Homemade beef stock is something that I’ve found much more difficult to make well than chicken stock. The common bias is that beef is strongly flavored, being all red meaty and macho. But honestly, I think a decent chicken has more intrinsic flavor just boiled by itself than beef ever would. Good stock flavor also comes from a high protein to liquid ratio. So, to make a really satisfying and truly deep, rich flavorful beef stock, some applied cooking techniques are in order.
Choosing The Right Beef For Stock
I like using sliced beef shanks with a heavy meat-to-bone ratio as the star of my stock. Anywhere from 4-5 lbs of really meaty shanks, and you’ll be able to get a lot of actual beef flavor. For fun, I do add bits and pieces that I’ve saved in the freezer – a bone that was removed from a big chuck roast before cooking, some leftover steak bones. But they only add to the dish – the shanks carry it.
A lot of beef stock recipes call for a boatload of bones. I get it, you want the cartilage, which will break down and give a nice velvety texture. But without a lot of protein from actual meat, your “stock” is going to be more of a bone-infused veggie broth than a true beefy liquid awesomeness. And that just stinks, why do all that work to have something from a box or can taste better?
Be sure you don’t use really fatty beef. Fat adds flavor, and you wouldn’t want to eliminate it completely at this stage, but too much can just give everything a dank, tallowy smell and taste. Deglaze the roasting pan with wine to help the flavor profile, the alcohol takes fat soluble flavors and transports them into water soluble ingredients. Science! Grass-fed beef will give you a better flavor than any grain-fed flabby steer, so if you can snag some, go for it.
Choose Your Stock Veggies Wisely
Beef should be the standout flavor in beef stock. Not garlic, onions, turnips or other vegetables. You can save that for the soups you make with stock as an ingredient. What you’re going for with stock is a highly concentrated meaty base. Vegetables can and do help that, along with red wine, but keep it simple. For this iteration of stock, I used leeks, a few carrots, some garlic and a big parsnip. Just scrub the veggies well, and don’t bother peeling the garlic, it all works out fine.
Roast The Beef, Bones and Vegetables
The next important step is to get a nice bit of brown on both the meat, and the supporting vegetables, that you’ll be slow simmering later. The easiest way I’ve found is to put them all in a heavy ovenproof pot and roast at 400 degrees f. for about an hour or so – depending on the volume you decide to work with, it can take longer. You want a nice deep dark brown on the beef, and on the edges of the veggies. Not charcoal black, but not light toffee either.
When the roasting is complete, remove the beef and vegetables and put them in a big stockpot. Take the time empty out any accumulated juices, skim off some of the fat, and to deglaze the roasting pan. Red wine, especially a nice full-bodied one, is your friend here. Add the deglazed juices and wine to the stockpot, and cover the whole mess with a lot of water. For this recipe I used about 5 lbs total of beef, so I covered it with 6 quarts of cold filtered water, and cooked to reduce it by ⅓ volume. For an even richer stock, I could have gone to ½ volume, but time was a factor, and the flavor was nice and rich as it was.
Cook Low and Slow
I like to bring the pot to a boil fairly quickly, and then reduce way down to a barely bubbling simmer. I add a small amount of salt and pepper at this point, but not a lot as it will intensify as the water boils away and the stock gets concentrated. It’s easier to add more later than to take it away if it turns out too salty.
Strain, Cool, and Skim
Once your stock has reduced to a satisfactory level – taste it frequently to see how you like it, when it tastes great to you, you’re done. Strain out the veggies and beef pieces (which should be very gooey and have fallen off the bones). I like to set aside the beef to pull apart for use in soups later. Discard the veggie, bone, and gooey stuff.
Easiest skimming that will get most all of the extra fat is accomplished by refrigerating overnight and then just removing the hardened disc the next day. If you need to use your stock right away, I’ve found that fat separating measuring cups really do work well. The skimmer I use can be found in most Asian markets – mine is from my last trip to Pearl River Mart in New York City, but in the Capital Region I’ve seem them at the Asian market on Colvin. I like them a lot because they’re all stainless steel, and work great as a spider and strainer.
Make Something Delicious W. Homemade Beef Stock
You’ll see a lot of beef stock tutorials with a recipe for French Onion Soups but I’m not a huge fan of it myself. I think it’s been overdone anyway, so I’ll spare you. Instead, I’ll share my ancient family secret technique for minestrone. It’s pretty lowbrow, as befits the great-granddaughter of a paisan, who immigrated to the US and supported his family by working as a rag picker. So, no celebrity chef cred here.
Basically, my minestrone is a hearty soup, made from bits and pieces of leftovers. Hearty! And economical. Like the old tale of stone soup, even tiny amounts of ingredients add up to a truly satisfying and delicious meal. It’s good incentive to start bagging and freezing those leftovers that are sort of too small to make up a serving on their own, and add them to the pot when it’s minestrone time.
RECIPE: MINESTRONE W. HOMEMADE BEEF STOCK
Start with about a quart of homemade beef stock. For the tomato portion, I like to use up leftover red sauce – even a cup or two works great with the stock. If you’re using nice stock and well-seasoned marinara sauce, you don’t really need to worry about starting with sautéed onions or garlic, but if you like them a lot, go ahead and add them. You should try to have some kind of pre-cooked bean. At least one, but the more the merrier! I like navy beans, but black, kidney or anything will work just fine. Hearty, remember?
If you have a little meat, like what came from the stockpot, add it. Leftover sausage, chicken or pork all work well too. Carrots are always good, from there, your imagination and pantry are the limit. Leftover roasted root veggies are delicious, as well as green beans, or green peas. I’ve used bok choy with great success too. Leftover pasta or rice is nice, but my favorite minestrone versions go heavy on the legumes and leave out the starchy stuff altogether. If you have some fresh basil, or dried oregano, add it. Whatever works for you!