|Beef bones. The "after" picture.|
Considering all that pseudo-experience with cooking the stuff, I shamefully haven't branched out much by way of new techniques or different cuts. This weekend saw my first beef stock, cooked from roasted soup bones, and there is a pan full of short ribs braising in half a bottle of wine in the oven right now. I resisted the urge to try a new recipe on the short ribs and opted for the relatively tame but always delicious method: brown the beef, mirepoix, herbs, wine. We'll save the mustard and molasses for next time.
I first read about brown soup stock in Jeff Smith's wonderful cookbook, The Frugal Gourmet. I grew up watching this man on PBS and remember vividly the first time I saw him put a bay leaf into a pot of soup. His cookbook reads like a friendly conversation, and includes anecdotes, substitutions, and serving suggestions. As much as I appreciate the cooking tomes that are heavy on science, it is lovely to run across something this approachable. While shopping for kitchen antiques at my local thrift store, I triumphantly hit the Frugal jackpot when I found this book as well as The Frugal Gourmet Cooks With Wine (Jeff Smith was a United Methodist minister, so you can bet the relationship between wine and theology is well-explored here) and The Frugal Gourmet Cooks American. Perhaps it's nostalgia talking, but I cannot recommend these books enough.
In all of Jeff Smith's books, he worked hard to keep the recipes simple and inexpensive. Most pack a lot of flavor from economical sources, and he recommends spending one day a week getting ahead of your cooking by cleaning and wrapping your salad ingredients, chopping and sauteing vegetables for frittatas, and making brown soup stock. The later soup recipes in the chapter suggest great savings by not having to use any meat, only this delicious and satisfying stock. I had my doubts about this method, but having tasted this incredible stock, I am a believer.
6 2" slices of beef soup bones or bare rendering bones
2 onions, quartered
4 carrots, sliced
4 celery stalks
12 black peppercorns
1 bay leaf
1. First, get some beef bones. Beef soup bones are fine, and if there is some meat and fat on the bones, that's fine too. The more fat you start with, the more you will be pulling off the cooled stock, so you can carve the excess off with a sharp paring knife if you'd like.
2. Line a sheet pan with foil and equally space your bones. Bake at 375 degrees until the bones are nicely browned, turning with tongs when necessary. Don't panic like I did when you check on them and find they're sitting in melted fat even though you thought you trimmed it all off. The rendering is just part of the process, and if you turn the pieces around in the fat, it will help the bones brown. The browning can take up to 2 hours.
3. Place all the vegetables, peppercorns and bay leaf in a slow cooker and cover with boiling water. (I like to jump start the cooking and keep an eye toward food safety by making sure all the hot foods stay hot.) Do not salt the stock. When the bones are nicely browned, carefully pick them up with tongs and nestle them into the hot water. Allow this to cook on low heat for 8-10 hours. Overnight is fine, but you will be hungry in the morning! Add more boiling water if the water level gets too low.
If you don't have a slow cooker, you can make this stock the same way we make chicken stock. You can set to a very gentle simmer on the stovetop all day, or you can cover and bake in the oven at 225-250 degrees.
4. Remove all the solids and strain. Chill, then remove the hardened fat that will sit at the top of the bowl. To save freezer space and time when you use the stock later, boil the stock in a pan on the stove until it has reduced significantly. When you use it, you can always thin it down with water or wine.
5. Cool, and either use immediately or pour into an ice cube tray to freeze. Pop the beefy cubes out and put them in a zip-top freezer bag to use when needed.
Even though I've made dozens of batches of chicken stock, making beef stock out of bones alone was surprisingly nerve-wracking. The bones released a lot of oil while roasting and smelled weird. The water just tasted oily after a few hours, and still tasted oily after a few hours more. I had my doubts every step of the way.
But the stock fairy must have come in the middle of the night because what was in the pot last night was long gone, and in its place was a smooth, savory broth, with a deep, almost sweet flavor. I pulled the glistening bones with their bulging marrow out of the stock. I know this sounds gruesome, but it wasn't. It was fantastic. And considering there wasn't a stitch of meat on those bones to start with, to get such a deep flavor and dark color is amazing. I will be adding this to my weekend repertoire. Like, next weekend. Because I have suddenly thought of all kinds of things I'd like to use it in. Next project? French onion soup.