Top 5 Overlooked Stocks

Stock is one of the most basic components of good cooking, yet it has become a shockingly infrequent element in most home cooks' repertoires. And it's amazingly easy to prepare. Meanwhile, store-bought stock tastes terrible and is pretty expensive.

Stocks are concentrated flavor, made all the more special by the fact that they are frequently prepared from ingredients that would otherwise find their way directly to the trash can.

Roasted a chicken for dinner last night? Hell, bought a roasted chicken at the store last night? Toss the bones in a large stock pot, cover with water and a lid, and throw it in a very low oven for as long as you're willing to let it go. We do ours for three days. Once it's golden and fragrant, toss a roughly chopped handful of mirepoix (carrot, celery and onion) along with a few peppercorns and a bay leaf into the pot for another half hour or so, just until the veg is tender. Strain, cool, defat, and use the amazing liquor to improve almost everything you cook.

The best thing about stock is its versatility. Stocks form the basis of soups, stews and braises. They're the foundation of almost every classical sauce, and the easiest route to an excellent pan sauce.

Not only can stock be used in damn near anything, it can also be made out of damn near anything. If it has flavor that can be extracted, it can be made into stock. Here are our five favorite overlooked stocks.

5. Lentil Stock: Next time you cook up a big batch of lentils (and if you're not, you should be), use a little extra water. Strain the lentils for use in salads, dals, and whatever else could use a dose of cheap and tasty protein. The remaining liquid will be deeply colored and flavored, and can add a deliciously earthy intensity to a host of dishes. We have a few deli containers of this in our freezer most of the time. We also eat a lot of lentils.

4. Corn Cob Stock: It's amazing how much fresh corn flavor can be pulled from something so easily cast aside. Next time you take corn off a cob, or just eat some corn on the cob (don't worry, the cooking process will kill any germs your mouth contributed to the cobs), toss those stumpy chunks of corny goodness into a pot and simmer gently with water until you get a light, flavorful, slightly sweet broth. The resulting liquid will also be cloudy from the natural starch, which makes it perfect for adding subtle thickening as well as summery flavor to a risotto. Top with sautéed wild mushrooms for a natural pairing that will feel homey in the colder months, while reminding you of the sunny days of summer.

3. Mushroom Stock: If the mushrooms you used in that risotto required trimming, this is a perfect way to pull just a bit more flavor out of your fungus. Shiitakes are particularly good for this, as most people trim the woody stems and cook only the caps. We keep mushroom trimmings in a double-sealed zipper bag in the freezer until we have enough to warrant making stock. You can also supplement with regular old button mushrooms. Toss in a chopped shallot, a spoonful of tomato paste, and a handful of thyme, and you've got something amazing. Remember, mushrooms are packed with glutamates, the amino acids responsible for umami or savory flavors, as is that tomato paste you threw in. Cook a bit of barley in a hefty dose of this stuff, and you've got a readymade side that will pair perfectly with any meaty dish. Keep it a bit soupy and you've got, well, soup.

2. Seafood Stock: Peel your own shrimp? Good, save the shells. Same thing if you buy whole fish. Don't throw away those heads and bones. Make fish fumet. Fish and shellfish scraps, water to cover, a brief and delicate simmer. Add delicate aromatics like leeks, celery, or fennel, and you've got a full flavored, yet light and elegant broth that can be used in a myriad of sauces and soups. Want a quick and easy dinner? Once you've got some fumet, poach your favorite fish in it, then thicken and enrich the fumet with a blonde roux, and use the resulting velouté to sauce the fish. Simple, elegant, and made possible by stock.

1. Pasta Stock: This one is pure beauty. To be honest, we kind of cribbed this one from Harold McGee a while back. Despite the conventional wisdom that says pasta must be cooked in a large pot of rapidly boiling, heavily salted water, the exact opposite is also possible. If you cook pasta slowly in a much reduced volume of water, you not only save water and the energy required to heat large amounts of it, but create the possibility of self-saucing with pasta stock! As the pasta slowly cooks, starch is released into the water, providing subtle thickening. Toast your pasta before adding the water, and you add a nice nutty note to the resulting sauce. Swirl a pat of butter into the whole shebang once the pasta is nearly cooked, season to taste, and you have the most elemental, subtly delicious pasta dish conceivable. You also don't have to strain it, eliminating a dirtied dish!

Clearly, the possibilities for what can be made into stock are almost endless. Experiment. Some won't work, but most will be delicious beyond your wildest dreams.

Next time, we'll talk about raw fruit and vegetable stocks, rendered perfectly clear by gelatin clarification, magical in their appearance and in their encapsulation of ethereal flavors.

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