Frugal kitchen: Make your own broth

This is a kitchen-oriented addition to the Dealbusters series that checks out whether something that sounds like a good deal — or takes a bit of extra work — will really help your budget. We’ll look at cost and benefit — with everything filtered through individual experience. Please chime in with your take.

How many recipes within your shelf of cookbooks include the ingredient “broth” or “stock”? In my experience, many soups, braised vegetables, and grains call for — or benefit from — the rich flavors of broth.

And yet from cost and environmental perspectives, using all that broth can be a whopper. Bouillon cubes (the fallback of my childhood) can be laced with too much sodium, MSG and other needless ingredients. And packaged broth comes in Tetra-Pak containers that, at least in my area, are not collected by municipal recycling and require a special trip — one that most of us are unlikely to make. To add insult to injury, packaged vegetable broth typically costs about $2 per quart.

What if you make your own?

Making your own stock is no big deal. Things you will need:

  • A large pot.
  • A stove.
  • A colander.
  • Quart-size containers for storage in the freezer.
  • Vegetables, old or new (see below).
  • An hour or two of your time.

Ingredients

Basically, you can put whatever you want in stock. The basic ingredients are:

  • Carrots (about 2 large ones)
  • Celery (about 4 stalks)
  • Onion (a big one, chopped in quarters, skins and all)
  • Parsley (a few good stalks)
  • Thyme (fresh or dried)
  • Black peppercorns
  • Water

If you have saved carrot peels, potato peels, onion ends or other miscellaneous ingredients in the freezer, adjust your ingredients accordingly.

Some people like to add garlic for spiciness; ginger for an Asian infusion; various vegetables, from potatoes to whatever else you have on hand; or a variety of meats.

Be aware, though, that:

  • Garlic can make stock bitter or spicy.
  • Brassicas (cabbage, broccoli, greens) usually don’t do a stock any favors — they taste strong and bitter.
  • Turnips can put serious peppery spice into your stock.

Adding meat (or meat-like flavor)

The “right” stock tastes great in a recipe, but if you don’t have beef stock on hand and instead you use vegetable stock, the world won’t stop turning. Therefore, we usually make veggie stock to keep on hand for all purposes.

However, if we buy chicken, I buy it on the bone so we can use the bones for stock later. You can freeze the bones (be generous with what meat you leave on the bones … it makes cutting easier, too) in a container — they will keep for months.

Other meat bones — mainly beef — are also good in stock. With any bones, place them in the pot (still-frozen is fine) with the other ingredients.

If you want rich flavor — say, for French onion soup — without the meat, you can roast your vegetables before preparing the stock. Put chopped veggies on a pan, drizzle with oil, and roast in a 400-degree oven for 45 minutes or so, turning and watching that they brown deeply, but don’t burn. The resulting stock will be deeper and richer.

Start your burners …

  • Throw everything in a large pot, fill with water, cover and bring to a boil. Then, turn down the heat and let the stock simmer for about an hour. Any longer, and it will start to develop a stronger flavor that you might or might not like.
  • Strain the stock into another pot or a large bowl using your colander. Used vegetables can go in the compost pile. Bones should go in the trash.
  • Salt the stock lightly to taste, if you wish.
  • Allow the stock to cool. Set the pot or bowl in a sink full of cold water. In the winter, we put the lid tightly on the pot and set it out on the back step overnight.
  • Pour the stock into quart-sized containers. If you use Mason jars, don’t forget to leave room at the top so they won’t crack. I use plastic, square quart containers because I like that the stock block will slide out into a pan to finish thawing.
  • Freeze the stock. (Sometimes I label it with a masking-tape label so I remember which is which.) If you keep it in the refrigerator, boil it every couple of days or it will go bad.

The cost breakdown

For my basic organic veggie stock, the savings over organic Tetra-Pak stock is 84 percent — a cost of $0.32 per quart for homemade stock.

**UPDATED** – click here to see a brief spreadsheet explaining the nitty gritty of my cost calculations.

Plan CSA & farmer’s market now

June is exciting in these parts. It’s time for the farmer’s markets, CSAs and the like to swing into action.

Last year, we only went to one farmer’s market and I was not impressed. In the spring the tables were full … of goods brought in from other, warmer states. I wanted local produce, and there was hardly anything. (It was mid to late June, and I know our garden already is or could be producing lettuces, spinach, radishes, carrots, peas, onions … so why not the pros?) Our grocer stocks a lot of local produce, so I gave up easily.

This year, I’m going to make more of an effort. If you would like to find a local farmers market in your area, you can check Local Harvest. Better yet, search for “farmers market” and the name of your state or city. Many states have a farmers market association with listings of local markets.

And, exciting for me — I found a local (within 100 miles) organic CSA to join. We purchased a half-share, which was still available last week. We’ll get about a big sack of produce every week through December.

Bulk/advance buying changes your whole grocery-budget mindset: This spring I will have forked out over $800 for food I can’t eat right away (our local beef and the CSA). But if I divvy those bills out over the course of now through December, it comes to about $23 per week for our produce and meat — not too bad at all. We will of course be supplementing with our home-grown produce. The CSA farm mentioned that it anticipates having extras available — like roasted green chiles and tomatoes — for members to put up for the winter. Our first pickup is next Thursday – I can’t wait to see what we get.

Have you signed up for a CSA? Are you a farmers market regular?