Field Report:
Adventures of a Culinary Padawan
École des Techniques à la Cuisine
Troisième Leçon: Stocks and Hollandaise


Dear Foodie Voyeur,

There is bread again! During Lesson One, there had been a pile of "artisinal bread" -- baked by the InterGalactic Bread padawans -- for freeform munching, but there was none for Lesson Two. That meant a long, hungry wait for "family meal," the dinner prepared by Second Level padawans for the whole school. During Lesson One, this meal was panfried chicken thighs, creamy mashed potatoes, and a green salad. Lesson Two's meal was a delicious pinenut-filled pilaf (rice), chicken cacciatore, and the same green salad. Lesson Three's meal was much less well balanced but no one complained! Fried chicken, marinated roast pork, green beans dressed with bacon vinaigrette, and macaroni & cheese. Along with that great bread and sweet butter.

Today's class was over-full, with two new padawans who had missed some lessons in their own class. It's good to know if I have to miss a class, I can make it up along the way somewhere, and I won't be kicked out of the Jedi Order. But today's topic is stocks and their preparations, so having extra people along is actually a benefit.

In French cooking, stocks are the base for most sauces, and sauces are the very thing that make French cuisine so different and special. The three major types of stock are called fond brun (brown), fond blanc (white), and fond fumet (fish). The vegetables that accompany these have different sized cuts, are blanched or browned or not, the meats have specific preparations prior to and after adding water, and cook for specific amounts of time.

All stocks have these steps: 1) Preparation of bones; 2) Preparation of vegetables; 3) Simmering and skimming; 4) Filtering and clarifying; 5) Cooling and storage.

Brown stock requires veal or beef bones, a large-cut mirepoix, and roasting of these components to achieve brownness or "caramelization." That process "sweetens" the vegetables and such, releasing the sugars in a particular manner, giving a "roasted" flavor to a stock. First the bones are "cracked" or cut down to a manageable size (get the butcher to do this for big veal, beef, or game bones), coated in oil (this means you need gloves and use your hands to smear the oil on) and placed on a sheetpan and into the oven at 500°F for about an hour (depending) till a dark brown (but not burned). The oil allows the bones to reach a higher temperature on the surface than just air (for better browning), and it keeps the bone from drying out too rapidly in the hot oven. We used convection ovens, which are ovens fitted with fans to move hot air around the space. Because heat is thus distributed more evenly, more stuff can be crammed in on the many shelves, and the oven tends to run 25°F to 50°F hotter than conventional ovens. The bones need to be watched and turned from time to time.

Brown stock cooks for 8 or 9 hours, so the mirepoix needs to be cut coarsely, into about 3 inch pieces. The vegetable pieces are also oiled and roasted, with the exception of leeks, which grow bitter with roasting. The list of vegetables: celery (no leaves), carrots, onions, leek tops, tomatoes. The class split up to do different tasks, and I got leeks -- lots of washing to get rid of grit. The dark parts are cut coarsely for the fond brun, a bit smaller (about 1 to 2 inches) for fond blanc (cooked for 3 to 4 hours), and the white part of the leek saved for "sweating" (cooking without coloring the vegetables) for fond fumet (cooked for a mere 40 minutes). For that, I needed to emincer the leeks.

The cooking times varied depending on to the nature of the bones being cooked. Fish bones give off a bitter flavor after about 40 minutes, so the mirepoix needs to be conditioned to take advantage of the short cooking time. Cutting the vegetables too thinly will cause them to simply fall apart in a longer-cooking stock, and more bitter components to be extracted. Cutting it too thickly might mean you don't extract as much flavor as you'd like.

The smell of beef bones roasting is incredible. We also blanched some bones so that we could tunnel out the marrow. To do this, you put the bones in cold water and bring it slowly up to a simmer. If you blanch chicken bones, you stop the heat as soon as it simmers, then dump the water, and add cold water again to cook the stock. This procedure is to "firm up" the proteins and get rid of blood and such -- the process is called degorger, can also be done by cleaning the chicken manually under a running cold tap. You can also cut off the fat with a filet knife. Though the fat has flavor, it can cloud the stock, absorb flavors, and thus is not desirable.

The prepared bones are put into the pot and just covered with cold water. Hot water will cause a lot of soluble components to enter the stock water immediately. Heating cold water up to a simmer allows those components to cook gently and "set" so they don't cloud of the stock. Removing those components is an arduous task, so best to start cold and slow.

A stock should never boil -- it should simmer gently to avoid aggitating or breaking up the sediments that will cloud the stock. Though we will be filtering the stock later, there's no point in making more work for yourself. Besides, boiling at a high heat will extract higher temperature flavor components that tend to be bitter. While the stock is simmering, the foam and fat that floats to the surface is skimmed and discarded. The stock is not stirred, so that the heavier, bigger particles that sink to the bottom can stay there. It's more a gentle percolation than a simmer, actually.

When the production of scummy gray-white foam and fat slows and it becomes difficult to skim, the vegetables (total 20% -- 1/5th -- of the weight of the bones) and acid (such as wine or lemon juice) can be added. Because acid is needed to extract flavor and add flavor notes of it's own, stock should not be made in aluminum pots. At higher heat, the aluminum patina dissolves and can leach into the stock, giving it a metallic flavor. Lighter colored stocks can take on a gray color as well. The Jedi Master recommends stainless steel for stockmaking, and pointed out that expensive enameled cast iron works very well, too. (I have a set of Corning Visionware pots, which are ceramic and transparent.)

Add a bouquet garni with the vegetables, too. This is normally a "bouquet" of herbs used to season the stock: bay leaves, parsely stems, thyme springs. This is normally tied together with string or a leek green strip, or even in a cheesecloth bag. In the latter case, black or white peppercorns can be added as well. The tying is to faciliate removal at the end of the cooking time, but since the herbs will be sieved with the bones, there is no need to create the "bundle." Oh, and never salt a stock ... salt is added at the sauce stage, not in the stock itself.

The stock continues to percolate, and we needed to keep going back and skimming from time to time. While that was happening, we prepareed the fish stock, which, because of the need to cook the mirepoix, was prepared differently.

To prepare the fish, the bones, fins and head are soaked in cold water for an hour or more (this replaces the blanching step used for other bones -- fish bones are never blanched), then innards and gills removed and the meat and bones rinsed. The spine needs to be "folded" in order to crack the vertebrae, and the sections are cut most easily with poultry shears. Be careful of fins -- some are barbed or pointed.

A bit of neutral, bland oil is put into the stock pot and the mirepoix dumped in. It's cooked over low heat with stirring, allowing the vegetables to steam more than fry. At no time should the mirepoix brown at all. When the vegetables soften and the onion becomes translucent, the cleaned and cracked fish bones are stacked on top of the mirepoix and the whole allowed to steam till the fish meat whitens. Then the cold water is added, and the skimming process is done. Cooking is done in 40 minutes, and the stock is passed through a sieve to remove the bones and vegetables, all of which are discarded. This basic filtering step is the same for all stocks.

The stock needs to be cooled down quickly, so transferring it to another clean vessel is helpful. It's left to cool to room temperature (an ice bath can be used here too), then can be frozen in smaller units for future use in soups and sauces. In general, beef and chicken stock are worth freezing; fish stock is made so quickly in relatively small quantities that it's not worth holding them for more than a day in the refrigerator. More than other stocks, the flavor degrades in fumet rapidly. If a stock of any sort is held in the refrigerator (other than fish), it needs to be reboiled every 3 days, and should not be reboiled more than three times before it's discarded.

While the various stocks were being skimmed and such, we did a classic sauce not requiring stock at all -- Sauce Hollandaise is a warm mayonnaise, using clarified butter instead of oil, and the eggyolks need to be cooked into a sabayon before adding that fat. If the sauce is cooled, the butter hardens and the sauce is ruined. If it's too hot, the eggs curdle and scramble. It's normally taught as a way to teach control over an emulsion, in that it entails temperature, timing, following directions (the order and manner in which the ingredients are added control the final sauce), whisking technique, etc. It's also a sauce that really should be made fresh -- you cannot reheat a Hollandaise; it can be kept in a bain marie for up to two hours, but after that, the risk of infection by bacteria is too great to serve it. But it's a "glory sauce" -- impresses the heck out of everyone, and if you let people watch you, it's very showy, but not difficult.

To prepare, it's best to create your mise en place, or "set up" -- things you need are measured out and put into small cups or bowls, at the ready when you need it. It makes life more pleasant when making something like a sauce, or when stopping for too long can break a sauce, or it breaks the "flow" of what you're doing. So you separate your egg yolks, squeeze the juice out of the lemon and remove the pulp and seeds, measure out the water, have the spices and herbs ready, etc. And since we will make a sauce bèarnaise from the Hollandaise, the reduction needs to be prepared in advance and set up as well: water, white vinegar, shallots cut in a fine ciselé, tarragon (dried herbs "bloom" with heat; fresh herbs fade with heat, so for the reduction, use dried), peppercorns. The mixture is heated till reduced to a few tablespoons of liquid, and cooled in a mise en place cup. (Tony Bourdain, in his book Kitchen Confidential, explains that a line cook has their own mise, pronounced "meeze" and during slow times or if things are falling behind, it's not uncommon to hear "Set up your goddamned MEEZE!" echoing through the kitchen.)

The butter to be used is clarified, meaning skimmed of its solids and the water removed. It's also called ghee and can be refrigerated or frozen, and reheated in a bain marie. It can be made at home, but it's expensive and irritating to make. There is a lot of protein solid and water in butter -- that's what makes it butter, as opposed to oil or pure fat. To make it, slowly heat about 10 lb of butter in a water bath and let the emulsion that keeps the butter together break. The water falls to the bottom, the proteins swim on top. In between is clarified butter. Throw away any "inbetween" phases, too. It can be part of your mise en place, kept warm in a pan of hot water.

Select a large, wide bowl that fits snugly over a sauteuse or other pot. The bottom of the bowl should not touch the bottom of the pot, and the water heated in the lower pot should not touch the bowl above it. Rather than a double boiler, you are cooking over steam. Using a balloon whisk, beat the egg yolks, then add the water and continue beating. Place the bowl over the steambath and keep whisking, never stopping. As you beat, the mixture will get paler and grow bigger as you incorporate more air into the egg yolks. If it seems to curdle or turn grainy around the edges, remove it from the steam and continue beating, then put it back on when it's cooled down enough not to curdle. When the mixture forms a ribbon running off the sauce when the whisk is lifted from it, it's nearly done. The ribbon should fold back on itself, meaning you can quickly squiggle the ribbon over the sauce and it holds it ribbony shape for a few seconds before sinking back into the body of the sauce. This is called a sabayon. At this point, it could be seasoned with lemon juice and sugar and served over marinated strawberries for Strawberries Romanoff.

(By the way, Hollandaise Sauce was created because a kitchen of a Paris restaurant could not get Dutch butter, considered the best. They instead got Portuguese butter, and could not in good conscience serve the butter as Dutch butter, so a quick hot mayonnaise was created, seasoned with lemon juice and thickened with egg yolks. The resulting sauce was called "Holland-like" or Hollandaise.)

The warm butter is drizzles into the sabayon and beaten in. The stream should be slow and steady, and the whisk arm powerful -- you can use a stand or hand mixer at this point, but the sabayon should be done by hand. Keep beating till the mixture is thick and glossy. If it's overly thick, remember you will likely pour it over a hot food, which will loosen up the texture. You don't want it stiff, of course -- if it gets grainy, the butter may have solidified. You can sometimes recover the sauce by beating in a spoonful of hot water.

To make the sauce bèarnaise, beat in drops or spoonfuls of the reduction liquid and adjust to taste. You can add salt, pepper, cayenne, nutmeg, and finish with chopped fresh tarragon. It's the classic French sauce for steak frites and is great on fish as well. And you know what Hollandaise is for!

With Love,
Susu, the Culinary Padawan

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