Forget about bland vegetable stock. Sauteing the vegetables brings out their flavor and makes a richer, fuller-bodied stock.
Ask any great chef, especially a French one, what’s the most important ingredient in his or her culinary arsenal, and the reply will likely be “stock.” Good stock can be like liquid gold, enhancing everything it touches. But vegetable stock – made without the chicken, veal, or beef bones that add flavor and body to stock – is far too often bland, thin, insipid Most recipes toss a bunch of vegetable scraps into a pot, add cold water, and simmer for an hour or so. In general, the results are underwhelming.
For this story, I was looking for a better way. I wanted to develop a few easy-to-prepare, high-quality vegetable stocks to serve as the foundation for soups, rice dishes, pasta sauces, dressings, sauces, and more. My kitchen work focused on techniques and then specific ingredients.
There are four basic methods that chefs and cookbook authors choose from to make vegetable stock. I decided to try all four using equal parts of diced carrots, onions, celery, and leeks – the staples in most vegetable stock recipes. For these tests I wanted to make small batches of stock, so I started out with four cups of vegetables to five cups of water.
The first method, and the most common, is to dice the vegetables and then simmer them in a lot of water. The mixture is poured through a mesh strainer, and a large spoon is used to press out liquid and flavor from the trapped solids. (This straining method is the same in all four stock-making techniques.)
The second basic stock-making technique starts with the theory that vegetables need to release their flavors before being inundated with cold water. Diced vegetables are sweated in a covered pot filled with a little water for about twenty minutes. Once the vegetables are soft (and presumably have released their flavor), the remaining cold water is added and the stock is simmered for an hour.
The third and fourth methods try to bring out the natural sugars in vegetables before using them to make stock. In one method, diced vegetables are sauteed in butter or oil (I used oil). Water is then added to the pot, and the stock is simmered for an hour or so. The last method starts Out by roasting chopped vegetables in a hot oven (they need to be lightly coated with oil to prevent burning). Boiling water is used to deglaze the roasting pan and lift up the bits of charred vegetable matter that have stuck to the pan. The roasted vegetables and water are then simmered in an open pot for an hour.
When I tried all four recipes, with exactly the same ingredients and same amounts, I was surprised how much variation there was in appearance and flavor among the four stocks. The roasted vegetable stock was dark brown and had a slightly burnt flavor. It would overpower most soups or rice dishes, and I thought it appropriate for only a few dishes with equally strong ingredients, such as a roasted vegetable soup.
The two stocks made without fat (just water and vegetables) were weak. I saw no advantage gained by sweating vegetables in a little water and then simmering them in more water. Starting the vegetables out in the full amount of water is easier and yields the same mediocre results.
The stock made with sauteed vegetables was by far the best. It had some of the sweetness of the roasted vegetable stock without the overpowering caramelized notes. I made several stocks this way and found that it was important to add the cold water after the vegetables had softened considerably, but before any real browning had occurred. Of course, if you want a sweeter, more caramelized flavor, let the vegetables brown a little. The stock will be darker in color and taste more like a roasted vegetable stock.
Focus on the Basics
Many stock recipes read like long shopping lists. Some contain small amounts of peelings and scraps from a dozen or so vegetables. These recipes were developed by restaurant chefs, who are preparing dozens of vegetables every day for other recipes. I wanted to avoid using too many ingredients and wanted to develop recipes that would rely on items the average home cook is likely to have on hand
In this vein, I consider onions, celery, carrots, and leeks to be essential. Together they add sweetness and body and are the backbone of good stock. The proportions I have suggested in my recipes produce a balanced flavor. Of course, a little more onion and a little less leek will deliver similar results. One word of caution: Go easy on the carrots, which can make a stock excessively sweet.
I also like the effect of potato peelings in stock. They help give stock body and balance the sweet vegetables, especially the carrots, with some earthy flavors. Wash the peelings well and do not include too much flesh as it can break down and make the stock very cloudy.
Other vegetables such as celery root, mushrooms, fennel, tomatoes, turnips, asparagus, eggplant, zucchini, and peas can all be used in stock, but are optional. If I happen to have them on hand, I might use them. However, keep in mind that these vegetables have distinctive flavors. Add pea pods if making a stock for pea soup, but note that a stock made with peas may seem odd in a zucchini risotto.
There are vegetables that should be avoided altogether because they will turn bitter or grassy. Members of the brassica family – broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, and kale – can give stock a pungent, off flavor. Artichokes tend to become bitter, and spinach and other leafy greens add little flavor. Beets will dye stock a shocking pink color
Vegetable stock is simple to prepare and allows for plenty of improvisation. However, it is essential to follow a few basic rules. First, do not use old, tired vegetables or scraps. Restaurants may do this to minimize waste, but home cooks should rely on vegetables they would eat. Second, thoroughly wash all vegetables and remove any peels that seem dirty. Dirty carrots will add a muddy flavor to stock that cannot be removed during straining.
In addition to vegetables, good stock needs herbs and aromatics. Parsley adds a pleasant earthy quality and serves as a good balance to sweet ingredients like carrots. I like thyme and bay leaves for the same reason and also appreciate their aromatic qualities. Other herbs, like basil or cilantro, can be used when appropriate – basil in the base for an Italian vegetable soup or cilantro in an Asian stock. Fresh herbs are preferred because they generally are more aromatic and are rarely bitter, a problem with many dried herbs. The one exception is dried bay leaves, which are fine to use.
Unpeeled garlic cloves add flavor to stock. The sharp notes fade with simmering, and what is left is body and a little sweetness. Among spices, I stick with whole black peppercorns for my basic stock They add a faintly spicy, aromatic note. Other spices are quite strong and should be reserved for specific uses. Add cumin seeds for a North African stock or star anise and Szechuan peppercorns for a Chinese stock.
Think of the Basic Vegetable Stock as an all-purpose, light stock that can be used successfully in most any dish. It will reinforce other vegetable flavors but will not dominate or take over. The Mediterranean Stock and Asian Stock are more potent variations with more limited uses. There are dozens of other possibilities. Simply change the aromatics or add a new vegetable or two, and you have a different stock. Just make sure to think ahead and add ingredients that will make sense in the dish in which the stock will be used.
Two final thoughts on using stock. The intensity of a stock can be changed by either mixing it with water or simmering it until reduced. In a rice dish, you may find that you want to cut a strong stock with a little water to mellow its flavor. In contrast, a sauce may require a stronger stock. Simply simmer the stock in an open pot until some of the water has cooked off. The flavors will become more concentrated as more water evaporates.
For this reason, I never salt a stock until I’m ready to use it. If I’m adding stock to a dish that already is salty, I may not want any salt in the stock. In other cases, the stock may need a fair amount of salt or salty ingredients like soy sauce or miso.
As for storing stock it’s fairly perishable. The flavors really fade after a few days. So when I make a batch, I keep what I need for the next two days in the refrigerator. I divide the rest into small containers and freeze them. Frozen stock will keep for at least two months.
BASIC VEGETABLE STOCK
Makes about 1 quart
It is simple, but remember to press on the solids (see step 5) to extract every last bit of flavor from the cooked vegetables and herbs. Don’t worry about using a little oil to saute the vegetables. I really brings out their flavors, and the oil can be removed (see step 6) once the stock has cooled and the fat floats to the surface.
- 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
- 1 medium onion, chopped (about 1 cup)
- 3 large celery ribs with leaves, chopped (about 14 cups)
- 2 small carrots, chopped (about 3/4 cup)
- 1 medium leek roots and toughest leaves discarded, remaining white and green parts chopped (about 1 cup)
- Peelings from 1 large baking potato (about 1/3 cup)
- 2 medium garlic cloves, unpeeled
- 8 sprigs fresh Italian parsley
- 2 sprigs fresh thyme
- 2 dried bay leaves
- 1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
- Heat oil in heavy-bottomed 4-quart pot. Add onion, celery, carrots, and leek and saute over medium heat until soft and just beginning to color, about 15 minutes. Add 6 cups cold water and remaining ingredients. Bring to boil, lower heat, and simmer very gently for 1 hour.
- Pour stock through fine-mesh strainer set over large container. Press on solids to extract as much liquid as possible. Discard solids and cool stock. Use spoon to skim off congealed oil. Stock may be refrigerated for 2 days or frozen for 2 months.
Makes about 1 quart
Tomatoes give stock a light rosy color. This stock has a bit more garlic than the basic recipe and contains fresh basil as well. It has more character and is appropriate in any soup, rice dish, pasta sauce, or stew that contains tomatoes.
Follow basic vegetable stock recipe on this article, replacing vegetable oil with extravirgin olive oil, increasing garlic to four cloves, and adding two chopped plum tomatoes and eight shredded basil leaves with water.
Makes about 1 quart Ginger and scallions make this stock a bit spicy, while dried shiitake mushrooms give it a richer color and meatier flavor. Cilantro replaces the parsley in the basic recipe and lends its distinctive, slightly lemony flavor. This stock works well in Asian soups, stir-fries, rice dishes, and stews. Feel free to change the aromatics for a more customized stock. For instance, add lemongrass for a Thai broth or Szechuan peppercorns for a stronger Chinese stock.
Follow basic vegetable stock recipe on this article, increasing garlic to four cloves and replacing parsley, thyme, and bay leaves with three dried shiitake mushrooms, eight sprigs fresh cilantro leaves, two chopped scallions, and three chin slices fresh gingerroot.
- Roughly chop vegetables into pieces that measure about 3/4-inch-square to expose as much surface area as possible.
- Saute the vegetables in a tiny bit of oil until they are soft. Do not brown the vegetables unless you want a more intense, caramelized flavor.
- Add cold water to the pot and then simmer gently for 1 hour.
- Pour the stock and solids into a fine-mesh strainer set over a large container.
- Use the back of a large spoon to press on the solids and squeeze out as much liquid as possible.
- Cool the stock to room temperature. The fat will congeal on the surface and can be removed with a spoon. The stock may also be refrigerated and then defatted.