Make-Ahead Monday: Slow Cooker Chicken Stock, Shredded Chicken, and Schmaltz
Yeah, I keep a bag of chicken fat in the freezer. Doesn't everyone?
We'll come back to that later.
Today's project promises a triple whammy of ready-made ingredients to keep on-hand in your freezer. Chicken stock is a base for sauces, soups, and braises, and an easy way to revive leftover rice or grits. Cooked, shredded chicken is a no-brainer protein when you need to whip up a fast salad, throw in a single-serving soup, or roll into a burrito. And schmaltz is... well... it's free fat. You wouldn't throw butter or olive oil in the trash, would you? Rendered animal fats like bacon, duck, and yes, even chicken fat, are great for sauteing and even frying. Did I mention they are free? Leave the work up to your slow-cooker to make all these freezer staples, to always have the finest home-made ingredients on hand when you need them.
If you're reading this blog, chances are you already know that homemade chicken stock is better than store bought (although the boxed stuff from Costco is an excellent and economical substitute) and that stock is not the same as broth. In other words, stock is more than chicken-flavored water. That would be broth. No, stock is multi-dimensional in both flavor and texture, with a mouthfeel that calls to mind words like unctuous and lip-smacking. Technically speaking, it is a suspension of gelatin in water, extracted from meaty bones and cartilage by simmering for hours, and flavored with aromatic vegetables.
To make the stock, I generally use 3 to 5 pounds of the cheapest cuts of chicken. This is usually legs and thighs, although if you don't want to get as much meat in the end result, you can use wings too. In this case, I am using all legs, because nobody in my family really likes these. Dark meat, and never breast meat, is the only appropriate type for this application. Any chicken bones which you may have saved in the freezer can go in as well.
Let's talk aromatics. Most stock recipes call for slicing an onion in half and adding to the water, skins and all. That has been my tried-and true method in the past, and has always produced a terrific stock. Lately, I've saved the tough inedible tops from leeks I've used in other recipes, frozen in zip-top bags. Used instead of onion, they give the end result a brighter, fresher, and less sweet onion flavor. A couple of carrots, broken in half, go into the 7-quart slow-cooker. I season carefully, just three or four tablespoons of salt is enough.
That's it. Any other flavorings go in, and I have limitations in where I may use my stock. I want a clean flavor profile to use in whatever dishes I wish. The crock-pot gets filled with water and set on low in the garage. Why the garage? Typically, it takes more than 24 hours for the simmering water to extract enough gelatin from the bones. Your family may not enjoy the smell of chicken soup in the morning. I'm not sure why this is; I love it...
After the stock has simmered for 4-5 hours, it's time to do the hardest part of the process- which is still pretty darn easy. With tongs, I extract all the chicken from the pot and allow it to get cool enough to handle. I remove as much meat as I can from the bones, using my fingers to feel for little bits of cartilage and bone. The bones go back into the pot and simmer for another 8-10 hours. After that, I check for doneness periodically by pulling out a chicken bone and breaking it. The bone should literally crumble when all the water-soluble gelatin has been removed.
The whole pot gets strained into a large mixing bowl and needs to cool as quickly as possible. The best way to do this is by using frozen water bottles and a cooler filled with ice. Then it goes into the fridge overnight.
A disk of flavorful chicken fat has formed atop my stock and a pool of crud has formed beneath it. The former must be lifted off and preserved, while the latter must be removed by straining through a fine mesh sieve and two layers of cheesecloth, into a spouted bowl. Finally, the clearer stock is poured into various jars and containers saved for this purpose. They're not glamorous, but glass jars can be stored safely in the freezer if enough headspace- at least an inch- is left to allow for expansion.
The easiest two proteins to have on hand for a weeknight meal come from the same animal. Chicken and eggs can be used in more dishes than any other protein I can think of. I love having pre-cooked dark meat chicken ready at a moment's notice. I don't shred it up too much more than I need to when removing it from the bones. Then into a zip-top bag it goes, flattened out so I can break off any size piece I need at a time.
The Fat What can I say about this kitchen gold? Rub it on some red potatoes and grill them. Saute some greens in it. Just don't throw it in the trash!