Bones: The Essence of Good Food

By Dale Bonk

Bones. It starts with the bones. They’re the foundation. They provide the structure, the support for the rest of the animal. They give the muscles both purpose and a means to accomplish it. Bones are elemental, fundamental, primordial.

And yet they’re scraps, waste; thrown away or sometimes given to the lucky family pooch. That’s if they’re even brought home to begin with – think of those ubiquitous boneless, skinless chicken breasts or the naked NY strip and filet mignon.

But unless Rover is a particularly lucky pooch, why bring bones home anyway? You bring bones home because they are not just the essence of an animal, but because they’re also the essence of good cooking. (Well, French good cooking, anyway.)

They’re the essence because bones make stock. And “indeed, stock is everything in cooking, at least in French cooking. Without it, nothing can be done. If one’s stock is good, what remains of the work is easy.” That’s from Escoffier, on the very first page of his seminal Cookbook.

Even better than a good stock making the rest of the meal easy is that making good stock is itself is even easier. With about 15 minutes of active time (the rest of the cook time is mostly unattended), you can make a batch of basic brown beef stock to keep in your freezer for later use in soups & stews, rice or beans, and as the basis for more complex sauces.

For ingredients you’ll need beef bones (about 4 lbs), the aromatics, some herbs, S&P and water. The bones can be neck bones, knuckles or pipe (femur) bones. I usually go with pipe bones just because they’re easier to cut to uniform size (4” lengths). The aromatics are, at the minimum, 1 large onion, three or four carrots and a few ribs of celery. (This trinity is known as mirepoix.) You can also use celeriac, leeks, garlic or ramps. I’ve also used tomatoes and mushrooms, but they’re definitely not required.

Preheat your oven to 425F. Chop your veggies. They’re just going to be cooked to mush so no need to be pretty about it. I use up my limp celery and onion ends; I don’t even peel the carrots. Spread them across the bottom of a roasting pan.

Rinse the bones under cold water. Pat dry. Arrange on top of the veggies.

Roast for about an hour (or until the bones are well browned), rotating the bones once or twice. Enjoy the aroma.

Remove the pan from the oven. Transfer the bones and veggies to a large stock pot. Drain off any excess fat, if you want. The bottom of the roaster will have bits of crunchy goodness most commonly called fond, though if you’re French you’d call it sucs. Whatever you call it, you want it in your stock. To do that, you need to deglaze the pan. That’s fancy shorthand for ‘adding cold liquid to a hot pan to get all the tasty bits off the bottom.’

Turn on the heat under the roasting pan. Pour in liquid (a cup or two should do). As it quickly comes to a boil, the bits will start coming loose. Use a spoon or spatula to loosen the rest and stir until uniformly mixed. Pour into the stock pot. The liquid can be water, but it could also be wine, other stock, vinegar, various spirits. (If you are going to use spirits though, either remove the pan from the heat source or turn off the flame as you’re first pouring it to prevent a minor fireball.)

Add about 10 cups of cold water to the pot, enough to at least cover the bones. Add the herbs – a few sprigs of thyme, a few parsley fronds, a bay leaf or two, and a half dozen or so peppercorns. (When bundled together by string or in cheesecloth this classic herb blend is called a bouquet garni.) Over medium-high heat, bring to a simmer. Try not to bring it to a boil to avoid emulsifying any fats and making a cloudy, ugly-looking stock. Skim off any scum that develops. Continue to simmer, uncovered, for about five hours. Obviously, the longer you simmer, the more concentrated it will become. Continue to enjoy the aroma.

Lamb Dog Bones
Strain. Toss the remains of the bones and vegetables. Allow to cool. Taste. Bland, right? Now’s the time to add the salt to your taste. Refrigerate overnight. Any excess fat will float and congeal on the surface. Remove it. Pour the stock into portion size containers and freeze for up to six months.

Next Red Meat Market aritcle, veal stock, including discussions of umami and why we have veal in the first place.