Folks, when the final cattle call comes for that great big roundup in the sky, it’s conceivable that your passage through the gates of pearl will be entirely dependent on your ability to make a good vegetable stock.
And, if that is indeed the case, you’re going to be glad you read this story.
Why learn this?
Well, it’s winter, and you know you’re going to be wanting some hot soup. And so are your vegetarian friends.
Trust me, vegetable stock is about 13 gajillion times better than water for making soups and sauces.
The steps you take
Let’s start by identifying our terms. Stock is a flavorful liquid typically made by simmering animal bones, aromatic vegetables and herbs and spices in water.
In classical French cuisine, it’s called “fond,” like “foundation.” Because sauces made from stocks are a primary component of French cuisine, good stock is essential.
I mentioned that most stocks are made from bones. This is because, along with the flavor, animal ingredients impart umami, that deep, savory, meaty taste related to the chemical glutamate. Most vegetables don’t have much umami, which is why vegetarian dishes can sometimes seem somewhat less satisfying than meat dishes.
Vegetable soups (or sauces), particularly those based on water, can very often lack a real depth of flavor.
That’s why we make an effort not to use water, because water only serves to dilute flavor rather than add to it. And that, in turn, is exactly why we use vegetable stock.
With the exception of bones, the ingredients in vegetable stock are similar to those in meat stock. Both are typically flavored with parsley, thyme, bay leaf and peppercorn, and both typically use a 2-to-1-to-1 mix of onions, carrots and celery. This is called mirepoix (meer-uh-PWAH).
To make up for the lack of bones, vegetable stock just needs more vegetables. By definition, any vegetables or their trimmings can be used. That said, though, the starch in potatoes can cloud a stock.
Also, cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, etc.) are high in sulfur, which can make the stock overly bitter. Tomatoes, leeks, fennel, corncobs and root vegetables all are good, and mushrooms are terrific because they contribute umami.
Cooking the vegetables before simmering can bring out more flavor along with additional sweetness. This can be done either by sweating or sautéing them in oil or by roasting them in a hot oven. Browning the vegetables also makes the finished stock darker. Depending on what you’re using the stock for, you may or may not want to brown the vegetables first.
One last thing: You might notice that missing from this method is salt. Typically we don’t add salt to stocks because stocks are so often reduced to concentrate their flavors. (Because meat stocks also have naturally occurring gelatin, reducing them also thickens them. Vegetable stocks, because they don’t have gelatin, do not thicken when reduced.) You will add salt when you use the stock in a dish.
Here’s a recipe for about a half gallon of stock. It looks like a lot of ingredients and a lot of chopping. Trust me, though, it’s totally worth it. Also, if you don’t have absolutely all the ingredients, don’t worry about it. Just make sure you use between 1 and 2 pounds of vegetables for each quart of stock. Remember, the higher the vegetable-to-water ratio, the stronger the flavor.
Once the stock is done, use it immediately or cool it in an ice bath, then store it in the fridge up to a week or freeze it for up to three months.
Prep time: 30 minutes
Cook time: 60 minutes
Makes 2 quarts
8 sprigs parsley
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon peppercorns, crushed
1 bay leaf
4 juniper berries (optional)
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
8 ounces onion, small dice (2-3 medium onions)
4 ounces carrot, small dice (about 2 carrots)
4 ounces celery, small dice (about 2 ribs)
4 ounces leek (white and green), small dice (about 1 small leek)
4 ounces fennel, small dice (about half a bulb)
4 ounces shiitake mushrooms
4 ounces button mushroom
4 ounces tomato, medium dice
4 cloves garlic, crushed
4 ounces dry vermouth
2 1/2 quarts water
Tie the parsley, thyme, peppercorns, bay leaf and optional juniper berries in a small square of cheesecloth. This is called a “sachet d’epice” or “spice bag.” (If you don’t have cheesecloth, don’t worry about it. Just add these ingredients to the pot when you add the water in step 5.)
Heat the oil in a large saucepan or Dutch oven over medium heat; add the onion, carrot, celery, leek and fennel; cook slowly until soft, 5-10 minutes.
Add shiitake and button mushrooms and tomato; cook until soft, about 5 minutes.
Add garlic; cook until just fragrant, 30-45 seconds. Add sachet, vermouth and water. Heat to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer, 45 minutes.
Strain and use immediately or chill quickly, wrap, label and store in refrigerator or freezer.