Crockpot broth for cheaters like me

I love to cook, but I love my laziness more. Most of the time, this intersection of personal interests yields little of interest, but every now and then, I have a eureka! moment that's worth sharing.

In the past couple of years I've come to appreciate the goodness of an off-the-cuff pan sauce. A bit of stock, a bit of wine, some aromatics, and then a bit of thickening agent (either some kind of fat, or arrowroot starch dissolved in water) for a good mouthfeel. Reduce, plate, eat.

All well and good, except for that first ingredient - the stock. The standard way of making it drove me absolutely batty: freezing/saving trimmings (bones, etc.) until you've got enough for a big batch, then plunking them into a lot of water in the large honkin' stockpot, along with whatever various aromatics (peppercorns, bay leaves, carrots, onions, etc.) I had on hand, and simmering for ages upon end until the bones give up their lovely useful flavors to the water.

But wait! There's more! Then you get to strain it off, cool it down in the fridge, scoop off the fat and then - yep! - slowly reduce it down on the stove until that couple of quarts of liquid is simmered down into a thick, viscous substance that's far more easily stored in our little freezer.

You know what? That's lovely, but that's such a crock. I don't know anyone outside of a restaurant kitchen that does that sort of thing. Ever. I only did it on my particularly insane brain days (as opposed to the garden-variety insane brain days, which around here are generally days that aren't the 29th of never).

It took me a while before I began to draw a connection between Large Honking Stockpot and Large Honking Crockpot, and then I felt really stupid. Wait a second. You mean I already had a device in my kitchen specifically designed for long, slow simmering?

Boy, I am an idiot, aren't I?

See, I'd been trying to think of how I'd deal with all the chicken bones I've been generating lately. I despise paying more for a cut of meat than I absolutely have to, especially since I have an excellent knife set and am capable of doing small-scale butchering in my own kitchen.

It's far cheaper to buy a whole chicken if you've got the time to dissect it yourself: there are only two of us in the house, so a $4 hen gets us enough parts for three meals ... but leaves a carcass left over at the end. Since I knew the carcass had flavor and use, it bothered me intensely to throw it away, unused. I am not vegetarian, but I do recognize that meat comes from an animal that was once alive, and the absolute least I can do is make the utmost use of what I have received.

It's about respecting what you eat. Responsible carnivorism, or something along those lines.

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Crockpot stock

(As with all my recipes, this one's good for those of you who don't like exact recipes.)

carcass of one chicken - use the skin and bones, but skip the internal organs

1 onion, unpeeled

1-2 carrots, unpeeled

whole peppercorns (white, black, green, whatever. use what you have.)

bay leaves. A few. Depends on how strong yours are.

Preheat oven to, oh, about 400° or so.

Dissect the chicken carcass down using stout shears. You'll want to break the back/rib cage area down into a few pieces, so that it'll better fit the crockpot.

Quarter the onion. Cut off the root end, but you don't have to peel it. Just break it down into slightly smaller pieces, but don't worry about making them small or perfect. Same with the carrot. Get it into chunks. Roast the bones, onion, and carrot for an hour, hour and a half, something like that. What you're looking for is a nice golden brown; getting the flavor from that browning reaction is far more important than whether or not it's been exactly 60-90 minutes.

Have the crockpot ready. I usually toss in a couple of bay leaves and about ten peppercorns. More or less, depending on your taste.

Once the bones are done, dump the mess into the crockpot. Take a bit of water and scrape the browned bits off the bottom of the pan. Dump all that into the crockpot too - it's tasty goodness waiting to happen. Add enough water to the crockpot to cover the bones and go most of the way to the top of the crockpot. Cover, turn it to low, and here's my favorite part:

Ignore it. For at least twelve hours. I've let it go as long as 24. I suspect the stock gets better if you let it cook longer, but I don't know that. Twelve is usually more along the lines of what I do, though.

When you're ready to move on, have a mixing bowl and a strainer handy. Strain the stock into the bowl. Discard the solids and thank the chicken; its duty is done. Drop some ice cubes into the stock to help it cool down. Cover it, and stick it in the fridge. (I usually get about a quart and a half of stock, but as previously stated, I own a Large Honkin' Crockpot.)

When it's cooled down, the fat will have risen to the top. Scoop off the fat with a spatula, then deposit the chicken jello into a pot on the stove. Simmer it down as far as you like, then put into little ziploc bags and freeze.

(Or, as Jeff asked me one time, why do you simmer it down when that doesn't change the flavor? Answer: because we have limited freezer space, and it's much easier to store one cup of highly concentrated stock than it is to store a quart and a half of fully diluted stock.)

You'll want to pay attention to your stock volume, both before and after, so that you'll know how much concentrated stock you'd need to make a cup of regular-strength broth. Since I can't predict the size of your crockpot nor how far you'll want to boil your stock down, I'll leave this measurement up to you.

That's it. Really. The only thing you'll want to keep in mind is that your stock is (mostly) fat-free and completely salt-free, so it's going to taste pretty flat and bland in its reconstituted state. It's not a finished product - it's an ingredient for making other dishes happy. It's still not the least time-consuming recipe ever, but it's far easier than the standard method, and seems to generate thoroughly palatable results.

I should mention that you can do the same thing with any other meat bits - seafood, fowl, etc. You can also do the same with larger animals - pork, beef, etc. - but since the bones are likely to be much larger, you'll need to give them more time to roast. Says she who is simmering down beef stock on her stove as she writes this entry.