Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Ultimate Dark Beef Stock

Today I'm going to be roasting a beef forerib roasting joint (as they might call it in the UK), better known here as a prime rib. To accompany my Sunday roast will be a gravy or jus. I prefer the word gravy. Jus is something that is ladled delicately around the the meat on the plate, gravy is something with which you generously smother your mashed spuds. To make this gravy, I need the starting point of a good beef stock. I just can't bring myself to buy a carton of the store-bought stuff. So, much to the chagrin of my wife, I spent the better part of yesterday roasting, simmering, skimming and so on. The results are cooling and coagulating in the fridge at this moment ready to have a bit of fat skimmed off the top and employed directly into the gravy tonight. This recipe derives from a combination of many different resources, and I believe, returns very good results. Here's what I did:

First I took a mess of beef bones. I got these from my butcher. They are the off cuts from the trimmed down fore rib (much like the one I am roasting), as well as some vertebrae and some other larger bits of rib (I believe). There were scraps of meat and fat on the bone, which is a good thing. All the marrow in these bones will provide much needed gelatin to the stock.

A big pile of bones
As you can see, along with the bones, I added a couple of cleaned and split leeks, a couple of chopped onions, the last, floppy bits of celery from my crisper (chopped roughly), and a bunch of carrots that were starting to get a bit long in the tooth.  (It's such a pleasure to use vegetables that probably would have been pitched out and bones that cost a buck or two to make something so sublime.) To this pile of bones and veg I added salt, pepper, whole juniper berries, and most importantly, whole star anise. Star anise, fennel seeds and other spices with a slightly liquorish essence to them have an amazing ability to boost that much desired 'beefy' flavour. That background note you taste when having a really good, clear beef consomme in a restaurant, is probably one of these kinds of spices. Anyway, I tossed all the works in oil and put the roasting pan in a hot 375 degree oven. Heston Blumenthal suggests scattering a bunch of powdered milk around the bones - this creates a chemical reaction called the Malliard effect, whereby the proteins caramelize and increases flavour - however, the very idea of putting powdered milk onto my bones was, well, kind of gross. Instead, I applied an old technique that I've seen French chefs do, and that is to brush tomato paste onto the bones half way through the roasting process. The sugars in the tomato paste will further caramelize, which adds darkness and richness to the finished stock. After a good hour of hot roasting, everything comes out of the oven. This is part of the process for which a bit of refinement is in order. If there are actual black or burnt bits in the roasting tin, and I mean 'charred', then chuck 'em. They will impart bitterness. This is why the original oil is so important. It protects the bones and vegetables until the natural beef fats ooze out to take over. You'll find the very thin bits at the ends of the carrots or bits of the leek may have literally charred and they  have to go. All the other stuff goes into a large pot.  Then look at the bottom of the pan. If it does not look too charred, go ahead and deglaze with red wine or water, and pour into the pot with the bones. If the bottom of the pan looks a little cremated, then skip it, there is plenty of roast flavour on the bones and you really don't want to add any bitterness if not necessary. This kind of adjustment has a lot to do with the type of bones you use, and a bit of trial and error with your oven. The ideal situation is to not have any black stuff in the pan, but it happens to most chefs at some point,  so adjustment is required. 

Next step - add water. I boiled the kettle and poured over enough water to cover all the bones and veg. Then take a few dried porcini mushrooms. But them in a bowl and pour over some boiling water. Wait five minutes, then pour the mushrooms and the steeping liquid into the stock (take care to leave a little behind as there will be grit in the mushroom water). Then put together a bouquet garni - with butchers twine, tie together a small bunch of fresh parsley with a few bay leaves nestled within. You can add other herbs of your choice, but I find too much strong herbage will compete with the other flavours.

Then cover the pot and put on a high heat on the stove top. Bring to up to just a boil, then drop the heat back to a simmer. You don't want a violent boil because it will stir everything up in the stock and effect its clarity. The next three hours are very important - you need to skim. And skim, and skim and skim. To quote Thomas Keller, from his French Laundry cookbook:

"When in doubt, strain. Not a single liquid or puree moves from one place to another at the restaurant except through some kind of strainer. And you must always be skimming---skim, skim, skim."

This idea of refinement is important with basics like this. I think that certain dishes can be very plain and rustic, but a stock needs to be good. You're working with basic, cheap and whole ingredients. I don't want a cloudy stock that looks like dirty dishwater. It must simmer gently, be skimmed constantly and not be mixed, stirred or disturbed - this will just  make it cloudy and unappealing. During this whole process you can leisurely read the paper, watch a movie or tend to other things, just as long as every 15 to 20 minutes, you wander into the kitchen (which will be smelling really good by now) check out the stock and gently skim the fat and scum from the top (keep a bowl handy to dump the gunk into - you'll have to empty it occasionally). Do this for at least three hours. Real pros will go for eight hours! I think three gives you what you need in a pinch. Taste continually, but because you have not seasoned it, you need to drop a pinch of salt into the ladle when you test it - this gives you a better indication of what the finished product will taste like. 

Once the stock has cooked for several hours and reduced somewhat - you can give a few final taste tests. If all is well, then strain through a colander or chinois into a clean pot or a bowl, peferably through cheese cloth (you can chuck the bones etc) Then let it cool for about 20 minutes, then I put the vessel in the fridge to cool overnight (put a coaster or something under it to not mess up your fridge shelves with a hot pot). By the next morning, the stock had become somewhat gelatinous and had a few coagulated puddles of fat floating on the the top. In fact, there was very little fat left on the top which indicates to me that my skimming efforts were very fastidious.

Gnarly looking and gelatinous, the chilled product is not pretty until strained into a clean saucepan.
So there you have it: a days worth of effort for an awesome gravy tomorrow.

Post Script:

It has been a year since I published this post and I have to say that I have refined my approach to making a proper 'brown' stock. I have been working my way through the Culinary Institute of America's basics program and I've since discovered a few missteps with this recipe including adding boiling water at the outset. Cold water allows for a slow extraction of flavour and gelatin from the bones, whereas the kettle-boiled water was simply too harsh. Also the bones to vegetables to water ratio was off and the stock did admittedly have a bit heavy of a veg flavour - the ratio that seems to work best is 8 pound of bones to 1 pound of veg to 1 gallon of water. There were a few other steps that will be refined and updated in a new posting on stocks coming soon. As it stands, this stock was obviously workable by the results alone (empiricism is our friend), but I know it can be improved. Stay tuned.

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