- The Washington Times - Monday, February 23, 2004

A friend recently asked me an excellent question: How do you know when to use beef broth, stock or consomme in a recipe, and can they be used interchangeably?

At the French cooking school La Varenne, I learned the importance of stock in classic cuisine. There were always three pots of stock simmering on the stove. One contained veal stock — a brown stock made from bones that were roasted, then simmered all day in water.

Another was filled with white stock made from chicken bones cooked in water for 3 hours. In a smaller pot, there was fish stock, which was ready in a quick 20 minutes.

All three featured the standard French flavorings of onions, carrots, thyme sprigs, bay leaves and parsley stems. If the chef was trimming leeks, he added the green parts to the simmering stock. When he peeled tomatoes, he added a few tomato skins to brown stock. The chefs never added salt because the stock was often boiled down until concentrated and used for sauce-making. Salting the stock could make the sauces too salty.

Technically, stock is the soup that comes from cooking bones and trimmings. Broth comes from poaching a piece of meat, poultry or fish in liquid, and it is often more flavorful. Good cooks regard such liquids as kitchen treasures. They give a marvelous taste to sauces, soups, stews, grains and vegetable dishes.

In fancy restaurants, chefs prepare special stocks to use with specific meats, even duck stock for duck and venison stock for venison. This ties the taste of the sauce to the flavor of the meat.

At home, it’s a different story. La Varenne founder Anne Willan showed me how to make household stock at her country house in Normandy. For this homey, old-fashioned stock, simmer bones or trimmings of assorted meats or poultry in water for a few hours. When you have more bones, after a roast chicken dinner for example, you add them to the pot with more water and simmer the stock another hour or so. Strain some stock to use whenever you want to give a soup or sauce a rich flavor.

There are other variations. After Thanksgiving, many of us make turkey stock from the roast bird’s carcass. It’s amazing how much flavor is left in the bones even after the bird has been roasted. A few days ago, I used this idea to prepare a tasty soup from leftover tandoori chicken from a restaurant. I cut the meat off the bones, simmered the bones in water, then added the meat with cooked vegetables.

I often prepare vegetable stock by cooking the same vegetables and herbs that flavor meat stock for 30 minutes. For a faster version, I save the broth from cooked vegetables such as carrots or green beans. Robin Robertson, author of “Vegan Planet: 400 Irresistible Recipes With Fantastic Flavors From Home and Around the World” (Harvard Common Press), makes mushroom stock from fresh mushrooms with a few dried mushrooms added for a deep-woods flavor, along with garlic, celery, soy sauce and sometimes kombu (a sea vegetable).

To get back to my friend’s question, stock, broth and consomme are interchangeable in recipes. Consomme is actually a refined soup made from stock that is clarified by cooking with egg whites, which are strained out so the liquid becomes very clear. It’s a time-consuming, delicate process that is not often tackled at home.

Most supermarkets carry canned broth and consomme. At natural foods stores, you’ll also see vegetable and mushroom broths in cartons. Gourmet stores have fish or seafood stocks, too. Broth powders and pastes can boost the flavor of a stew without adding extra liquid. I find low-salt or unsalted broths give better results.

Even if your recipe calls for a specific kind of broth — say, beef — it’s perfectly fine to substitute chicken or vegetable broth. Homemade stock is the best by far and can make the difference between a satisfactory dish and a fabulous one. Add seasoning, cooked vegetables such as peas and carrots and a few tablespoons of cooked rice, and you’ve got a tasty soup in minutes.

Fortunately, simmering stocks require almost no attention, and stocks freeze well, as do the ingredients needed to make them. I like stock making as a cold-day project; an aromatic stock simmering on the stove gives me a cozy feeling and makes me think of the soups to come.

Creamy chicken mushroom soup

Choose chicken, vegetable or mushroom broth for this recipe. Each will give a different flavor, but any would be delicious. When you have time, make your own chicken-wing stock, using the easy recipe that follows. Using wings cuts the cooking time to 45 minutes. With a pressure cooker, it will take only 30 minutes.

3 tablespoons butter or vegetable oil

2 medium shallots, minced

½ pound mushrooms, halved and thinly sliced

Salt and freshly ground pepper

3 tablespoons flour

3 cups chicken, vegetable or mushroom stock or broth

1 cup cooked chicken, shredded

½ cup whipping cream or whole milk

4 teaspoons thinly sliced chives or chopped parsley, optional

Heat butter or oil in a large, heavy saucepan. Add shallots, and cook 1 minute over medium heat. Add mushrooms and salt and pepper to taste. Cover and cook, shaking pan occasionally, for 5 minutes. Add flour; cook over low heat, stirring constantly, for 3 minutes or until mixture is blended and bubbly. Remove from heat.

Gradually pour stock or broth into mixture, stirring thoroughly. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring constantly. Stir in chicken and cream or milk, and bring to a simmer, stirring. Simmer uncovered over low heat, stirring often, for 5 minutes or until thickened to taste. Stir in half of chives or parsley. Taste and adjust seasoning. Serve hot, sprinkled with remaining chives or parsley. Makes 4 servings.

For chicken-wing stock: Combine 3 pounds chicken wings, 2 quartered onions, 2 quartered carrots, 2 bay leaves and 1 thyme sprig or ½ teaspoon dried thyme in a saucepan. Cover with water; bring to a boil. Skim foam from surface. Reduce heat to very low so that liquid bubbles gently.

Partially cover and cook for 45 minutes or until well-flavored. Strain stock into large bowls. Discard vegetables, herbs and chicken skin and bones. (Save chicken to add to soup, if desired.) Cool stock, then refrigerate until cold, and skim fat off top. Makes about 2½ quarts.

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