Like most people I bought into the widely held idea of the Victorian stockpot - a huge vat, sitting on the stove for months on end, reducing every kitchen scrap from plate scrapings to rancid bacon to a nutritious broth - but it turns out to be a bit of a culinary myth. Several well-meant handbooks for the working classes did suggest just such a pot, but there's little evidence anyone actually used one. Meanwhile, Mrs Beeton, Eliza Acton and Alexis Soyer wrote really quite sensible recipes for sophisticated, pure-flavoured stocks we'd recognise in a restaurant kitchen today.
The reason the stockpot fits so well with our idea of the Victorian kitchen is the way it symbolises the virtue of thrift. Certainly those reforming food writers who suggested stock-making to the poor were trying to make sure that every vital hint of nourishment was utilised. The idea of extracting all available flavour from your ingredients seems so sensible, yet home cooks often don't bother. Perhaps it's the convenience of stock cubes, perhaps it's the worry that the method is somehow complicated and involved.
The truth is that stock-making isn't so much about recipes, as a regime. It's a kind of commitment to a way of working in the kitchen that involves little investment in terms of time or organisation and can yield astounding results. People who get organised to bake their own bread are evangelistic about it and attract a certain amount of admiration, but stock-makers are a different breed. They have a secret that endows them with a feeling of righteousness for using every last ounce, plus the knowledge that their cooking will taste better.
Having stock in the freezer means that homemade soup can be made from any seasonal ingredient in minutes. Stews and casseroles take on a new and complex richness. The extra flavour means you can often cut back on fats and salt. Sauces are transformed. In fact, though you could justifiably characterise me as a bit of a swivel-eyed stock extremist, I can't think of any other culinary trick or technique that has transformed my own cooking as much as making and using stock.
Here then, are my top 10 stock tips, but I'd really love to hear yours.
1. Beef is the dark complex lovely of the stock family. I don't make it anywhere near as often as chicken, but the products it generates are all useful enough to warrant a special effort when I do. I usually buy veal or beef bones specially for the occasion and roast them first, along with the usual vegetable suspects - carrots, turnip, onions and celery. Roasting makes for a darker stock with a sweeter edge supplied by the caramelisation. If I'm starting with a couple of kilos of roast bones I'll usually add 500g or so of cheapish stewing steak to the pot. Something with loads of connective tissue and gristly bits. This boosts the beefy flavour and adds more gelatinous body.
2. Vegetable and fish stocks, often known as fumets are so delicate they don't really benefit from long cooking or reduction. Because they don't reduce much you can add aromatic herbs and even salt without fear that the flavours will concentrate and dominate. I usually make fish or vegetable stock as I need it, using only slightly more water than the eventual quantity I'm looking for. A bay leaf is usually a good addition, along with carrots, celery and a small quantity of onion. I find turnip a little assertive in fumets. Really mince the vegetables to release maximum flavour and use all the trimmings from your fish - skin, scales, heads and tails.
3. If you spot smoked hock or smoked belly pork going cheap at your butcher's, snap it up quickly. Smoked pork stock is a tremendous standby, making a near instant soup with almost any pulse. Dried peas are my favourite, though canned white beans create something that might be considered more sophisticated.
4. Making a well-reduced stock purely with pig trotters is a good idea about once a year. It sets like rubber and can be cut into small cubes before freezing. It has little flavour but you can throw a couple of the cubes into any other stock, sauce or soup that needs the thickening power of gelatine.
5. I usually take half of each batch of chicken or beef stock and reduce it by half to make a stronger, more jellied version and finally reduce a small quantity to a really thick glaze. It's down to gut feel how you use each but loosely, the first concentration provides the body of soups or stews, the second adds flavour where necessary and the third is a punchy ingredient in small quantities of sauce.
6. Pour cooled stocks into sealable plastic bags and freeze flat. This means that portions can be stacked in the freezer, each taking up no more space than a thin magazine and, if you need a smaller quantity, you can snap it off and save the rest for later. If you're freezing larger quantities, lay a couple of chopsticks under each bag as it freezes, leaving grooves in the frozen stock so you can break it off like chocolate.
7. Keep stocks clear by simmering them long and low. You can remove the fat easily by refrigerating the stock overnight then lifting off the solidified top layer the following day. If you're really hardcore, you'll store the fats and find a way to cook with them, but we can still be friends if you throw them away.
8. To completely clarify a stock, freeze it solid then allow it to defrost slowly, overnight, in a colander lined with a clean linen cloth or several layers of muslin. Personally, I reckon life's too short for consommés, but just in case you ever have to, that's how it's done.
9. You might find yourself making stock by accident. If you ever poach fish or chicken or have liquid left over after braising meat you have a useable rough stock. It won't take much reduction if it's already been seasoned, but it's way too good to go down the sink. Label it, freeze it and you'll find it comes in handy somewhere.
10. Any set of stock ingredients (except with vegetable stock) can be reused after the first liquid is drained off. Top back up with cold water, add fresh vegetables if you can and simmer up a second 'remouillage' stock. It's rougher stuff but still makes a great stewing medium. Make sure you label it properly before freezing.
So what are your favourite hints, tips, trucs and recipes for stock?