The question from the back of the class was “Should I use chicken broth or beef broth?”.
Chef Gabrielle Hamilton had just finished demonstrating a soup to a class of 30 or so home cooks at the De Gustibus Cooking School nestled somewhere in the bowels of the 34th Street Macy’s in Manhattan. I, a culinary student at the time, found myself in attendance on that Saturday morning, trying not to appear as the over eager fanboy of her books that I was.
A few of the students went ahead and chimed in with “chicken stock” which was clearly written in the ingredient list of the recipe packet they had placed at every seat in advance of the class. Chef Hamilton, however, seeing it as a teachable moment for the entire class cleared her throat to address us all.
“Start with water” she began, surveying the classroom attendees. “Would water work in this recipe?
She paused and began nodding signaling the question as rhetorical. She continued, “Then ask yourself: what would taste better than water?”
The class was rendered silent for a moment. Confused by this.
She prodded us further, “Is beef stock better than water?” She asked. And heads began to nod in the class.
“So any stock you have on hand is probably going to taste better than water. If it’s a chicken recipe, then yes, chicken stock may well be the best match, but it’s not absolutely essential. Anything you throw at it is going to give you a result with more depth than water, but if you don’t have anything at all, just use water”
She took a swig of coffee as more questions now rained down. What kind of flour should I use in the pasta? How many cups of broth? I wanted for her to be able to jump out of a window to escape the bullshit like Indiana Jones escaping his lecture students banging at his door during office hours in that one movie.
I sat there staring into my notes smiling and feeling like I had just unlocked something crucial. Stocks are just flavorful liquids. They don’t need to be any more complicated than that. They take on the characteristics of their components. Bones can be roasted, mirepoix can co-star in its usual role of “flavor background”. Ginger can be added as is the case with phở. The variations are endless and read more as riffs on a classic than a set of codified rules once you understand the essence of stock making as simply boiling bones until the water tastes like the thing in the pot.
By that point I had been through the stock making curriculum in culinary school. We had made white stocks and brown stocks out of chicken and veal. We learned which fish work best in a fumet. We made stocks of lobster, of parmesan, and mushroom until we began to see the repetition of the steps involved. We learned the seemingly crucial differences between the bouquet garni and the sachet d’epice. We had then taken those stocks and reduced them to glace consistency for sauces or clarified them into consommé. It all seemed so rigid and yet so powerful. As if Escoffier himself was looking down on us from his starry place of culinary wisdom as we stood in our yet to be soiled kitchen whites trying to make sense of the step by step instruction.
If you search for a French Onion Soup recipe on Google and take a gander at the comments section, there will no doubt be a lively and spirited debate about whether beef stock or chicken stock is the correct thing to use. Then there’s the debate running concurrently over whether one should use red wine or white wine and the one where someone questions the author’s authenticity for the sin of adding Parmesan to cut the gruyere.
Well, according to Joel Robuchon and Loïc Bienassis gastronomical work, French Regional Food, soupe à l'oignon got its start in the old Les Halles market. You know the one, depicted so beautifully in Zola’s The Belly Of Paris. Countless rows of vegetable dealers, sausage makers, fishmongers there to feed all of Paris with ingredients carted in by horse in the pre-dawn hours. The onion soup recipe called for caramelized onions, water, and salt. That’s it. “Pipe stock” as chefs like to refer to it.
The reason for the recipe’s simplicity is obvious when we consider the time and place of its origin - food cost. The cost associated with gathering up discarded onions and caramelizing them on a French top over wood fire was probably pretty minimal. I don’t know how many sou the enterprising chef who invented onion soup would have charged, but I guarantee you that her food cost was a helluva lot better than the 30% chefs aim for these days.
I arrived at my first line cooking job after culinary school full of overconfidence and useless information. You know the old saying “just enough knowledge to be dangerous”? That was me in a nutshell. I was the only kid in my culinary class that actually read Pro Chef. I followed that up with McGee, everything Michael Ruhlman ever wrote, Danny Meyer’s book, and generally any other chefy resource I could get my hands on. I had done everything up to that point to learn how to cook except go to the trouble of actually working as a cook.
One day in the kitchen soon after, I reported to my sous chef that I couldn’t make more veg stock for the pot pie recipe that evening because we didn’t have the fennel that the recipe called for.
He paused from the inventory counts he was doing, dropping his clipboard to his side and replacing his pen in its normal place above his ear to address me.
“Okay, so the spirit of veg stock is that it’s a stock made from trim. If we don’t have fennel, just omit it or use something else that would make sense.”
He motioned for me to follow him into the walk-in. ”Here’s some celeriac trim from that beautiful medium dice you made earlier for the steak set. Let’s use that.”
One by one he pulled quarts and pints from a shelf we referred to as the family meal shelf and handed them to me. “Carrot trim, celery trim, onion trim. Augment that with a couple of fresh onions and maybe another carrot. You want more mirepoix than everything else, but beyond that. It’s all fair game.”
“Also”, he said, taking back one of the quart containers and double tapping the sharpie written label I had written. “Carrot scraps” it read. “Don’t ever use that word - scraps. We don’t have scraps; we have trim. Scrap implies something to be thrown away while trim implies something we can make use of”
That must have been the first minuscule slice of power a chef had ever handed me: the authority to decide what to put in the veg stock using my better judgment. However, the bigger gift from that exchange was that I began to start seeing the stock landscape much more clearly. I was beginning to think in terms of flavor and my culinary training wheels were slowly but surely falling off.
Even though a recipe in a well intended cookbook may call for $30 worth of vegetables and herbs, the only real question you should be asking yourself is - what can I put into the pot to get a vegetal taste. So, at home, take a look at what’s rolling around in the crisper bins - wilting parsnips? Sure! Red onion? Come on in, the water’s fine. Also, take a look at the natural trim that comes attached to all vegetables - celery leaves and ends, parsley stems, and those carrot leaves, while unfortunately too tough to go on the plate, sure do taste a lot like carrots.
How do I know if my chicken stock is ready? Well, does it taste like chicken? That’s the only question you need to ask. If it’s not, then it needs to go back on the fire to cook longer.
For chefs to see you throw away bones, or shrimp shells, or carrot trim it hurts them. To them, those humble items are not just usable trim, but the very foundation of cuisine. They were scolded as young cooks for doing it and they’ve now learned, probably the hard way, that it’s the difference between life and death of a restaurant.
Boxed stock is in every supermarket. It’s now been rebranded as “bone broth”, and that’s not because the general public is ready to learn that bones and other mealy bits form the backbone of all that is wonderful and flavorful in the kitchen. But rather because some enterprising shyster out there has succeeded in telling women that it will get rid of their wrinkles and make them skinny.
Has anyone out there ever tasted that store bought stock? Taken a glug straight from the twist top? It tastes sour! Why on earth would you pour 8 quarts of sour brown water over those fresh vegetables you just cut up and perhaps the fettucini you just cranked out by hand to make a soup?
In the name of thrift we have lost much much more than a willingness to watch bones simmer to give off their flavor over the course of several hours. Sure, you’re still making a chicken soup that’s brown in the way grandma’s was, but you’ve also lost the spirit of frugality that went into making a broth and the foundation of that recipe. It’s a crucial link to our inherited cuisines that’s now gone missing. It’s the knowledge that there is immense value in the bones and the necks and the stems and the wisdom to just use water when you don’t have it on hand.
Instead, we use high-end ingredients to try and patch over our inability and unwillingness to work with the whole animal. If you want a better chicken soup, you need a better chicken farm-to-table die-hards contend. If you’re not buying your chicken from this one very specific individual in the Shenandoah Valley, then your chicken soup won’t taste like chicken! ...or something to that effect. On behalf of anyone who is expected to actually provide for a family, we’re doing ourselves such a disservice by trying to spend our way into authenticity. How would your grandmother feel about you spending $60 on that heritage bird?
Fortunately, there’s a happy medium out there between canned soup and Colin the Chicken. Present Day, in affluent Brooklyn, you can still buy chicken backs from the butcher for under $2 a pound. You can take those backs, cover them with water and boil them for 4 or 6 or 8 hours adding water as needed and come out with a wonderfully flavorful batch of chicken stock that you can freeze in pints for whenever you need it. Want more flavor so your soup tastes better than that of the people who ponied up for Colin? Reduce it by half and kaboom! There you go - double the chicken flavor and half the storage space. I won’t even get into the wonders of pan sauces that you are now privy to with your fresh collagen rich stock.
Why do we see this as an onerous part of cooking that is to be weeded out and seen as redundant in the name of the poor facsimile boxed up and lining that middle nether-region of the supermarket with its aisles and aisles of packaged crap?
Fast forward to present-day and I’m still in that liminal space of being a line-cook and not a chef. I’m somewhere along that road of enlightenment where every little bit of knowledge I unearth feels like the most wonderful gift. I was watching one of those old Jacques Pepin shows the other day, still mesmerized by his knife movements as he worked his way through an onion. His moves communicate so much to the industry folk who watch him work. They tell the story of him as a young apprentice in France, and how out of necessity those hands with that tiny little paring knife learned to work hard and fast to survive a Saturday night service. He used his hand to rake his perfect small dice into a bowl and then held the root of the onion up to the camera when he was done.
“Never ever throw this away” he said looking squarely into the camera. “This can be used for stock or something like that, you know” he added in his still very heavy French accent of the 1980s. There was literally no semblance of onion left on that root, just the dirty hairy nub from the end. I have yet to reach a point in my cooking where I’m washing and utilizing the roots of onions, the carrot peels, the potato starch. That sort of cooking comes from hardship and necessity I tell myself. Jacque grew up in central France during and after the Second World War. Things aren’t like that any more.
But the truth is things are still like that, and I am wrong. Pepin once operated a successful soup kitchen in Manhattan catering to the business lunch crowd. He would know. Today, food costs are on the collective conscience more than ever to the degree that if you work a minimum wage job, you are now scaling back on the things you deem essential at the grocery store. And yet, we’ve still yet to see frugality emerge as a theme in mass market culinary instruction.
A cooking term professionals regurgitate time and time again is “fond”. We will tell you that it’s the browned bits left over in the bottom of a pan after you sear something off. We say there’s big time flavor there; that all those little browned bits, when not burned and properly deglazed and incorporated in the final result, are what make our food better than yours. That answer is partially correct, but according to Julia Child’s Mastering The Art of French Cooking there’s more to it than that. Fond in the original French, she says, is a contraction of fonds de cuisine and loosely described as "the foundation and working capital of the kitchen”.
Learning to work with the mealy bits, the bones, the vegetable trim - that is the warm happy core of cooking. Everything else flows outward from there, and one cannot truly grasp the essence of cooking and connect with the past without first learning the virtue of frugality.