It feels funny to be riding a trend. I’m used to being off to the side in matters of health and food thinking. But today, I laughed while reading the NYTimes article Bones, Broth, Bliss; Bone Broth Evolves From Prehistoric Food to Paleo Drink because I have a large pot of bone broth simmering on the back burner, cooking on order for two dietary clients. Long a tool of both fine kitchens and food therapeutics, bone broth has now come into the spotlight.
Paleo drink? Hardly. Do we really have to discuss the plausibility of prehistoric hunters cooking bones for two days, fighting off scavengers, patiently waiting for their broth, discussing how to skim foam or when to add aromatics, all tens of thousands of years before the invention of the first cooking pot?
In the dietary branch of Chinese Medicine, cooking bones is a method to extract the essence of the animal in a way that can most easily be digested and assimilated. There is something shamanistic about it; we are trying to absorb the deepest digestible energy of the animal. Yes, high cuisine relies upon stocks for finesse and depth, but the focus in dietary therapy is on the deep resonance between the bone essence of a long-cooked stock and our own deepest level: bones, joints, blood building marrow, kidneys, reproductive system and the very special organ that resides surrounded by bone, the brain.
That’s the theory, but does it do anything in practice? I’ll leave the studies to others, but in my experience, bone stocks are extremely helpful for individuals who are depleted or run down from stressful lifestyle, over-exertion, travel, illness or old age. Bone stock is a bit like a dietary dose of ginseng— it’s stimulating, grounding and fortifying at the same time.
Making bone stock is not for the faint-hearted. There are bones in there, and the best stock is made from knuckles, knees, femurs, tendons…. there’s no getting around it, this may not be paleolithic but it certainly is primal.
According to the classical teachings of Chinese Medicine, stocks are not interchangeable. A beef bone broth strengthens our constitutional health and is very anchoring, while chicken stock stimulates our immune response and is more warming. Turkey and duck stock are somewhere in between. Fish bone stock is often forgotten but is fantastic as both cooking stock and health tonic, resonating with the skeletal and reproductive level. Fish bone stock cooks more quickly (fish bones are softer and quite skinny); 6-8 hours makes an excellent fish stock. Seafood offers a wide variety to work with: lobster and crab shell (more stimulating, for adrenal exhaustion) or oyster and clam shell (more calming, for emotional stress).
Although not bones, broths made from dried scallops, mussels, shrimp, abalone and other shellfish are also common and important, particularly in Asian cuisine. Shellfish are constantly in the process of creating their shells and are therefore seen as particularly supportive to our own bone maintenance level. All the stocks provide calcium and other minerals and the land animal stocks also provide rich nutrition from marrow. To make a vegetarian stock, use seaweed (usually kombu/kelp) and dried mushrooms, both vegetarian foods that resonate at the constitutional level (we make vegetarian stocks often, only partly because they are ready in 20 minutes).
Stock recipes are personal. They have been the secret of the kitchen, and rightly so. The constitutional level is private, it’s hidden, it is the reservoir of life’s mysteries. What lurks beneath the murky surface of an ever-so-slightly gurgling stock pot is mysterious, like what lurks below the surface of the sea. It’s always a surprise when you see something pop up from under the surface. But the mysterious quality of bone stocks is not based on recipes being secret, rather the mysterious level that they work within us. This is not diminished at all by sharing the recipe.
Buy 3-5 pounds stock bones from a good butcher shop. They’ll know to give you bones high in connective tissue, such as knee joints. The best stocks congeal in the refrigerator due to collagen and such; using only femurs and polite bones will make a delicious but less miraculous stock. Always seek organic or pasture raised meat products.
Roast the bones on a baking sheet in a 350F oven for 20-30 minutes.
Meanwhile, roughly chop 1 leek, a few medium carrots and a few stalks of celery, toss them in the bottom of a stock pot with a tiny splash of olive oil and couple pinches of salt. Start them going, not too hot.
When the bones have browned a bit (they will also give off some fat that you don’t need to use), toss them into the stock pot, cover with water and bring to a simmer. Stock must not be allowed to reach a rolling boil. A full boil will turn stock bitter and ruin it’s clarity, so prized in high cuisine. Stock should have a slow-rising bubble every few seconds, no more. Use the stovetop’s lowest setting.
Add a good splash of cider vinegar or white wine vinegar (1/4 cup) and a half dozen dried mushrooms (optional, but a great option).
Cook on steady, low heat for 1-2 days without stop. I generally cook mine for two and a half days.
When it’s done, pour the stock through a strainer into another pot to collect the bones and bits. From the collection pot, ladle or pour into refrigerator containers. Cool in the refrigerator overnight. Fat will separate to the top for removal and the stock will show its character by congealing through its natural gelatins.
Scoop some into a saucepan to melt before drinking. Some like it straight, some opened up with some warm water. Salt to taste if desired (salt is a mineral of the sea and joins the work of the stock unless a person has a specific renal hypertension that is sensitive to salt intake). While you have it on hand, by all means explore cooking with stock in soups and sauces. For a good home cook, the addition of a great stock is what you need to match fine restaurant cooking.
If this is all it takes to be an urbane caveman, I’m in.
Beef Bones with root vegetables in our small stock pot.
Roasted fish bones (cod) about to go into the 18 qt pot.
Finished fish stock.