Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Gold Standard

If - and I hope this is so - you have armed yourself with a copy of The Zuni Cafe Cookbook and have done more than flip through the pages, you know that this book is not just an instruction manual with a lot of recipes, each with a list of ingredients and directions that follow. It's actually a diary as well as an in-depth discussion of how Judy Rodgers cooks. It's as personal a cookbook as I've ever seen - in my opinion it's in a category of one. Listen to what Michael Ruhlman, the apostle of making your own stock, has to say about it.
It was actually written by the chef herself and is thus a true reflection of her personality: eccentric, passionate, articulate, and most important, deeply observant about the way food behaves. This is a cookbook that’s truly valuable to read.
I'm rambling and feeling a little like Bilbo Baggins this morning, trying to decide where to begin. So I guess I'll just start at the beginning....

Meet Jeffrey Ruhalter of Jeffrey's Meat Market located in the historic Essex Street Market. If you live in NYC, and you're going to cook along with me (or not), Jeffrey is a person you want to get to know. He is the real deal - a butcher, who can get you anything you need in the way of meat or poultry and can prepare it any way you want, all without having to take out a bank loan. Plus, he is without a doubt one of the nicest, friendliest people you will ever meet. I promise, if you're embarking on this journey with me and can get to Jeffrey, he will make your life a lot easier - and more fun to boot.

Jeffrey Holding Thelma and Louise

There's no recipe for veal stock in Zuni. (If you want to make veal stock, go see Carol.) In The Elements of Cooking Michael Ruhlman reported that Judy Rodgers said she "hasn't found a good source for veal near her restaurant and so doesn't use veal stock."

Chicken stock is Zuni's basic stock. It's used for most of Zuni's soups, for meat and poultry braises, and for making compound meat stocks, which are other meat stocks that start with chicken stock instead of water. I'm going to need a lot of it. And that's why this is the beginning.

Zuni Chicken Stock
Stocks & the Sauces They Make Possible, Page 58

Whole birds - with their head and feet - are Judy Rodgers' first choice for making chicken stock. Before I met Jeffrey, I used to get my chickens for this stock in Chinatown, so if you don't have access to Jeffrey (or the Jeffrey of your hometown) but can get to an Asian market, that will probably be your best bet. If you can't get whole chickens, don't let it deter you from making this beautiful stock. You can add wings, necks, and feet, but Judy Rodgers cautions against using backs.

Thelma and Louise on Jeffrey's Counter

I've been making this stock regularly for a little over a year now, and I can testify that you want to have one cup increments of this stashed in your freezer to use at will. Oh, yes, you do. You definitely do. This was the first time I doubled the recipe so I used a 20-quart stock pot. Unless you are lucky enough to have a BIG sink, as I do in the mudroom, prepare to wash this baby in the bathtub or the backyard.

The chickens are thoroughly washed inside and out. The giblets are removed, but the lump of fat in the cavity is left there because, unlike any other recipe I've ever seen for stock, Judy Rodgers does not have you skim the fat off as the stock simmers, and she also adds a little salt!

The recipe instructs you to remove the breast meat for another use. But Thelma and Louise were a little small - 3-1/2 pounds each instead of 5-1/2 - so I skipped this step. I also added some chicken wings to up the weight. Other than that I followed the recipe to a T.

Thelma and Louise after a Bath

After starting out with excellent ingredients - fresh chicken, carrots, celery, and onion - and adding only enough cold liquid to cover the poultry and vegetables plus a few inches, the most important part of stock making is to avoid agitating it, which will affect the clarity because the fats, proteins, and impurities will emulsify into the liquid. In a stock pot with the cover off, you simmer it slowly to maintain a steady heat, never stirring it, never ever letting it come to a boil.

During the cooking there's a point at which a transformation occurs - when all of a sudden the simmering liquid smells different - different and wonderful. And it's at that point that you are bewitched by what you are making - and you take an oath to never go back to using those little cans or cartons of chicken broth again. If you don't have any of this lovely stock on hand, you will follow what I call Ruhlman's Rule from The Elements of Cooking and use water instead. And after about 4 hours from the time it reaches the first simmer (longer for a double batch), when it's rich, bright, and chickeny, it's done.

Remember, at Zuni the fat is never skimmed off; only the foam is removed, and this is the little tool I use for that purpose. It's very handy and cost me about $2.50 at a restaurant supply store.

As soon as (I mean as soon as) the stock is done, you want to very carefully remove the solids so you can strain it easily. This is when it's hard not to agitate the stock. I took the solids out with a big scoop and put them in a colander.

This time, because my pot was so big, I transferred the liquid to a large bowl before I put it through a fine strainer.

I strained the liquid into a wide 8-quart pot, which would fit on a refrigerator shelf. At this point I put the pot in an ice bath in the sink to cool it down, but I didn't snap a picture of that. By the time I went to grab the camera, the ice had melted, the stopper had failed, and all the water had gone down the drain.

Once the stock had cooled enough, I put it in the refrigerator to chill overnight. The next day I took the pot out of the refrigerator and used my handy, dandy tool again to skim off the fat, which had risen to the top of the pot. It was congealed and easy to skim but had not formed a solid sheet that could be lifted off the rather gelatinous stock.

Then I heated the stock up to a very gentle simmer - you still do not want to agitate it - so it would return to a liquid state for a final strain. The cooks at Zuni are more proficient than I at not agitating the stock as it cooks so in the Zuni Cafe kitchen this step is accomplished by straining the stock once through a napkin; however, I strained it through Melitta coffee filters once and then twice again using Chemex coffee filters, which remove a little more than the Melitta filters. This guarantees that every particle left in the stock is removed. It sounds like a huge pain, but it's a step that's really worth it - at least to me. Remember, we're talking liquid gold here.With time I will probably improve this skill enough to strain the stock once through a napkin when it's done, but until then, this is what I'm doing.

Next, I measured the stock out into a Pyrex measuring cup and put it in one-cup increments into quart size Ziplock bags. When I was done with the double batch of stock, I had 16 bags full, which means I ended up with four quarts of glorious chicken stock in my freezer!

Ta da!

A Home Cook's Notes

It takes a while to get the hang of maintaining the gentle simmer necessary to get the most flavor from the ingredients while eliminating the danger of emulsifying the fat and impurities into the stock. It's like learning to drive a stick shift. Do it enough times, and it will become second nature. Trust me.

For me, the hardest part is not agitating the ingredients at the point where I am going to remove the solids from the stock before straining it. Using chicken wings to supplement the whole birds made avoiding agitating the stock more difficult because it was simply more stuff to remove.

Another reason I wasn't crazy about using the chicken wings was because in spite of repeated washings, they still looked bloody where they had been removed from the body of the chicken, and blood is a major impurity you want to avoid as much as you can in your stock. The next time I use chicken wings, I'm going to put them alone in a separate pot, cover them with cold water, bring the water to a boil, then remove the wings, and wash them before adding them to the stock pot. That way the blood impurities will have been removed before I start the stock.

I always scrupulously follow the advice to only add enough water to slightly more than cover the ingredients, and I think the reason my stock has the rich, bright flavor so prized by Judy Rodgers is because my ratio of solids to liquids is right.

It turns out I find I prefer to follow the recipe and cook one chicken at a time instead of two as I did here. I don't mind making this recipe often - I love the way my house smells while this stock is simmering away, and I find making a single batch to be more manageable than a double batch.

This is who hung out with me while I cooked. His name is Sylvano. He has beautiful green eyes.

This is the view out the kitchen window.

So all in all, it was a good two days!


Liz said...

I'm a cook-only-because-I-have-to-eat kind of cook and although I use 'real' food, I rarely put much more time in to cooking than absolutely necessary.

But you know what? You've got me seriously thinking about making my own stock...

EB said...

Thelma & Louise?!!! I'm seriously laughing out loud. I'm so glad to 'meet' Jeffrey. I can't wait to see what trouble you two will get in to!

Mandi said...

I am still getting into "How to Eat" by Nigella ( a last name is not necessary in this case!!) and will need to get Zuni off Amazon just for the read. I am not sure I would go to so much trouble for bags of stock as wonderful as they are, but, considering the view and the company is so good, and this is what you enjoy.....WHY NOT?

Margaret said...

Thelma and Louise are hideous. Does this make them taste better?

mike said...

Great writing! I hope you end up having as much fun as I am.

Mike @

Ai Lu said...


I too am scratching my head trying to decide if I really want to run out and buy a stock pot just before summer's heat becomes truly unbearable -- your description of the process (and the smell!) make it quite an appealing prospect.

As a Manhattanite, I was also pleased to find out where I can get the best birds in New York.

I hadn't heard of this cookbook before but will keep reading your blog until I can't bear it any longer and simply must see what Zuni is all about.

Ai Lu

White On Rice Couple said...

That's alot of great stock! I never seem to find a stock pot big enough! My problem is always trying to fill what ever size pot I have to the brim.
Thelma and Louise never looked better!

lisa said...

I too have a ridiculous number of cookbooks, and I recently read Zuni. These collections aren't so crazy when you actually read them and use them, right? Rogers is incredibly thorough with her information and instructions. It'll be a lot of fun to watch and read as you cook through it. Good luck!

catherino said...

That looks like great stock! I've head a good bit of luck using a cheese cloth bag to hold all my aromatics. It's so much easier to lift it all out that way and it seems to make the straining process go faster.

Glad to have found your blog - can't wait to read more!

Annolynlee said...

I've been making stock for years (mother's mother's method) and have never skimmed the fat off before chilling to a gelatinous consistency - nice to know someone else doesn't!

As for freezing stock - a friend of mine clued me in to this trick: freeze it in giant muffin tins and then bag together once solid. They may not pack as tightly, but I don't ever have to worry about individual bags leaking before freezing ...

Victoria said...


Thanks for the great tip. I just have to figure out how many liquid ounces each muffin cup is, which will be easy; then I'll know what I have. I'm on it.


Scott said...

stock pots should always be taller than they are wide. Tall and Narrow. In most commercial kitchens stocks are made entirely with bones(and some scrap meat)together with mirepoix which is onions, celery and carrots. In a ratio of 2 parts onions to 1 part (celery and carrots combined). Cover the bones by about 2 inches of water, bring to a boil and let simmer at a temp betwee 185 to 205.