The Delicious Alchemy of Consommé

Photo by Nicholas L. Hall
Consommé so clear you can see the markings on a Chemex at the bottom of a quart or so ...
I've always been obsessed with the alchemical nature of cooking. There's a transformative aspect to the process of applying heat to food that feels almost like an enchantment. It's not without cause that the lore of witches and wizards is riddled with potions, concoctions and cauldrons. Of course, as with spells, not all cooking is created equal. Baking a potato doesn't have quite the same mystique as baking a souffle. I think of it kind of like a culinary rendering of Clarke's Third Law: Any sufficiently transformative recipe is indistinguishable from magic.

Consommé has always been one such recipe. Or, rather, one such technique. First, there's the basic step of throwing a bunch of bones into a pot of water and winding up with something delicious. Then, there's the clarity achieved in the final product, a clarity that shocked me the first time I made it happen. Beyond even that is the utterly mystifying fact that the soup essentially clarifies itself. If that's not magic, I don't know what is.

The first time I can remember hearing about consommé was in Michael Ruhlman's "The Making of a Chef." A consommé, Ruhlman learns, while studying at the Culinary Institute of America, is not sufficiently clear until you can read "the date on a dime at the bottom of a gallon." That floored me when I first read it. I was making competent stock by that point in my life, and would even go so far as to strain it a few times, occasionally. A stock clear enough to see through seemed like flat-out witchcraft. To be honest, it still kind of does.

These days, consommé is mostly the province of frou frou dining rooms, which makes some sense. It's time consuming, a little fussy, and arguable in its utility. There's really nothing you can do with a consommé that you can't pretty much do with a stock. A consommé just does it cooler.

That said, I firmly believe consommé is worth making. It's worth making for the education provided by the process, the fascinating nature of that process, and the magic-trick-reveal you get at the end. Clarke's Third Culinary Law is delicious.

The whole thing intimidated me for a long time. It's the sort of technique that has a sort of gravitas around it; an air of being out of reach. Over the past few years, I've been working on tackling exactly those sorts of cooking projects, the ones that intimidate me (real-deal scratch biscuits, for example). So far, they've all proven far more graspable than I'd led myself to believe, and consommé was no different.

click to enlarge Lovely, gelatin-rich stock waiting for its raft. - PHOTO BY NICHOLAS L. HALL
Lovely, gelatin-rich stock waiting for its raft.
Photo by Nicholas L. Hall
First, I started with some good homemade stock. I strained it through a fine-mesh strainer, then set it aside to chill. Once chilled, I removed the cap of fat that had floated to the surface and solidified, and poured the stock into a clean pot.

I set the pot over a moderate flame and brought the stock to a gentle simmer. As the stock heated, I cracked and separated a few eggs, reserving the yolks for another use, and beat the whites until thoroughly whipped but without adding volume.

While stirring the pot constantly, I slowly added the whites. It's important to keep stirring and scrapping the bottom of the pot at this point, or your eggs will stick, and you won't form a raft. The raft is the actual magic of consommé, and responsible for the incredible clarity of the finished stock.

click to enlarge Checking for clarity while the raft does its work. Not quite there. - PHOTO BY NICHOLAS L. HALL
Checking for clarity while the raft does its work. Not quite there.
Photo by Nicholas L. Hall
Basically, a raft is a floating mass of coagulated proteins. These proteins form a sort of molecular net. As the stock simmers up and over the raft, particulates get caught in the net and filtered out of the liquid. Traditionally, a raft includes not only egg white, but also finely ground lean meat and finely chopped aromatics - typically the chicken and the same types of vegetables you used in the initial stock.

I skipped that step on my first go, as the consommé had actually been a last-minute whim, and I had neither finely ground chicken nor more mirepoix vegetables on hand. My raft was all egg white. It performed wonderfully in terms of clarification, but the reductive process of filtration also strips some of the flavor and body from your stock, which I noticed in the final product. Including flavorful meat and vegetables in your raft overcomes these problems, reintroducing more of the flavorful elements that are stripped a bit in the process. If you're going to make consommé I highly recommend going for a full raft of egg whites, meat and vegetables.

After a few minutes of simmered stirring, my raft started to form. Honestly, it was a little gross. Chunky curds of discolored egg white began bobbing to the surface. Just a few at first, but increasing until most of the surface of my stock was covered with an undulating layer of scuzz. It was not encouraging. I was worried. I didn't think I had the magic.

Slowly, though, the raft started to change. It became more cohesive as the protein net stitched itself together. It's color changed further, as it began trapping particulates from the stock. It was working, but it took a while.

After a good hour of patient obsessive staring and checking, the stock was clear. It wasn't quite "date on a dime at the bottom of a gallon" clear, but it was close enough to qualify as magic.

click to enlarge Raft. Consommé. Chemex. - PHOTO BY NICHOLAS L. HALL
Raft. Consommé. Chemex.
Photo by Nicholas L. Hall
Pressing my Chemex into service, I slowly ladled the consommé through a coffee filter into a carafe. The filter wasn't so much to clarify the stock, as it was to catch the errant bits of raft that came out with it. The raft didn't look any less gross now, but the consommé that dripped down into the carafe was beautiful.

I sampled the consommé and was struck by how much the clarification carried through to the flavor as well as the color. There was a purity, a clarity to the flavor that was really quite striking. The term "clean" gets bandied about a lot as a food descriptor; this gave the word new relevance.

click to enlarge Compound stock consommé, tortellini in the style of potstickers, edamame. - PHOTO BY NICHOLAS L. HALL
Compound stock consommé, tortellini in the style of potstickers, edamame.
Photo by Nicholas L. Hall
The stock I'd started with had been earmarked for a dish I'd conceived previously, a sort of tortellini en brodo riff borrowing a technique from the Ideas in Food crew, so that's how I used it. It was great. It's also great served more simply, on its own with a few well chosen garnishes. You can also chill it and serve it as Consommé en Gelée, if you're feeling extra fancy.

Regardless of which direction you go with it, it's worth a little toil and trouble.