They sat there in the baking pan, as naked as they came – a geometrical mass of bone and flesh; a macabre still life in white and pink, waiting to be transformed.
It may not be obvious at first glance, but what rests in that pan is the beginning of something beautiful. It marks the first step of a slow transformation – an alchemy, really – that starts with an ingredient so basic, understated, stripped down, that you can barely believe it will become much of anything at all.
Bones. They are the very definition of unpretentious, no-frills food and a cornerstone of cooking traditions the world over. As mundane as they seem, they are the key to making the richest, most flavourful stock, used in everything from French onion soup to Vietnamese pho to Japanese tonkotsu. While traditions vary, the method is essentially the same across the board: roast, season, simmer. In this version of beef stock, the bones are roasted bare in a hot oven, then some aromatics are added and the pan returns to the oven until the whole lot is dark & caramelised. It all then goes into a stockpot, is covered with water and left to simmer for an afternoon.
What emerges is a densely-coloured, heady, mineral-rich broth, ready to cure what ails you.
Next time you visit the butcher, ask for a few bones to be added to your order. They might even give them to you for free (one of the many perks of being on a first-name basis with your butcher). With that, you’ll have the makings of a delicious, fortifying stock to warm you through the colder months ahead.
Basic Beef Stock (makes about 4 cups) – adapted from Bon Appétit
- 5 pounds veal and/or beef marrow bones*
- 4 peeled carrots
- 4 celery stalks
- 2 halved peeled onions
- 1 halved head of garlic
- ½ bunch flat-leaf parsley
- 4 sprigs thyme
- 2 bay leaves
- ¼ teaspoon black peppercorns
- cold water
Optional: to achieve a darker colour, you can brush the bones with a bit of tomato paste right before putting them in the oven to roast.
(If you’re asking yourself what the heck is the difference between broth and stock?, you’re not alone. I didn’t really know the answer until I stumbled upon this run-down by Nourished Kitchen, which, in addition to explaining the difference between the two, discusses bone broth, a close cousin of stock, but requiring a longer, 24-hour simmer.)
Preheat oven to 450°. Roast marrow bones (have your butcher saw them into pieces) in a roasting pan, turning occasionally, until browned, about 30 minutes. Chop carrots and celery into large, 3” pieces; add to pan along with onions and garlic. Roast, turning occasionally, until vegetables are brown, 25–30 minutes.
Transfer to a large stockpot; add cold water to cover. Pour off fat from pan, add ½ cup water, and stir, scraping up browned bits; add liquid to pot along with parsley, thyme, bay leaves, and black peppercorns. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer 4 hours, occasionally skimming foam and fat from surface and adding water as needed.
Strain. Let cool and then transfer to a glass bowl or Mason jars. Cover and chill for up to 3 days. Use as a base for soups, stews, sauces and gravies.
Note 1: Once the stock has been chilled, any remaining fat will have risen to the top and solidified, forming a protective layer against bacteria while the stock is in the refrigerator. If you plan to freeze the stock, simply remove and discard the fat and pour the liquid into a freezer-proof container. Frozen stock will keep for about 3-4 months.
Note 2: there are different schools of thought about salting stock. Some sources will say to salt the bones before roasting, or once everything’s covered in water. Other sources will recommend not salting the stock at all, due to the fact that the stock’s natural salinity will increase as it reduces. In this case, you can add the unsalted stock to any soup, stew or sauce and adjust the saltiness accordingly.