Several times, in earlier posts, I have alluded to the Chinese cooking medium, known in English, as a ‘master sauce’ or ‘master stock’, which builds layers of taste and incredible complexity through continual re-use. I have been thinking that this would be a very good project for a series of posts in the new year, but, for now, I want to take a look at a much simpler sort of stock for more immediate use.
There are several different types of stock used in the Chinese kitchen… One, the so called ‘superior stock’, is quite complex (and will be featured in a later post), but it’s simpler cousin, a basic chicken stock, is no less indispensible in Chinese cuisine as it is to any good kitchen in the west. Although the additional ingredients we will be using here are specifically chosen for their ‘Chinese’ flavor, the basic technique is little different than that for any sort of stock and is one which any serious cook will want to have in his or her repertoire…
Our ingredients are very simple and include chicken parts and water, plus a little ginger, scallion, peppercorns and just a little rice wine as additional, albeit mild, taste components.
You can make a decent stock using just bones and scraps of meat (and it is good practice to save chicken bones and what have you in the freezer for this purpose) but I tend to save bones and trimmings for blended stocks, such as the chicken and pork type that is also very popular in Chinese cookery. For a good, rich chicken stock, however, we need to use the whole flesh and bone together. You can use a whole chicken cut up, or a collection of parts for this. The darker meat tends to render more flavor, hence the thighs and legs you see above, but a good proportion of wings also helps to add the gelatinous quality that make a full-bodied stock. I am using a little over 4 pounds of chicken pieces and about a third of the weight is wings.
There are no hard and fast proportions of water to chicken, but a pretty good ratio is 3 cups of water for every pound of chicken. Accordingly, our ingredient list for this batch is as follows:
- 4lbs Chicken parts;
- 12 cups water;
- 1 bunch scallions (white and light green part only);
- 6 thick slices of Ginger;
- ¼ cup Rice Wine, preferably Shaoxing (you can substitute dry sherry);
- 1 tsp. White Peppercorns.
The first step in the process is a very important, and one that is usually overlooked. In so many recipes for stock, you are told to add the main ingredients to water, bring it to the boil, and then skim off the foamy scum and detritus from the surface, repeating as necessary after you lower the stock to a simmer. A much better process, however, and one which reduces the need for skimming and produces a cleaner, clearer result, is to blanch the chicken first. Here’s what you do…
Bring a large pot of water to the boil. This is not the water in the ingredient list, and it doesn’t matter how much you use; just make sure there is enough to more than cover all the meat and add a good pinch of salt for every quart or so.
When the water is boiling, add the chicken parts and leave them for long enough (3 – 5 minutes is about right) that they are completely white with no pink visible. They will still be raw in the middle at this point, but just make sure the outsides are free of any pinkish color.
Now drain the meat into a colander and rinse it all off well. It is a good practice to actually wash the pieces individually to make sure that each is free of any of the scum and ‘bits’ released into the water during cooking. Also, if you are going to re-use the blanching pot to make the stock, make sure you clean it well and scrub away the scum ring from the sides and any bits and pieces clinging to the bottom.
When you are ready, put your scallions into the bottom of the pot, arrange the chicken parts on top and then add the water along with the ginger, wine and peppercorns. Put the pot on low heat and then as the water warms, gradually increase the heat as necessary to maintain a gentle simmer. In contrary to most recipe instructions, you don’t need to bring everything to a boil and, in fact, it is preferable to avoid that. Some liquid will evaporate, of course, and it is a good idea to taste the stock periodically. Essentially, by the end of the cooking time, you should have a good, rich tasting result that is full of flavor, yet still delicate.
Continue to cook, but keep an eye on things, making sure to go no higher than a moderate simmer. The optimum time is around about four hours, but a bit longer is fine. In either event, start counting the time from the point that the stock reaches a decent simmer, rather than when you first put it on the heat. During the simmering, you will need to skim any additional detritus that arises, but if you have blanched and rinsed properly, this will be minimal.
At the end of the simmering time allow the stock to cool a little and then carefully remove the chicken pieces with tongs or a slotted spoon, being careful not to disturb or break up the pieces too much. Afterwards, pour the stock into a fresh container through a strainer to remove any bits. If you really want to improve the clarity of the finished product, you can line your strainer with a few layers of cheesecloth. For using the stock as a base for very clear soups, this is a good idea but for most uses it is not really necessary.
Using the remaining Chicken…
As for the leftover chicken pieces, you have a few options… First, you can eat them as is, although, even if you have simmered for a bare four hours, much of their flavor will have been given up to the stock. With some spicy flavorings, however, the meat can be used in other preparations, and an ingredient in dumpling fillings is one such idea. For those who have cats or dogs, though, the leftover meat and skin, suitably chopped, is also a pretty decent augment to their usual fare and our kitties, at least, seem to enjoy this treat.
Finally, as long as you haven’t cooked the chicken for too long the first time, you can use it to make a second round of stock. If you do, you will want to use a little less water and add a few more flavorings in addition to the ginger and scallion… Some dried mushrooms, perhaps, and possibly some garlic and a little more rice wine than in the first ‘run’, are all good. The best result, would be to combine the remaining pieces with other chicken bones and trimmings from your freezer, along with pork bones and scraps to make a ‘combination stock’ as alluded to above. We will look at this in another post some time.
Using the Stock…
If your stock is still a little weaker than you like, you can reduce somewhat by cooking down for a little longer. In this event, avoid boiling and let it simmer a second time until it tastes right. Avoid adding any seasonings, or salt, until it has reached the desired concentration.
Once the stock is cooled in the refrigerator, you will see some fat congeal on the surface. You can remove this if you wish, but a little fat won’t hurt and I tend to leave it as it adds to the flavor and texture once reheated. You can keep it in the fridge for about four or five days, although you can extend the life a little if you bring it to a boil and then cool down again every four days or so. Far better, however, is to freeze it and, if you wish to use small amounts for stir-fry sauces and the like, it is a good idea to freeze some of the batch in ice-cube trays so that you can easily take what you need for a given use.
Primarily, chicken stock is used as a soup in and of itself, as a base for more complex soups or casseroles, or as a sauce base. I will use a little of this batch for a soup within the next few days, freeze some, and then use about half of it as the base for a slightly more complex stock using pork and mushrooms. I will post the results of that in due course…