There are no shortcuts to building great flavors, and few things bear that philosophy out better than stock made from scratch.
To kick off the Chef It Up series, I couldn't think of a more fitting place than where many chefs start their recipes: stock.
Nowadays, it's easy to find stock in many forms at the grocery store, from powders to pastes and cartons of liquid. But there really is no substitute for a homemade stock.
For more than two decades, The Coach House, 6437 Avondale Drive, has been the playground of chef Kurt Fleischfresser, and few kitchens have produced more consistently delicious foods using classic French techniques.
At least one burner on the stove facing the tiny kitchen line at the Coach House,, which is under the Western Concepts umbrella, almost always holds an enormous stock pot. Whether the pot percolates with chicken, veal or beef stock is a matter of the calendar.
Fleischfresser's kitchen is not only the place where some of the state's finest foods are born but also some of it finest chefs. The Coach House Apprenticeship Program births chefs who complete a 36-month journey from the bottom rung of kitchen tasks to heading dinner service.
So, the kitchen is part classroom — meaning Fleischfresser and chef de cuisine David Henry have a responsibility to ignore shortcuts and preach the gospel of focusing on individual ingredients before combining them to build complex flavor profiles.
Few things could be more simple than stock, but that doesn't mean it's easy — especially if time-consuming falls under the definition of complicated in your lexicon.
Fleischfresser took time out of his schedule to talk to me about the importance of stock and show me how to make a simple blond chicken stock.
Of utmost importance, Fleischfresser said, is using high-quality, fresh chicken.
“Your stock will only be as good as the chicken you use,” he said. “There's no such thing as ‘Oh, this is going bad, I better make stock out of it.' Making the stock is only going to magnify the bad aspects.
“Making a stock is probably closer to my heart than a lot of chefs because the chef I trained under (Bernard Cretier) learned from Paul Bocuse and the Troisgros brothers, and he trained as a saucier,” Fleischfresser said. “The basis for all fine dining and, really, good food is all these little components that have to build up, and stock is literally the base for all that goes on in the kitchen.”
Fleischfresser said Cretier didn't let the apprentices make the stock at first. Rather, they did the simplest tasks such as cutting ingredients for the stocks into properly sized pieces before they moved up the chain of apprentices and finally to the chef.
“We make chicken, lamb, duck, veal, and they all have to be consistent, otherwise our dishes don't taste consistent.” Fleischfresser said.
A stock's most basic use is for soup, but Fleischfresser points out stock is also the foundation for practically every sauce a chef makes. So, knowing what ingredients are in your stock is integral to building your own recipe.
There's no way you're going to want to go to all the trouble Fleischfresser, Henry and crew go to. For instance, for the duck stock, they start with three carcasses, roast the bones, make a stock and store it. The next day, they roast another set of bones, immerse it from the stock made the day before, and cycle through the process again for an even richer stock. Yet another set of bones is roasted the third day, immersed in the same stock, and simmered once more for an ultrarich stock.
“The duck stock is the one stock we don't skim the fat from,” Fleischfresser said. “Duck fat is so rich and flavorful, it creates this silky mouth feel that coats the palate and has a very unique and complex finish.”
When making chicken stock, you can use raw chicken bones for a clear stock and roasted bones for a darker, richer stock, he said. Clear stock might be more useful for soup, whereas dark stock might be better suited for reductions, but either will work.
But for our purposes, we'll stick with chicken stock. The stock will cook in under an hour if you use a tall stock pot, which is built for maximum heat-conduction efficiency. A regular soup pot might take a little longer. Beef stock, on the other hand, requires longer cook times and usually some coordination with your butcher to procure bones best suited for the rigors of roasting and simmering required.
What about the difference between stock and broth? In a word: salt. Stocks traditionally are seasoned lightly or not at all. Fleischfresser used a little salt on his vegetables when he sauteed them in oil to help cook off their vegetal flavor qualities.
The other difference is what's on the bones. Stock is made from bones with a little trim attached, while broth more often is made with whole pieces of meat. Broth is more ready to eat as it's been seasoned, while stock is a base. Both can be used in many recipes as a replacement for water to instill deeper, more complex flavor.
When Fleischfresser made his stock for us, he couldn't resist dressing it up with extra salt and fresh herbs for a soul-massaging light afternoon snack. And the aroma? The Japanese refer to the feeling that draws a long, satisfying sigh as umami. The aroma of the chicken stock certainly had elements of umami, which created an anticipation practically impossible to live up to. But it did.
Here is chef Kurt Fleischfresser's basic chicken stock recipe. He said you can follow the same technique using a roasted chicken carcass, which I later did and was thrilled with the result.
3 chicken carcasses (or about 3 pounds of meaty chicken bones)
3 stalks of celery
1 large onion
1 bay leaf
3 tablespoons of kosher salt
A dozen or so black peppercorns
Several sprigs of fresh thyme
1 whole head of garlic
¼ cup olive oil
Water to cover
Source: Chef Kurt Fleischfresser
Editor's note: Chef It Up is a monthly series in which local chefs share secrets that set the flavors in their food apart from the common household kitchen.