Friday, August 25, 2006

A necessary tool

Another cooking post. Actually, two more. I've got a longwinded one coming, but it's not gelling the way I want. Since I want to get SOMETHING down...

One of my most-used kitchen tools is my crock pot. Oh, sure, there's the six hour chicken and all that sort of thing, but I depend on it for something significantly more important: my stock and my schmaltz.

Buy - butchers quit giving them away a LONG time ago - backs and wingtips. Note that if you're willing to do the work you're better off buying whole chickens, processing them for breasts, thigh quarters, and 'buffalo wing parts', but I'm lazy and these parts aren't THAT expensive. Anyway, buy enough to fill your crockpot halfway.

Now add a tablespoon of acid - I use white vinager. (I've used rice vinegar, I've used other vinegars and citric acids and even a few other things, and in the end you just can't taste it. So this is a time when you go with the cheap stuff.) IF YOU WANT, add some rough chopped onion and celery and carrot and anything else you want flavoring your broth. Me, just the vinegar as it gives me more freedom in the end. Anyway, fill the crockpot up to an inch short of the top. Cook for, well, now it depends. You want the broth to be rich. But after a point you start adding complex flavors from the browning of it all. And if you go too long it tastes burnt. So in the end, your first time you should cook it for four hours, and then taste it every half hour or so till it's what you want. For my taste and pot, eight hours is right.

Have a large pot or bowl with a collander in or on it - it's got to be large enough to hold the contents. Have a cooler large enough to hold this pot that's filled about 2 to 4 inches deep with ice, and have some small CLEAN jars that were half-filled with water and then frozen standing by as well. Back to the collander - if you've got cheesecloth or a mesh strainer I recommend using as an additional layer of catching. Pour everything into the (lined?) collander. Lift out the collander and get more moisture out. This surprisingly soft mass can go several places including compost, but I have an animal problem if I put meat remains out so it's into the trash. For the rest, the bowl goes into the cooler, a couple of jars go into the liquid, the lid gets closed, and I go away for half an hour.

An interruption - this isn't how I used to cool my broth. I used a much more complex system to try and get through the danger zone of 140 to 40 degrees. Credit where it's due, I learned this from Alton Brown's Good Eats, the episode in which he makes stock. Back to work.

Now take a moment to look at the broth. It should be gelatin now. If it's not, you didn't cook long enough in the crockpot. Remember this for next time, put the broth into a pan to boil and reduce by a quarter or so, and cool it again. Anyway...

If it IS gelatin, you've got three layers sitting here. On the top is chicken fat aka schmaltz. Just like bacon grease, I'm going to tell you DO NOT THROW IT AWAY. Like bacon grease and GOOD olive oil, the flavor compounds in it make this pure culinary gold. I put the disk into a saucepan, melt it, and pour it into an ice cube tray - each 'cube' about half full. This gives me a bunch of chunks of about a tablespoon in size. I wrap each in foil, then they all go into a plastic bag that gets labeled "SCHMALTZ" and the date of creation. Oh - throwaway date for these is one month. I've used them at two and they're OK, but at three even with the double protection they're beginning to get odd tastes. And at the rate I go through broth, there's always plenty to throw away.

Now that the schmaltz is gone, I turn the bowl over onto a platter. And I use a somewhat sharp object - a table knife is good enough - to cut off the bottom. This part's real easy to see as it's full of the little chunks of solid that were too fine for the strainer. Now, you don't have to remove this. But if you keep it, whenever you make something with the broth it's going to have those chunks floating. It's an appearance thing, really. My wife can't stand the looks, so this becomes a bonus for the pets. The rest gets melted again (yes, possibly a third time) and poured into freezing containers of one and two cups. These containers go into the cooler WITHOUT the jars - they're small enough that the exterior ice seems to be enough for rapid cooling - then when solid again they get a layer of plastic wrap and a lid, and finally a label: chicken broth, date.

I don't think the crock pot is the FIRST cooking implement I'd send to a college student (that's actually an electric skillet), but it's high on the list. And just for the broth it's worth the price.


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