Once upon a time, stock was considered so important to cooking that the French called it fond de cuisine: the foundation. But they also considered most stockmaking the province of what the essential reference Larousse Gastronomique calls cooking in the grand manner, meaning at the restaurant level. Only a limited use is made of these fonds in practical day-to-day cooking, states the book’s 1961 American edition.
The best home cooks I know might disagree. They don’t concoct 10 varieties of stock, as in Larousse, but they still like to keep homemade chicken or veal stock in their freezer, awaiting not-so-limited use in soups, stew, braises and sauces. Making it can take the better part of a morning: There’s the procuring of the requisite bones, the browning, the boiling, the skimming, the straining.
Vegetarians have it a little easier, honestly. Sure, it’s hard – nearly impossible, actually – to find decent vegetable broth at the store. But if you cook vegetables regularly, you have the makings of it at your fingertips, no procurement required.
Notice that I called it broth rather than stock. It’s tempting to use the terms interchangeably, and sometimes I do, but stock indicates the presence of that rich depth of flavor and velvety texture that come from the slow cooking of animal bones. Some vegetable stock recipes can lay claim to depth by calling for an initial roasting or sautéing, and broth can certainly be reduced and concentrated. Silkiness is another story; you’re never going to be able to boil the stuff down into that sticky veal-stock-based elixir called demi-glace.
Still, vegetable broth is a wonderfully versatile item to have around, for many of the same reasons meat eaters would want a veal or chicken stock.
It adds a clean, vibrant backdrop of flavor to dishes you don’t want to dilute with just plain water. My favorite corn risotto wouldn’t be the same without corn broth, which I make with not just the stripped cobs but also the husks and silks.
These days, my freezer space is confined to that little compartment on top of my refrigerator, so I need vegetable broths that are more versatile.
Every time I cut up an onion, I rinse the root end and papery skin that would normally be headed for the compost and instead stuff it into a quart-size zip-top bag that I store in the freezer. I do the same with other neutrally flavored vegetables – woody ends of asparagus, celery bottoms, carrot peels, chard stems (no strong, bitter stuff like kale or broccoli rabe).
When I have two bags stuffed full, I combine their contents with water, a couple of bay leaves and a few peppercorns and simmer for a half-hour or so. The result is a golden-hued liquid that I strain, cool, freeze in ice cube trays and store in bags.