The can of chicken broth in your cupboard? Here’s my advice: forget it. Then go out and buy yourself a pair of stewing hens and make some broth of your own. It’s the best cure I know for a ragged day: as the generous aroma goes wafting through your house, everybody’s mood will instantly improve. Then too, it’s good to know that you have some in the freezer, a secret weapon, ready to make a great meal whenever it is needed.
Although the terms are used interchangeably, and the cooking method is the same, there’s a difference between broth and stock. Stock is made mostly from bones, which give it a silky, gelatinous quality (and is the reason it works so wonderfully to bind sauce). One of the building blocks of classic dishes, stock requires a lot of time on the stove; it can take six to eight hours to extract all the gelatin from the bones. If it’s stock you’re after, see if you can get your butcher to give you the chicken’s feet; they’re loaded with gelatin.
But you can’t make good broth by using only bones; you need meat to give you the flavor that you want for soup. That is why, when you’re making chicken broth, you want to begin with a stewing hen.
Stewing hens are tough old birds, bred not for their meat, but for their egg-laying ability. Most commercial chickens in America are slaughtered at six weeks, while commercial free-range and organic birds are allowed to live to 14 weeks. That gives them a little more time to develop flavor and character. But laying hens live as long as they are productive, which means that even factory hens will be a year old, while you can find huge free-range stewing hens that are eighteen months to two years old. Too tough to roast, they make spectacular soup. At other times of year it can be hard to find stewing hens at the butcher, but the flocks are culled in the spring, so now is the perfect moment to make the best chicken broth of your life.
Chicken Soup Rules
- Use stewing hens.
- Use a lot more chicken than you think you need.
- Cook the broth slowly, at a lazy burble, for a long time.
- Never cover the pot completely and never allow the broth to boil; this keeps the fat from emulsifying into the broth and making it cloudy.
- Chill the broth and remove all the fat.
Far Better Chicken Broth
Buy 2 free-range stewing hens (6 to 8 pounds each) and wash them well.
Put one into a large stockpot with enough cold water to cover by an inch and bring almost to a boil. Skim off the scum that rises to the top, add an onion or two, a couple of carrots, washed and cut in half, a couple of ribs of celery, some parsley, a bay leaf and a handful of peppercorns. Add 2 teaspoons of salt. Partially cover the pot and cook very slowly, so that a bubble or two rises lazily to the surface every minute or so, for about four hours. Strain the broth, let the broth come to room temperature, then chill overnight.
Remove the fat from the top of the broth. You now have excellent broth for soups, risotto, and the like. But if you want to make the best broth you’ve ever tasted, put the broth back in the stock pot, add the second stewing hen into the pot, along with more carrots, onions, celery and parsley. (Do not add more salt or pepper.) Add enough water so that the ingredients are covered by a full inch of liquid. Repeat the process. Add matzo balls, noodles, a couple of beaten eggs if you like, but this is too good to use for anything but soup.