Making broth is so easy to do, and the results are so wonderful and so almost infinitely useful, I really don’t understand why it’s almost disappeared from home cooking. Well, actually, I can guess: fewer and fewer people cook anything at all, let along things like homemade broth, which has an undeserved reputation for being difficult to make. Add to that the undeniable fact that broth takes time, something people seem to have less and less of. But, except for the first few minutes, broth can be left virtually unattended until it’s done. I usually start the broth on a lazy Sunday afternoon and just let it simmer while I read a good book, watch a movie or do whatever else I feel like around the house. When it’s done, just turn off the stove and leave it until you’re ready to eat, then reheat.
Anyway, the essence of making broth is as simple as it gets: you boil meat–usually beef and/or chicken, but veal also makes a nice stock–with vegetables that, in Italian, they call odori because they are meant to provide flavor: onion, carrot and celery. (As I’ve mentioned often before, these are the same that are used for soffritto, the base for countless sauces, stews and soups.) To these basic flavorings, I often add a spring of parsley and/or a bay leaf, as well as a few whole black peppercorns and a clove or two.
Step 1: If your main objective is some flavorful broth, you add whatever meat(s) you’re using to a large pot of cold, well-salted water. Tonight, I used a lovely free-range chicken and a beef shank:
Step 3: While the water is coming to a boil, prep your vegetables:
Step 4: Immediately lower the heat to a very gentle simmer, skim off any residual scum and then add the vegetables:
Step 5: Let the meat and vegetables simmer until the meat is quite tender and the broth has a rich flavor. The total simmering time depends on the meat being used: chicken will take an hour or two, depending on the type of chicken, while beef will take about three hours. If you’re using both and plan to eat the boiled meats, then you may want to remove the chicken so it does not completely overcook. The water should totally cover all the ingredients, so add more if the water reduces too much, as it will tend to do. Test for seasoning, and don’t be shy about adding generous amounts of salt. Broth should not be bland.
NB: You can considerably reduce the time it takes for this step by using a pressure cooker. See notes below for details.
Step 6: Once the meats are cooked and the broth has developed good flavor, switch off the heat and let the broth cool a bit. You can even let it rest on the stove (uncovered) overnight.
Step 7 (optional): If you want a clear broth –important when making a clear soup–strain the broth through the fine sieve or cheesecloth to remove the particles. (If you want a really clear broth, see note below.) If you wish to de-fat your broth, leave it in the fridge overnight; any fat will form a solid white layer on the top, which can then be easily removed.
On the meat: If making a beef broth, use the same cuts of meat that you would for stewing or other long cooking. I love short ribs, but shank, brisket or chuck would all do fine. Adding a few marrow bones will add both flavor and a bit of body to the broth. Chicken is a bit tricky, especially in the States, as most of the chickens sold in US supermarkets are too young and bland to make a good broth from. However corny it might sound, a free-range, organic bird makes the best broth. A roaster is better than a fryer. Even better would be a stewing hen, if you can find one–if so, you’ll need to cook it much longer, up to three hours or perhaps longer. I have found a nice chicken, grown from Italian stock, that goes by the rather odd name of “Pollo Buono” or “Good Chicken”. Even though it appears to be a young chicken, it has rather firm but very flavorful flesh, which is great for making broth. When dealing with a regular supermarket chicken, however, truth be told, I sometimes cheat and add a bit of bouillon to boost the flavor. (I like the brand with the obnoxious name of “Better than Bouillon“.) My favorite broth is made from both beef and chicken, sometimes called brodo classico, or ‘classic broth’, in Italian .
On the vegetables: To make broth I don’t cut the veggies fine, but rather leave them in large chunks or even whole. I usually peel the carrot and cut them and the celery into long segments (about 2 in/5cm long), trimming off the ends. The onion I usually leave whole, including the skin, which provides some pleasant color to the broth, but slit it about halfway down the middle (from the top, not the root, of course) and nestle one or two cloves (chiodi di garofano) inside. You can add some additional vegetables, if you like, including most commonly tomato, garlic and, occasionally an unskinned firm-fleshed potato. (A mealy potato would fall apart and cloud the broth.)
On using a pressure cooker: You can considerably reduce the cooking time by using a pressure cooker. Bring the broth up to pressure and let it cook for about an hour (for beef or ‘classic’ broth) or 30 minutes for chicken broth. Once you’re done, it will take some time to de-pressure on its own, so you can run the cooker under cold water to speed up the process. Since pressure cooking involved little or no evaporation, the broth will tend to be a little ‘thin’ unless you use less water than you would ordinarily do or (and I would recommend this in any event) you simmer the broth for another 20-30 minutes off pressure to concentrate the flavor.
On clarifying the broth: If you want a really, really clear broth, after straining and de-fatting the broth, bring it slowly to a simmer while you add in the whites of several eggs (perhaps one per liter/quart) stirring all the while. The egg whites will eventually coagulate. By some process that remains mysterious to me, any impurities in the broth will cling to the egg whites, and you will be left with a perfectly clear broth, good enough for consomme or gelatin.
Uses for homemade broth: Broth has an infinite number of uses. Really good broth is wonderful on its own, with some rice or small pasta like quadrucci or fine pasta like capelli d’angelo broken up into small lengths. It is also lovely with passatelli, a kind of string dumpling made with egg, cheese and bread crumbs. Broth with beaten egg mixed in until it coagulates is called stracciatella, or ‘torn apart’ soup (after the appearance of the eggs) and is a classic Roman dish. It is best to cook the pasta separately to avoid clouding the broth, then add it to the broth to simmer for just a few moments before serving.
Broth is also a crucial ingredient in making risotto, in all kinds of soups, in sauces, in stews… you name it. And don’t throw out the meat. It makes wonderful eating, as a bollito (boiled dinner) either on its own with some salsa verde or rifatto in various ways.
Broth vs. stock: Stock is made in same way as broth, except that you use only beef bones or the carcass of a chicken (or rabbit, duck or turkey) instead of pieces of meat. The bones or carcass are sometimes roasted in the oven before using to bolster their flavor. You can also the scraps from a leftover roast to make stock as well. Making stock is a great option if you have roasted a bird (say, a Thanksgiving Day turkey) and want to make the most out of your leftovers. But, of course, you will not wind up with any lesso to eat afterwards, and I find the taste not quite as rich as a broth. Use stock in the same way you use broth.