water, beef stock powder)
- Beef Extract
- Autolyzed Yeast Extract
- Sea Salt
- Garlic Powder
I don't know what "beef stock powder" or (especially) "beef extract" are, and I'm not sure I want to. According to Livestrong, autolyzed yeast extract is a kinda-sorta natural form of monosodium glutamate (MSG) and is used in the same way. Many other brands actually use MSG; Campbell's discloses the following list of ingredients on their beef broth:
- Beef Broth
- Yeast Extract
- Hydrolyzed Yeast Protein
- Monosodium Glutamate
- Caramel Color
- Hydrolyzed Soy Protein
- Hydrolyzed Wheat Gluten
- Flavoring (This one right here is a personal favorite. Why even bother???)
Hydrolysis is a method of extraction that boils the soy protein in a vat of sulfuric acid. Manufacturers mix the resulting acidic substance with caustic soda to neutralize the acid content. While hydrolyzed soy protein contains most of the nutrients and health benefits of soy, when you consume this type of soy you also consume the unhealthy chemical byproducts of the manufacturing process. According to "Soy Protein and Formulated Meat Products," the potential harm of consuming hydrolyzed soy protein comes directly from the hydrolyzation process.
(Note that I'm choosing Livestrong as a resource for this information because it's very readable and has external links that can refer readers to more scientific sources if they so desire.)
Caramel coloring is another one of those "ingredients" that has a wide range of uses and a varying range of toxicity, with certain forms of it listed among those products disclosed as potentially carcinogenic or reproductive toxicity. Regulating agencies recognize four classes of caramel coloring based on their manufacturing process, but since packaging only discloses "caramel coloring" without disclosing which class, the consumer has no means of knowing if s/he is consuming a relatively benign form or a much more toxic version. (See the Wikipedia link for more information.)
OK, so I can never buy packaged broths again. But I still love my speedy soups, and broth is still a foundational ingredient in a lot of home cooking. So. Here's the solution.
- Get your self a nice-sized container that you don't mind dedicating to the freezer. For this purpose, I don't mind plastic since the fact that it will be living its life in the freezer means that the chance of chemical leeching into my foods is significantly reduced. I do not like freezer bags because they can't be reused, and the Zero Waste Home groupie in me objects to them. But as a size guide, the gallon-sized bags would be about the volume you're looking for in your container.
- Every time you plan a meal around a meat item, try to make it a bone-in version. In fact, even if it's going to be a boneless dish (like a nice chicken piccata, yum), buy the bone-in version. It's less expensive than the boneless purchase and you can put those bones to good use.
- Whether you have the bones left over at the end of the meal or take them out as part of your prep, toss the bones in the nice big container in your freezer. I usually mix pork and chicken in one container (makes for a lovely, rich stock) and keep the beef bones separate. If you have roasted (or bought) a whole chicken, put the entire carcass in there, including any aromatics that might have been in the cavity. You can add the skin as well, if you'd like, but keep in mind that it's going to add a lot of fat to the broth that will need to be skimmed off. Additionally, I usually keep salt out of my stocks so I can manage the taste of my finished soups; skins, especially of bought rotisserie chickens, are generally highly seasoned, so you'll want to take that into account as well.
- Hopefully, every week the night before trash day you do a fridge clean-out. During that fridge clean out, you will inevitably come across a couple of carrots or celery stalks that are floppy and not that appealing, but not really so bad off that they need to be tossed. Great! Pop those in the bowl with your bones. Every time you stem mushrooms, pop those in the bowl. Garlic, ginger, and leftover herbs all play beautifully in homemade broths.
- When your bowl is full, put the entire contents in your slow cooker, add a few peppercorns, any other aromatics you might not have put into your freezer container, and top off the crock with plain cold tap water. If your container had only bones and you're making the stock for a specific recipe, it can be helpful to check that recipe for specific aromatics -- carrots, celery, leeks, onions, garlic, ginger, etc. -- that might help to make your finished product really stellar.
- Turn the crockpot on Low and let it cook 12-24 hours, or on High 6-12 hours.
I have a six-quart crock pot, so when I cook like this I end up with a little more than four quarts of stock. I keep mine in mason jars. I usually use up my stock quick enough that it's not necessary to freeze, but if you make yours to freeze, be cautious about your containers. I learned the hard way that mason jars sometimes crack in the freezer (I think I have better success freezing in mason jars when they've chilled overnight in the refrigerator first). It is possible to buy BPA-free freezer containers, or you can just use your delicious ingredient in the same week that you make it.
Note that a beautifully made stock like this one will yield a high gelatin content (from the bones) so when it is cold it really will look like a semi-congealed meat Jello, which sounds awful. But once you heat it in your soup, it will be flavorful, rich, and satisfying.