The Frugal Café | Photo credit: Rebecca Anne, "Flora's Cup"</a> | Creative Commons License, Flickr.com
Photo credit: Rebecca Anne, "Flora's Cup" | Creative Commons License, Flickr.com

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The A-Z of Making Vegetable Stock from Scratch

By Vicki McClure Davidson

 

For me, few things are more satisfying and calming than smelling fresh, homemade vegetable stock when it's gently cooking in my kitchen. The earthy aromas that fill your home are comforting and the resulting stock (or broth) is warming and fabulously low-fat.

No one should ever buy pre-made vegetable stock (although, I admit, I've done it a time or two... bad me). Usually loaded with sodium and horrifically priced (shameful, since, after all, the predominant ingredient in any stock is water), these canned, supposed "shortcuts" often pale noticeably in flavor when compared to the delicious, cheap veggie stock you can make in a short amount of time. If they are name-brand or gourmet products with a famous chef's face on the label, they can cost you more than a dollar or two for a few puny liquid ounces.

Carrots are excellent in homemade vegetable stock

If you're thinking, "But the pre-made canned ones save me time when I'm super busy, which is almost all the time," yes, I agree... they can save some time and I truly commiserate with you about lack of time. So when they're on sale, buy a few cans of soup to have for emergencies.

However, if you're on a tight food budget, the amount of time you've saved in preparing a soup meal from a store-bought can can be a trifling and the amount of money you've spent unnecessary. If you're trying to save money on your food budget, making your own stock is the very best way. You can make a huge amount of homemade soup for under a dollar or two, compared to a 10-ounce can of store-bought condensed soup that costs the same amount (if not more).

You CAN do this. If you plan ahead just a bit and make an ample amount of vegetable stock on a free weekend morning and then freeze it in manageable portions, you'll have it ready for use for many lunch or dinner meals.

This is a dream come true on those harried nights when working late and being the "Parent Taxi" is running you ragged and cooking dinner is high on your list of "don't-wanna-do's." Been there, done that, I understand completely. But making vegetable stock is incredibly easy to make, is super cheap, and is usually more flavorful than the canned varieties. You can also control the salt level.

Making Vegetable Stock

Vegetable stock is the result of gently cooking vegetables and herbs with water.

The resulting broth (sometimes called "bouillon," which is not to be confused with beef or chicken bouillon cubes or granular bouillon you see in jars at the supermarket) is the result of cooking any food items with water to obtain a flavored liquid. This distinction, however, is rarely made any more, and the terms are often used interchangeably.

The simple beauty of vegetable stock is that it embraces the "recycle, reuse" philosophy of the Frugal Café. Vegetables that are already in your fridge's crisper and are past their prime are perfect, so no special trip to the grocery store is necessary. Using fresh, non-wilted vegetables is even better.

The vegetarians and vegans in your life already know about the mouth-watering goodness of using homemade vegetable stock in soups or main dishes and side dishes, so should you need to whip up something quickly for one of them one evening, you're prepared and they'll be singing you praises.

The following are good candidates for your vegetable stock:

 

Strong-flavored vegetables, such as cabbage, asparagus, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, and cauliflower can be used in a vegetable stock, but be aware that you may not like the flavors they impart. These vegetables can overpower the more subtle nuances of delicate herbs and lighter flavored vegetables, so before you cut up and plop a pound of wilted broccoli into the pot, experiment first by using very small amounts. When I use broccoli, I've barely used other vegetables, because the resulting broth to me is not vegetable stock, but a bold BROCCOLI stock. Significant difference in flavor and how you'll use the stock, so consider yourself warned.

Fresh tomatoes and spinach can be used, but since they cook quickly, add near the end of the simmering process. Especially with spinach, you just want it wilted, not cooked to death.

Corn isn't on the list because I never add it to stock. That doesn't mean that you can't. Any fresh corn in my house is of the summertime cob variety, and that is always quickly eaten, so none is languishing in the refrigerator. The rest of the corn in our home is frozen. Corn isn't as loaded with vitamins and minerals as other vegetables, but it does have a lot of starch, which will likely cloud the stock and increase the carb count. It's your call as to using corn or not.

I don't usually put potatoes in my vegetable stock, either. A few recipes I've read recommend it, but I don't. Potatoes are very starchy, and when they cook, that starch leeches into the stock. Likely end result: cloudy, dull-looking stock with nary a golden shimmer (since I don't put potatoes in, I'm assuming this is the result, but there is a possibility that I'm mistaken. I don't want to take any chances, though). I use potatoes in other soups and sauces, where starch in the liquid isn't an issue or is desired. It's your call here, too.

Parsnips add flavor and vitamins to homemade vegetable stock

Gather all the vegetables you'll be adding to the stock and wash them well. Cut them into large chunks, leaving any peel on they may have (peels or outer skin, like that of carrots, have the highest concentration of vitamins; just scrub them good to remove dirt and any hairlike roots that may be sprouting). Since they will be cooking for a while, small diced pieces are not desirable. They'll cook too quickly and will release their flavors and juices too early, thus hitting their peak and then becoming progressively listless and dull as the stock simmers.

You can also use any leftover cooked vegetables like peas or green beans. However, since these have already been cooked, much of their vitamin content has been leeched out. Also, since they're not raw, don't add them until near the end of the simmering process or they'll disintegrate into mush.

Important: Always add cold water to a stock. Hot water will make it cloudy.

To Roast or Not Roast the Veggies?

Bell peppers are great when roasted before adding to vegetable stock

Roasting vegetables before putting them into a stock will truly intensify the flavors of the vegetables. So much more vibrant flavor! But again, if time is your enemy, this step can be skipped. I've done it both ways, and while roasted is MUCH better tasting, it won't be the end of the world if you don't roast. It does add a hefty amount of time to the stock-making process.

To roast, line a rimmed cookie sheet or large baking pan with aluminum foil and put all the veggie chunks in it. Make sure it has a rim to prevent chunks of carrots from falling down into the oven. Sprinkle the vegetables liberally with olive oil and mix the concoction all around (using your hands for this is best) so that all the veggies are coated.

Bake at 450 degrees F. in the oven for about 45 minutes, checking every 10 minutes so that you can re-mix the veggies around with a large spoon or spatula a few times as they roast (sometimes I just take out the roasting pan and shake it a few times). While this roasting is taking place, preheat the water in the stockpot (enamel-over-cast-iron Dutch oven, such as Descoware or Le Creuset, is also excellent to use), but don't bring to a boil yet.

 

 

Caramelizing Vegetables

Another option for intensifying the flavor of the vegetables for the stock is to caramelize them. According to the 2003 issue of Flavor & The Menu, caramelizing is one of the top ten flavor-building cooking techniques. In its natural form, sugar can be heated slowly to create a tantalizing, toasted flavor and warm brown color known as caramelize.

A number of foods have natural sugars, like onions and carrots and fruits, which make them ideal for caramelizing.

To caramelize, cook halved or quartered onions and/or carrots in a small amount of butter or olive oil in a large frying pan on the stove, over a medium-high heat for 8 to 15 minutes, or until they turn a golden color, stirring frequently. Once they have turned golden, stir in 2 tsp of brown sugar; cook until the sugar is melted. Add the remaining vegetables and stir together for a few seconds.

Here Comes the Stock!

  1. Place a 4- to 6-quart stockpot or Dutch oven (any large, heavy pot) on the stove. If you have a stockpot with a perforated basket (as shown in the photo to the right) this is convenient to have because it will make removing the vegetables easier. However, it's not necessary and can be expensive to purchase new. If you think you'd get a lot of use out of one, keep your eyes open at yard sales and thrift stores, and you can likely find a used one rather cheap.
  2. Pour in a large amount of cold water (8 to 10 cups is average), add the vegetables (roasted, caramelized, or raw) and herbs, and bring it all JUST UP TO a boil.
  3. Once it reaches a boil, quickly LOWER the heat to very low and gently simmer for 45 minutes to 1 hour. Do not allow the stock to boil from this point forward, or it will turn murky and potentially bitter. Celery is notorious for tasting bitter if overcooked. This bitterness will taint the whole batch. Also, when the stock is cooking, resist the temptation to stir it often. This causes the vegetables to break down and you won't get as clear a broth (FYI: Some cloudiness cannot be avoided with some vegetable stock, so if yours is cloudy and you didn't reboil it and didn't stir it too much, don't worry.) Important: Cooking a stock for a longer period does not make it better. Long cooking will make it lose its flavor.
  4. The vegetables should remain covered with water throughout the cooking process, but that's all you need to check while its simmering. Go about your business now... play with your kids, read a good book, clean out the closets, walk the dog, take a nap. You can hover over the pot if you want, stirring and what-not, but truly, it doesn't need much in the way of hands-on attention or fussing from you (isn't that glorious?). Just be sure to not let it simmer for longer than 3 hours and be sure that the veggies are always covered by water.
  5. After the stock has finished cooking (do a quick taste test to determine if the broth is flavorful enough for you), take the pot off the burner and let it cool to room temperature. This will take a while, so again, go about your business.
  6. Strain the stock through a fine mesh strainer or colander lined with a double layer of dampened cheesecloth. If you don't have a strainer or cheesecloth, you can use a slotted spoon to extract all the vegetables, pulp, leaves, and peppercorns, leaving just the shimmering, rich stock behind in the pot. Some recipes that I've read solemnly admonish against pressing on the vegetables, but I always do so as to further extract the last remains of veggie juices, and my stock hasn't suffered as a result. I don't have the foggiest idea why they recommend against it, but I thought it was important to mention to you.
  7. While many recipes say to discard the cooked vegetables at this point, let this be your call. Most of the veggie-nutrients-and-flavor goodness is now in the stock, but I have a nagging dilemma throwing out any food that is still edible and may have some redeeming nutrition and/or fiber. Waste not, want not...
    Options at this point: Pureé the vegetables in a blender or with a hand mixer and use it as a thickener or flavor enhancer in a rice, potato, or pasta dish. Combine it with pureéd garbanzo or cannellini beans, a bit of mayonnaise or olive or sesame oil, and a few herbs to make a vegetarian dip or spread for sandwiches. Add it to your compost heap, if you have one. Use your creativity, or if you feel compelled, go ahead and toss it out. However, I'm seriously against waste, so I usually use the vegetables in something else.
  8. And that's it.

A number of stock recipes I've read state "salt to taste." Now I'm a serious salt fan, but frankly, I never add salt to stock. My reasoning is that I'm never sure how all the stock will be used and I may add additional salt to that dish next week. Consequently, over-salting foods for my family is a concern. It's your call here. With the fabulously rich flavors in the stock you've just created, we don't think it's necessary to use salt and thus increase your sodium intake.

Vegetable stock can be stored for up to 1 week in the refrigerator or frozen in small, manageable quantities. It can stay in the freezer, if properly protected, for about 6-12 months.

For freezing, smaller portions is always better because you can defrost it more quickly. Ice cube trays or muffin tins are ideal for freezing small portions. My mom is "old-school frugal" and likes to use small empty cans, like the ones used for canned tuna. Pour the cooled stock carefully into the ice trays/tins/cans (whatever you're using), put into the freezer, and remove when completely frozen. With each round of vegetable stock ice cubes, load them into a big, labeled freezer storage bag or freezer-proof plastic container. When you need a small amount of stock, just pop a few cubes into your dish or sauce.

Smaller bags or plastic containers can be used, but when stock is frozen into a large block, working with it later can be a pain in the back side because it takes so long to defrost. Again, DO NOT BOIL vegetable stock to hasten the thawing process, or it will turn cloudy and/or bitter. Any time you boil vegetable products, precious vitamins and other nutrients are destroyed and gentler flavors are decimated.

Garni bouquet bags

FYI: Some recipes suggest either tying a variety of long-stemmed herbs together or putting all the herbs in a cloth bag or bundled cloth (the French call this garni bouquet), tying it closed, popping it into the pot, simmering it in the stock, and ultimately removing the bag/bundle at the end of the process. I never, ever have seen a suitable cloth bag to make garni bouquet in my dollar-store ventures, so I suspect it's potentially an overpriced item only to be found in gourmet food/specialty cooking stores. If you happen to have a little cloth bag to insert with the garni bouquet, by all means use it. If you don't, don't run out and buy one. A perfectly good and frugal substitute are mesh vegetable bags. These come free with many vegetables sold in quantities, depending on where you shop. Strainers or slotted spoons are also acceptable. Some dye-free yarn or string is suitable for bundling long, woody herbs, such as rosemary. Coffee filters also do the trick nicely.

Your vegetable stock is ready, but how should you use it? It is the perfect diet-friendly soup around. A slice or two from a crusty loaf of French bread and a bowl of steaming vegetable broth, you have a perfect light lunch or dinner. It is especially therapeutic and well-tolerated by someone with a cold or the flu. A cup of vegetable stock has about 30 calories.

You may want to use your vegetable stock as the base for something else. If so, click here for suggestions and some recipes that use homemade vegetable stock.

 

 

 

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Sources:
Child, Julia, Bertholle, Louisette, and Beck, Simone, Mastering The Art of French Cooking, Volume One (40th Anniversary Edition), Alfred A. Knopf, NY, 2001.
How to Break an Egg, (by the editors, contributors, and readers of Fine Cooking Magazine), The Taunton Press, Newtown, CT, 2005.
The America's Test Kitchen Family Cookbook: Featuring More Than 1,200 Kitchen-Tested Recipes, America's Test Kitchen, 2005.