perfect, uncluttered chicken stock

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Perfect, Uncluttered Chicken Stock
Barely adapted from Cook’s Illustrated

I make this just the way CI told me to, except I use only one (instead of three) garlic cloves. I felt the larger amount made this a garlicky chicken stock, which is not what I was going for. You can add anything you’d like (more vegetables or a bay leaf or peppercorns or anything that makes your soup-loving heart sing) however, I would so love it if you could just once try it like this and hopefully understand this bliss of which I extol. It’s simple and golden and robust and the flavor is outstanding.

Yield: 3 quarts

3 pounds uncooked chicken wings
3 quarts water
1 large onion, chopped
1 garlic clove, smashed
1 teaspoon table salt, or more to taste*

Place all ingredients in a slow-cooker. Cook on LOW for 8 to 10 hours or HIGH for 4 to 5.

Strain out chicken parts, onion and garlic. The stock is now ready to use, or, you might prefer to do as we do, and put it in the fridge to chill until any fat solidifies on the top. (Though, there is really very little here, and some might prefer to leave it.) Once defatted, you can now use it or freeze it until needed. (More usage and freezing details below.)

A few more things:
What if you don’t have a slow-cooker? One can spend a horrific amount of time (trust me) trying to figure out what the correct temperature of a slow-cooker is, only to realize that while many hover around 175 degrees F, even more have no temperature control, and simply deliver a constant heat to ingredients eventually bringing them to a very low simmer. There’s no reason to get hung up on this. To make the equivalent stock on your stove, aim for slow and low — a very, very low simmer that you keep going as long as you have patience for, but ideally 4 to 5 hours. You may need to replace some water as it cooks as pots tend to evaporate more water than slow-cookers.

How should I use this? You can use this as stock or broth in any soup. You can use it to cook grains or beans. But most importantly, the flavor is so wonderful that you can have it straight. It particularly excels in broth-y soups, like Chicken Noodle, Matzo Ball and Italian Wedding-style soups, where you directly taste the stock. Here, I show you how I simmered in some vegetables (and later, chicken chunks) to make a chicken noodle soup. Next, I’d love to talk about soup noodles, but at 1,500-plus words here, I think I’ve done run out of space, eh?

How should I store this? If I’m not using it immediately, I divide it into 1 quart freezer bags and freeze them flat. This is a great old trick from Real Simple magazine, as the flat bags can easily be dipped in hot water for quick defrosting. 1 quart of stock in gallon bags will freeze even thinner and flatter. They also stack well in the freezer. I won’t lie; I felt like a SuperDuperDomesticDiva when I can heat up one of these with some simple vegetables and noodles when one of us is getting sick. Then I remember I don’t want to set the table and hate doing dishes and go back to being myself. Anyway, it can also be frozen in ice cube trays for tiny amounts (great to add flavor to cooked grains or beans) and CI recommends nonstick standard muffin pans for 1/2-cup servings.

Why chicken wings? In Cook’s Illustrated’s chicken broth tests, they found that both chicken legs along and necks and backs lent a “livery” taste to the broth. In my own experiments, saving the backs of chickens that I take apart in the freezer to later make broth with, I reluctantly agree (i.e. I wish it were some other way). Chicken wings, with their high bone-to-flesh ratio, made most refined and full-flavored broth and it took me a single sip of this stock to be fully converted.

Do I have to toss the cooked wings when I’m done? Yes and no. I find them overcooked, but not really inedible, so it’s a matter of preference. One thing I love about this recipe is that wings have so little usable flesh, it feels less wasteful than making chicken with larger parts can be (especially because they usually get overcooked and tough, thus, at least I do want to eat them).

* What’s the difference between stock and broth? In most grocery store aisles, they’re used interchangeably but technically, there are small small differences. Stock is often heavier in bones and things that will add body, as this recipe is, though it doesn’t have to be. However, it is unseasoned, which means to make this a true stock, you would skip the salt. Stock is often used in restaurants to make reductions (it is really the backbone of restaurant cooking), and if you reduce something already salty, obviously, you will have an oversalted mess. So, salt is added when needed for final dishes.

Why did this take you two years to tell us about it, Deb?! I was reluctant at first to share this recipe (despite being unable to stop myself from gushing about it to anyone who asked and a great many people who did not) because it felt excessively lush to me. I mean, three pounds of wings just to throw them away? Given, it’s quite easy to buy wings inexpensively in bulk (sometimes as disturbingly cheap as $1/pound), but if you prefers to buy local/cage-free/etc.-type chicken, it’s not exactly the cheapest way to approach what’s supposed to be the most economical kitchen ingredient, designed to use up scraps. But, when I actually ran the numbers, using wings on the priciest end of the spectrum (here, organic/antibiotic-free $3.99/pound and each pound of parts yields 1 quart of stock) the equivalent stuff from the box (the organic, free-range broth I’d buy is $4.50/quart, boasted such lovely ingredients as “yeast extract” and “chicken flavor), I realized that even if the taste didn’t speak for itself (it will), I’d been wrong about the cost.

When are you going to make a life-changing vegetable broth, for the rest of us? Soon. But it’s far more complicated because I don’t think that there is one magical combination of vegetables that will yield the ideal vegetable stock, it’s more about what flavors you enjoy lingering in the background your soups. Boy, I’m glad we had this talk because the kind of vegetable stock I’d like to make just totally hit me.

[New additions to the list, based on comments below]

Why is my stock so thick? I’m sorry I didn’t mention this sooner, but if you’ve never made stock before, it might have been a surprise to find that it became like Jell-o in the fridge over night. This is a good thing; this is excellent! It actually became exactly like Jell-o because stocks cooked for a long time with bones release the natural collagen in them. Stocks that jiggle when cool are the ones with the best and deepest flavors. Once warmed (even a little), it will immediately re-liquefy — do not fret.

I had expected more flavor. If this stock ended up not having the flavor you were hoping for, there are a couple directions you could go in:

  1. Add more salt. Please note, there is very little salt in here, less than half of most commercial brands. [I did a bunch of boring math from the back of a box of stock and another from bouillon cubes but decided to spare you the snore.] Salt (and sometimes MSG) definitely gives consumers the impression of more flavor where there may not be. You will probably want to more heavily season this before using it. I didn’t want to make it too salty in case someone wants to reduce it later for other uses or sauces; it will quickly seem too salty if reduced a bit.
  2. * It’s also possible that your slow-cooker did not cook the stock as much as this recipe assumes it will. As I mentioned earlier, slow-cookers can really vary in cooking temperatures, so if it tastes rather flat to you, even after 10 hours on low, there is little harm in putting it back for a few more hours.
  3. You can reduce it further to concentrate the flavor. This is standard procedure in most restaurant kitchens; large pots of stock are made and applied to various dishes in various concentrations. It wasn’t my intention here — I use this without reduction in soups and other recipes, as I find it just right if not a little intense, but in your kitchen, you should always be free tweak things so that they work the best for you.

* Edited again to add: However, upon further consideration, my first choice would be #2, to cook it longer. With this many bones and that little water, I’m more and more convinced that any lack of flavor just means that it’s possible your slow-cooker is more gentle on heat than others (I do know that mine is on the robust/running-hot side), and that it would benefit from more cooking time. The flavor is there, in the bones, it’s just a matter of whether the stock has been cooked enough to access it.

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