I might use 2 to 3 quarts of vegetable stock per month, maybe more in the winter, which isn’t really a lot. But at almost $4 for a quart of the good stuff, that’s over $100 per year. Meanwhile, I’ve been throwing away all my fresh vegetable scraps. I finally realized, it doesn’t add up. Now that I know how to make my own delicious no-sodium vegetable stock, I’m feeling clever four times over: one for the money, two for the waste, three for the salt, and four for the taste!
Vegetable stock is less of a recipe per se and more about knowing the theory and then improvising for the occasion. There’s no consensus on the right way to make stock, every cook finds her own. Here’s what I’ve learned from reading tons of recipes and finally just doing it my way…
The Foundation: The one thing everyone does agree on is that a stock starts with three key aromatic vegetables: onion, celery, and carrot. In French cuisine, this holy trinity is called mirepoix (meer-PWAH) which loosely translates to “some French Duke who hired a really good chef.” You might see leeks instead of, or in addition to, onions. Same with parsnip and carrots. But some version of mirepoix will be the base every time.
Herbs: The two other elements that you’ll find across the board are peppercorns and bay leaves. Also very popular are garlic and parsley. The stems of fresh herbs are perfect for stock. So if you’re using the leaves off a bunch of parsley or cilantro, you’ll be able to use the other half that isn’t leafy here. If you have fresh thyme, rosemary, sage, oregano, or basil – toss some into the pot!
Fats: In about a quarter of the recipes I’ve seen, people use butter, olive oil, or both. I don’t use any fats because stock is always an ingredient in something else, and I’d rather measure the fats for the final recipe.
Salt: Just like with fats, I don’t add any sodium because the stock is not the final product. But lots of people do put salt and/or Tamari in their stock. If you do want to try, start with 2 tsp salt per quart of water and adjust to your liking.
Brightness: You’ll see this less frequently, but it’s something I usually do: add some white wine or lemon. It’s easier to overdo the lemon – half of an already squeezed one per 2 quarts is enough. Wine, on the other hand, adds richness as well as brightness – anywhere from a quarter to a full cup is great.
Everything Else: The woody part of asparagus, bok choy butts, broccoli and cauliflower stems, chard or beet greens, sweet potato peelings, fennel stocks, zucchini and summer squash, the top of one red bell pepper without the seeds – all great additions to increase the complexity and balance of flavor. But the two I would be loath to leave out are mushrooms and tomatoes, both for the umami they add, thereby rounding out the flavor experience and reducing the need to over-salt in the final dish.
Cooking Technique: Some folks oven roast the mirepoix and other hearty pieces first, drawing out and deepening flavors. If you do this you will need to use some type of fat. Other people toss everything into a pot of boiling water and walk away. My approach is in the middle: I do cook the onion, garlic, and herbs in white wine for 10 minutes before adding the other ingredients and enough water to just cover them, about 2 liters. However you choose to start, we’ll all end with simmering our ingredients for 45 to 60 minutes and then straining out our very own homemade stock!
Storage: Stock will keep in the refrigerator for up to 5 days or in the freezer for 3 months. A great idea is to freeze it in ice cube trays, then transfer into a freezer bag so you can easily thaw just the portion you need.
Watch-outs: Always use fresh ingredients, never anything that’s spoiled. Stock will not hide bad ingredients, it will amplify them. Rinse everything well and use organic if you can. Never let anything burn. If you’re making stock for a specific use, consider tailoring your mix of ingredients to complement that recipe (rosemary for Italian dishes, but not Mexican, etc.). On the flip side, consider avoiding flavors that are very distinctive if you’re making a batch for general/TBD use. I’d be careful with peppers – if the top of one mild red bell pepper makes its mark on the flavor profile, I can’t imagine what jalapeno scraps would do.