I used to spend a lot of money buying soup stock. At my house, we love soups, broths, chili, stews and risottos, so I can go through quite a bit of stock-and the good stuff isn’t cheap. But even worse was the fact that many of the stocks I found in stores-either in containers or as dissolvable cubes or pastes-have a breathtaking amount of sodium in them. I’m not anti-salt by any means, but I do like to be able to taste the other flavors in my soup.
Eventually, I decided to try to make some vegetable stock myself. I found a recipe in some cookbook I had on the shelf, and it called for two large onions, a carrot, some celery, a half-pound of mushrooms, a garlic bulb, some bay leaves and some thyme. I went out and bought all that stuff, chopped it up, made some stock and then threw all those lovely vegetables away. The result was delicious, but given the cost of all that produce, the stock ended up being even more expensive than the prepared stuff I’d gotten at the store!
Then, one day, I noticed that the pile of scraps I was taking out to my compost heap didn’t look all that much different from the chopped produce I’d used to make my overpriced homemade vegetable stock. So I Googled “vegetable stock kitchen scraps” and found out that I was arriving very late to an awesome party-people all over the Internet were making their own soup stock with garbage! I gave it a try, and it was really quite good! And because I made it out of food scraps that I was planning to throw away, it was absolutely free (except for the occasional bay leaf or peppercorn).
I’ve got it down to a routine now. I keep a gallon-sized freezer bag inside my freezer door, and anytime I’m processing vegetables that would taste good in a stock, I throw the scraps into the bag. Then, when I need some vegetable stock, I figure out how much stock I want to end up with and put that much water into a lidded pot and start heating it on the stove. If I need a stout stock-for a soup or broth, perhaps-I add as many scraps as will fit under the water. But if I just need a bit of flavored water for a risotto or sauce, I’ll keep it a little lighter.
Once I’ve added my vegetables to the pot, I bring it to a boil and let it simmer for a little while-ideally for as long as an hour, but if I’m in a rush, I’ll harvest the stock after just 20 minutes or so. I don’t add much in the way of seasoning at this stage in the process because salt, herbs and spices will get added later when the stock becomes part of a soup, broth or other dish. I pour the stock through a strainer (some people also use a cheesecloth) into a bowl and let the scraps sit over the bowl for a while as everything cools a bit. Then, I squeeze as much stock out of the veggies as I can before they get back in line for the compost heap.
Our freezer bag stays stocked pretty well just with scraps from our regular cooking. We eat a lot of greens, so there are always plenty of stems from kale, collards and chard. There are also lots of mushroom stumps; tops and peels from carrots; stubs and ends from leeks and celery; and the outer skin, paper and ends from onions, garlic and shallots. I never buy anything specifically for making stock, but if I notice that my scrap supply is getting low on something in particular, I will make a point of replenishing it by making a dish that will create that type of scraps (for example, making stuffed mushrooms if we’re getting low on mushroom stems).
Some people like to make a lot of stock at once and freeze it to use later, but because the process is pretty quick and easy, I usually just make it when I need it. There are all sorts of scraps that you can use for stock and just a few things to avoid.
Stay away from anything that is dirty, moldy or spoiled in any way-if it’s a little wilted, fine, but if it makes you go “ew,” pitch it. Some cooks advise against including cruciferous vegetables (cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts), as they supposedly make the stock bitter, but I’ve noticed a few bits of broccoli stems have made it into batches I’ve made-and the stock came out OK.
I looked around to see if there is a good guide as to which scraps to save and which ones to avoid, and I found this one at The Kitchn. Also, keep in mind that the scraps you’re saving for vegetable stock will also work great if you’re making meat or seafood stocks.
Alice O’Dea has lived in Chattanooga for over 20 years, but was raised among the mucks and dairy farms in rural western New York. She didn’t really learn to cook until midlife. When she’s not puttering around in the kitchen, she enjoys running, cycling, traveling, photography and trying to get food to grow in the backyard of her Highland Park home. You can email her with questions, suggestions or comments at [email protected]. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.