Chinese Chicken Stock

雞湯

Making a good Chinese-style chicken stock is a remarkably easy, economic affair, well within the reach of anyone having a large pot, a not-too-large pile of chicken bones and parts, one hefty scallion, and a few coins of ginger. You don’t even need time or energy, as the stock cooks conveniently on its own. Accumulating the bones, scallion, and ginger is also easy. Simply save the trimmings from boning chicken breasts or preparing a whole chicken, and freeze them along with the occasional leftover scallion or bit of ginger. Then, when your freezer is full, it’s time to make stock.

  • The role of such a simple stock in Chinese cooking is to enhance stir-fry sauces and to provide a light-colored, clear-tasting base for soups. Lacking carrots and onion skins, which are the keys to a Western stock’s deep golden color, Chinese chicken stock is a pale blonde. Seasoned only with scallion and ginger, it has a fresh, clean quality that one cannot duplicate otherwise.
  • Making the stock requires about 3 hours of no-hands cooking while the liquids simmer gently on the stove. The cooking may be interrupted at any point, which makes the stock-making easier still. Once strained, it keeps indefinitely in the freezer.

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Ingredients

  • 3–3½ pounds chicken bones, with some meat left clinging to them, including necks and backs and a chicken foot or two, with any loose fat removed
  • 3–4 quarter-size slices fresh ginger
  • 1 hefty or 2 thin whole scallions, cut into 3-inch lengths
  • 3–4 Szechwan peppercorns (optional)

Method

Preparations

Rinse the bones with cool water to remove any blood.

With a thick-bladed heavy cleaver especially designed for chopping bones, break the bones partway or clear through into plum-size hunks to expose the marrow and enrich the stock. Whack with authority, so the bones break cleanly without shattering. Chop necks and feet into pieces as well.

Lightly smash the ginger and scallion with the blunt handle end or broad side of the cleaver, to release their juices.

Brewing the stock

Put the bones into a heavy 6-quart non-aluminum stockpot. The bones should fill the pot only ⅓–½ way. Add cold water to come within 1 inch of the top of the pot, then set the pot over high heat. Bring the liquids to a near-boil, then reduce the heat to maintain a steady simmer.

After 5–10 minutes, when a thick foam has risen to the surface, use a large shallow spoon to skim off and discard the scum. Continue skimming for 4–5 minutes, when it no longer clusters thickly on the surface. Add the ginger, scallion, and Szechwan peppercorns, and reduce the heat to maintain a weak simmer, with bubbles rising lazily to the top of the pot.

Simmer the stock undisturbed for 3–4 hours, or until the liquids are reduced by about half and are ½-1 inch below the bones. Do not stir the stock while it is simmering and do not let it boil.

The simmering process may be interrupted at any point, and the stock left uncovered on the stove for up to 12 hours. To hold it more than a few hours in warm weather, refrigerate the stock in its pot. When ready to continue, bring the liquid slowly to a simmer over low heat. Be sure not to let it boil, lest the clarity of the stock be ruined.

Straining the stock

Once the bones are poking above the liquid, turn off the heat and leave the pot to sit undisturbed for 30 minutes or more, so the impurities will coagulate on the surface or sink to the bottom.

Line a large strainer or colander with a triple layer of damp cheesecloth (wetting the cloth expands the fibers, making it a finer trap through which to strain things), and set it securely over a large pot or bowl.

Push the thin, congealed surface greases gently to one side, then very gently ladle the stock into the strainer. Tilt the pot slowly as you ladle and disturb the bones as little as possible. When you near the bottom of the pot, hold the bones in place with an overturned plate or a small pot lid, then pour the last of the clear liquid through the strainer. Discard the sediment-filled liquid and the ginger, scallion, and bones.

Reducing the stock

If the bones were neither meaty nor ample enough to produce a rich-tasting liquid, then return it to a non-aluminum pot and simmer it until the water content is reduced and the flavor is as concentrated as you want. This reduction can be done immediately after straining the stock or at any later time.

Storing the stock

Refrigerate or briefly freeze the stock until the fat rises and hardens on the surface. Scrape off the fat and refrigerate some or all of it for use in stir-frying Chinese cabbage or making Scallion Breads. Divide the stock into convenient portions and refrigerate it 4–5 days or store it indefinitely in the freezer. Stock that begins to sour in the refrigerator can be rescued by slowly bringing to a boil and simmering 5–10 minutes. Stock that is defrosted and only partially used up may be refrozen. Frozen light stock can also be added to the stockpot when a new batch of bones is set to brew, if you want to make a richer stock than you have either gotten or are likely to get.

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