Winter is nearby, which means soups and stews are a favorite of families and chefs nationwide. There is little that is more comforting than a bowl of a hearty soup on a night when the outside world is lined with ice and snow. I consider soup to be my absolute favorite thing to cook, there is a lot of time and care that goes into my soups, but it is a labor of love. With that in mind, what I am about to tell you will not only give you a greater depth of flavor than you probably ever imagined, it can also save you hundreds of dollars a year.
Let me tell you a little secret, I obsess about maximizing the ingredients I work with whether in a restaurant, or in my home kitchen. I constantly harp on the line about proper portioning and prepping vegetables as needed rather than slicing them and letting them spoil in a quart container. It kills me to throw out a couple carrots or celery after they’ve lost their rigidity or herbs when they begin to spoil. While I do my best to not buy too much more than I know I’ll use in the next week, there is, almost inevitably, some form of waste. Even tossing the ends of celery, carrot peels, and the last bits of an onion have always bothered me.
Waste obviously affects you financially, the more you can coax from an ingredient the less often you will have to buy that ingredient; better yet, using vegetables in their totality will eliminate the need to buy certain common ingredients ever again. Not to mention, there is a lot of work from a lot of different people to go from a seed to the ground to being harvested to the truck to the grocery store and ending up in our kitchens. To use scraps is to respect the workers and the ingredient. I believe if you respect the process then your food will taste better because you will be more appreciative of what you have to work with in the kitchen.
How often do you use vegetable stock? My girlfriend is a lactose intolerant pescatarian, so I use vegetable stock very regularly for anything from “chicken” (tofu) noodle soup, risotto, braising liquid, and cooking cous cous, just to mention a few. I used to buy at least a couple quarts of vegetable stock a week, often more. Then it came to me, why not save the bits and pieces I throw away and see what I could do with them. After a couple of weeks, my container was full and I settled on attempting vegetable stock. The end result was fantastic, more flavorful and more rewarding. But seriously, the flavor is so much better than a store bought stock. I did blind taste tests with my roommates and my girlfriend and the result was unanimous in favor of my homemade “scrap” stock. I even had ultimate control of the salt level, oftentimes choosing to keep the stock without sodium because each recipe calls for a different level of seasoning. Everything that I would have used store-bought stock in the past now has a greater depth of flavor with pretty minimal effort. And here’s how…
- Buy a large plastic container with a lid, mine holds up to 5 liters and is in the shape of a rectangle.
- Make a list of usable vegetable scraps and post on the refrigerator for family members or roommates
- Freeze scraps as they accumulate
- Make stock from scraps
Important Tips: first, while your stock will come out darker than if you were to use the vegetables rather than the scraps, washing them thoroughly makes a very noticeable difference in the strained end result. Dirt and grit are enemies to a nicely colored stock. Second, the more scraps you use equals more flavorful, yet darker, stock, for better or worse, you don’t always want a strong stock base. Along those same lines, the key is to heat the water up gently and for a limited time period; do not exceed medium heat or 45 minutes over the flame. Third, the very outer layer of onion as well as the root end will also make the stock darker than desired. Finally, DO NOT INCLUDE anything in the cabbage family, greens, peppers, corn, broccoli/cauliflower, squash of any kind, potatoes, rosemary/tarragon, cilantro. That being said, you can absolutely make a stock with a specific dish in mind, such as peppers for a romesco soup or corn for a corn chowder, squash also works very well as a base for squash soup, but they tend to lend too much flavor as a stock ingredient to include it for other soups. The cabbage family makes stock very bitter.
Here is my list of ingredients and scraps I freeze:
- all onions and members of the onion family including scallions, shallots and leeks
- celery and celeriac
- carrots or parsnips
- herbs such as thyme, parsley, oregano, chives
- mushrooms (consider keeping mushrooms separate for a mushroom stock)
So now, you have a container full of frozen vegetable scraps. Keep in mind, the celery and onions give mild flavor and light color, parsnips maintain a lighter color but they impart a lot of their flavor, carrots contribute a lot of flavor and color. So knowing that, I try to usually maintain something like a ratio of 2 parts onion family, 2 parts celery family, 1 part carrot or parsnip. If I don’t have enough scraps of a particular item, I will just add whatever’s needed. Herbs and garlic are a wonderful addition to give your stock great depth and I have never had a problem with too many. I also add 1 tbsp whole peppercorns and 3 bay leaves to the mixture. If you have larger chunks of vegetables in your scrap bin, you can always saute them to get a little carmelization for even more depth in flavor. For instance, from time to time I do not use the last of my celery or carrots in time, they lose their rigidity; however, those are perfect additions to stock that benefit from a quick saute. So here is what you do to make the stock:
- Saute vegetables in a large pot, if desired
- Put in all ingredients and fill pot with water about 1-2 inches above the vegetables.
- Heat everything on medium heat, there should just be a few bubbles that come up
- Simmer for 30-45, no more
- Strain ingredients through cheesecloth or a chinois
- Let stock cool, then put in containers, label and date, and place in the refrigerator or the freezer
Finished stock stays for up to a week in a fridge or 6 months in a freezer. In no more than 1 hour, you can have the most flavorful vegetable stock you have ever had and it won’t cost you a dime if you save your scraps.