With the weather getting cooler, soup is starting to become a more desirable dining option.
The simplest secret to a great soup is the stock, the basic broth that becomes the foundation for all the meat, vegetables, grains and fish that make each soup distinctive.
I try to avoid categorical statements, but I will allow this one: no stock you buy in a can will ever be as remotely delicious as a stock you make yourself.
Canned stock is little more than slightly tinted, heavily salted water with perhaps a little chicken or beef fat mixed in. A few years ago, I vowed never to buy commercially prepared stock again.
Making stock is a surprisingly simple three-step process. Here’s my recipe for making beef or chicken stock (probably the most common):
1. Cook the bones
To cook the bones, get a big stock pot and put in the bones (along with a carrot, celery, onion, bay leaf, salt and pepper). I put the pot in the oven at 200 degrees for about 8 hours (it goes in when I go to bed; I take it out in the morning). Basically, what I’m doing is turning my oven into an immense crock-pot: the low, all-around heat ensures nothing will burn and the long cook ensures maximum flavor extraction.
To strain, simply remove solid material; all you want is the liquid. Some recipe books suggest you put the liquid through a cheese cloth, but that kind of refinement is really only suggested if you’re making a super-smooth sauce. For stock, I just use a slotted spoon or maybe run the liquid through a colander. Some little pieces in the liquid are no big deal.
To reduce, put the pot on a low heat and cook for a long time (actual time depends on the amount of liquid you have, but 4-6 hours is not uncommon). The more you reduce, the more intense and concentrated the flavor. Do not boil the reduction; when you do that, the fats emulsify, and you can get a murky, slightly slimy broth.
Once you have your stock, you can use it immediately for a soup or put it in a container and freeze it for later use.
Final hint: the better the bones, the better the broth. Bones from a high-quality cut of beef or one of the excellent farm-raised chickens available at the Oak Park Farmers’ Market or Whole Foods will yield a broth that will make you very happy.