Taking stock
Picture: Gerald Moscarda

Great cooking starts with a good stock. No soup, sauce or risotto would be complete without it. For Red Cabbage's Scott Taylor it's the basis of everything he does, from velvety jus to braises and gravies.

"It's probably one of the most important elements in the kitchen," he said. "We use chicken, veal and dashi stocks - chicken for soups, veal for gravies, jus and braises and dashi for deglazing pans and sauces. It's also good for risottos and flavouring vegetables. The bone stocks are made weekly; the dashi every couple of days."

White, brown, fish or vegetable, think of a stock as a culinary building block. White stock is made from bones that have not been browned or roasted - use it for veloute, allemande and supreme sauces - and brown stock is just that, typically made with beef bones roasted just before cooking for a rich, dark colour that's perfect in gravies, stews and jus.

It's the starting point for glace de viande, the classic French meat reduction that takes 24 hours to make. Fish stock is a snap - simmer bones for 45 minutes - so is vegetable stock as an economical alternative to meat but be selective in what you use.

"Some things make for a better flavour," wholefood cook Jude Blereau said. "First, no brassicas, and I wouldn't use turnip or radish tops because they're too strong. What I would use, though, is cos lettuce - and it's especially good because it has no oxalic acid.

"Fennel tops are also strong but they do have their place in minestrone, or cauliflower and fennel soup, for example. I tend to keep my stocks generic, using carrot and celery - you can substitute celeriac or parsley root for the celery - then adding onion, leek, bay leaf, thyme, parsley and peppercorns. Ginger and coriander are lovely for Asian-style stocks but they're quite specific, and I love to develop flavour by roasting vegetables for a vegetarian stock in winter."

Blereau uses joints and cartilaginous bits like feet and wings for meat stocks and always adds a dash of white wine or apple cider vinegar for chicken and fish stocks to help release nutrients, especially minerals. The science is simple.

Acid helps break down cartilage and connective tissue, which form gelatine when simmered. The more gelatine in a stock, the better for your digestion, joints and bones. And good stock will always solidify to a wobbly chunk when chilled.

"It's the original and true superfood," Blereau said. "Whatever you do, don't boil your meat stock; it needs time, so gently simmer it. Chicken takes at least eight hours and big bones, such as beef and lamb, 24 hours. For fish stock, saute the base ingredients in ghee or butter first."

At Silks, at Crown Perth, the first thing the kitchen team does every morning is put on a big kettle of free-range chicken stock to simmer for at least five hours.

"Most of our dishes use chicken stock as a base to create depth of flavour," restaurant manager Jeffery Ren said.

"Key ingredients include chicken bones and meat, herbs, soy sauce, shaoxing wine, dried mandarins or orange peel, cinnamon, star anise, ginger and garlic cloves. The poached Szechuan beef in chilli oil, for example, requires chicken stock as the basic ingredient to give it enhanced taste and depth of flavour typical of Chinese stews."

If you want to play it safe at home, start with a classic mirepoix - chopped carrots, celery and onions - to add flavour and aroma. As a rule of thumb, it's 50 per cent onions to 25 per cent each of carrots and celery. Bones to mirepoix ratio is generally three to one.

Pronto Gourmet Butcher, in Mosman Park, has its chicken stock down pat, using frames and backbones that are simmered overnight.

"It's all natural," owner-manager Carlos Florenca said. "We use heaps of celery and onions, strain it, then put it in the fridge so we can skim off the fat. It's a great base for soups, risottos and slow-cooked meals."

The West Australian

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