Sometimes a name says it all. Take ‘stock’. Derived from a Germanic term meaning tree trunk, the word now has multiple definitions in the varied worlds of finance, farming, cooking and firearms. In all its applications, ‘stock’ retains notions of roots, supply and lineage – and nowhere more so than in the kitchen.

A stock is the ultimate culinary expression of strong foundations. It inherits its flavour and structure slowly, extracting them from a meld of base ingredients and allowing their combined essence to enrich a new dish.

Meat stocks derive from gelatine, the cooked form of collagen, from bones, skin, tendons, connective tissue and other texturally tough or chewy bits of the animal. Flavour comes from meat molecules and aromatic vegetables (carrots, celery, onions), herbs and sometimes wine.

Vegetable stocks look to seaweeds such as kombu and carrageenan and agar for viscosity and structure. Mushrooms, alliums, root vegetables, and increasingly, aquafab and nutritional yeast, are drawn upon for flavour. No matter what the stock, the aim is to produce a liquid with enough structure to be full-bodied and rich in flavour when reduced.

Cultures around the world have their own interpretations of stocks and broths. From China’s long-aged ‘master stock’, to Japan’s delicate dashi, Italy’s Pestat di Fagnana, Mexico’s Sopa de lima and Vietnam’s famed pho. Each speaks to their region’s environment and history, as well as a universal need to make the most of resources.

The history of stock is one of economising and maximising ingredients to nourish more people for longer. And now contemporary food visionaries are heralding stock as a way to slow down and stabilise an environmentally and socially destructive food system.

Convenient Cubes

Rachel Mamane’s 2017 Mastering Stocks and Broths points to the aptly named Captain Cook, and German Chemist Justus Von Liebig, as those largely responsible for championing the cheap and convenient stock cubes that kick around at the back of our cupboards and which first took the name “Portable Soup.”

A dried gelatine product with an indefinite shelf life first appeared in the unpublished notes of Sir Hugh Plat, an English inventor and writer on agriculture in the late 16th century. First used by soldiers and sailors, this portable soup soon became popular with families and travellers. By the late 1700s, newspaper advertisements were promoting canisters of portable soup as a “pleasing sipper for gentlemen on long trips.”

Rachel Mamane notes that, “Aboard both of his South Sea voyages, Captain Cook mandated consumption of the reconstituted broth by his sailors, flogging those who refused. Combined with hot water and pease flour, a meal made from yellow field peas, portable soup was an unappealing porridge. Punishment might’ve been easier to endure.”

Meanwhile, in 16th century France street vendors were known to sell thick, cheap soup as a restorative elixir. These establishments were the first to use the word ‘restaurant’ – from the French verb ‘restauer’, to restore – and served a bouillon that was said to relax digestion and refresh the spirit.

It was, however, Von Liebig, considered the founder of organic chemistry, who propelled stock into the mainstream in the 19th century with a series of unfounded health claims. He mistakenly believed that the soluble particles in meat contained most of the nutrition. This proved to be untrue, but these are the particles that contain most of the savory flavour. Von Liebig was soon able to shift the marketing of the product from the medical community to the home cook, pioneering industrially produced stocks as easy and accessible bundles of flavour. Liebig’s business went on to become the OXO empire.

Back to basics

But this is only half of the stock story. The convenience of these cubes should not overshadow the value and qualities of ‘real’ stock.

Stock’s best-known champion was Georges Auguste Escoffier, a French chef, restaurateur and culinary writer who popularized and updated traditional French cooking methods. He is the recognised architect of veal stock, and is said to have used stock in everything, relying less on heavy cream-based sauces than his predecessors. “Escoffier insisted stock was the workhorse of the kitchen, the backbone of good cooking – an essential building block that required time to produce and yet simplified the subsequent cooking experience,” says Mamane.

As Escoffier duly recognised, the excellence of a dish is intrinsically linked to the quality of its foundation. It followed for Escoffier, and for countless subsequent chefs, that the source of a good stock is in the land and livestock that nurture its ingredients. Or, as Michael Pollan puts it so succinctly in In Defence of Food, “You are what you eat eats.” The good health of soil, water and animals are at the root of a great stock and these positively contribute to its nutrient density and flavour.

Real stock is about appreciating the whole. It can offer more in terms of nutrition and taste than its cubed counterpart, by drawing more directly from the whole farming system. It also allows us to get more from the food that we do buy, supporting us to make the most of the whole animal or vegetable. This has great significance for home cooks, high-end chefs and anyone in-between wanting affordable, delicious nourishment. There’s degree of satisfaction to be found in it too.

Demand it all

We’re becoming increasingly aware of the need to eat less and better meat, both for our own health and the health of our planet. As we’ve seen, stocks allow for maximum flavour and nourishment from one carcase.

Still, bones and odd collagen-rich bits are stopping short of our stockpots, all too often left at the slaughterhouse. Increased consumer demand gives farmers a reason to haul their bones to market and a motive for processors to further extend their product offerings. This in turn, increases the amount of offal in circulation and maximises our ability to make the most of the animals we rear.

A moment on bones

Bones are another area where we can reduce waste. Typically, after the animal is processed, bones are sent to be rendered into inedible products, pet food or fertiliser. Other methods of disposal are incineration, composting and aerobic digestion.

Some regenerative farmers are now using bones to make biochar, a fertiliser typically made from wood. Rich in phosphorous and calcium, biochar from bones adds carbon to the soil, and also serves as an excellent fertiliser. The end product is ground and sold in buckets to be blended with compost and other nutrient rich organic materials from the farm.

Another option is bone ash, a white powder achieved by calcifying bones to maintain cellular structure. Bone ash is also used as a fertiliser. (It may or may not come as a surprise to you that bone ash is accountable for half of the raw material in bone china!)

Bones charred for fuel have recently made an appearance in high end restaurants. For example, Dan Barber has dishes which have been grilled on charcoal made from the bones of livestock and shells from shellfish. The ash from this process has even been used on aged cheese.

So, let’s take stock

There’s no shortage of reasons to show appreciation for stock. A stock made from scratch is the perfect antidote to a fast-paced industrialised food system and convenience culture. It’s a celebration of thrift, entire ingredients and good farming practices.

Then there’s the cultural place of the stock pot, whose presence at the back of the hearth provides comfort in its constancy – and a gentle reminder that good things still come to those who wait.

And stock makes sense – increased demand for offal, bone, shoot and root has the power to reduce waste and subtly reshape the supply chain. On the matter of taste, there’s little doubt that the real stock wins out. This is writ large in the fact that Campbell’s Soup shares are declining while small soup companies are gaining momentum.

Novices and experts alike are urged to delve into Mamane’s book and quickly access her encyclopaedic knowledge of stock. Enthusiasts will even find recipes and methods for homemade gelatine, bone meal and charcoal.

Whatever your motive, enjoy making and taking proper stock and the richness of flavour and goodness that comes with it. It’s a simple ‘slow protest’ way to produce meals that are both nutritious and built on delicious, stable foundations.

Stock on!

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