All About Bone Broth

"Double double toil and trouble - fire burn and cauldron bubble" - W Shakespeare


I seem to be known as a bit of a local witch. ;-)  People often ask me how to make a good bone broth and my answer is never straight forward because ... the nutrition science behind the fashion for bone broths isn't well documented and I don't wish to mislead. All I want is that their results be delicious they want to make more!

Bone broth is reputed to be an old remedy for everything digestive and immune-related. And there is no doubt that, culturally, we find a good soup or broth ultra-comforting when we are feeling unwell.

While it's true that bone both is rich in minerals, and contains collagen and gelatine, significant proteins for cell regeneration, and essential amino acids like glutamine, glycine and proline – the effects of eating bone broth has actually not been well-researched. We are told that bone broth heals our gut lining and reduces intestinal inflammation, with added benefits for skin, hair, fingernails, and anything that 'boils down' to the building blocks of our bodies - cellular stuff. Similar compounds can be found in dairy products and eggs, but since these are not as well tolerated by some people will poor gut health, bone broth is returning as the universal functional food in our modern times.

I don't dispute it. Personally I find bone broth the ultimate comfort food and it's nice to know that a waste product – the bones and cartliage of the meat industry – can be utlised in this age of astronomical food waste.

Contrary to popular perception, consuming collagen does not translate to more collagen being produced within our bodies. Only if you are deficient in the nutrient components our bodies use to manufacture collagen will you notice a difference in your health and wellbeing. However, consumed regularly some people may notice that skin is less prone to flaking and cracking and fine lines in the skin may fill out so that you 'glow'.  Fingernails may become stronger and hair - well it takes many months, even years, of regular consumption but you may notice hair becomes stronger, with less breakage and split ends. Gelatin is reputed to contribute to healthy joints and healthy cell formation throughout the body and even the brain. More research is needed to confirm this belief – but is this really important?

Well, in theory, yes. Our bodies have the ability to identify and destroy damaged cells and replace with healthy new cells. At the most trivial end of the spectrum we might perceive this as a preserver of youth – at the most critical end of the spectrum we might identify this as a from of cancer or auto-immune prevention. Why?  Because the mineral building blocks in bones supposedly contain everything our bodies need to build new cells and the picking off of faulty cells and replenishment with new ones is what keeps our bodies from degenerating with the wear and tear of age or illness.

Whether you buy into the trend or not, there is no doubt that stock-making is an art form that has endured through the centuries because it renders our food more delicious and textural. By the way, a 'broth' by definition, actually does not contain bones. Below are some of my favourite recipes and flavour combinations – also some tips and tricks to simplify regular stock-making at home – since the process can be quite laborious and time consuming for a small batch. Here we go:

Start with good clean bones from healthy animals. Dog bones (as they're known at the butcher's), if fresh, are just fine to use. Perhaps ask your butcher to cut them into smaller segments and also to cut through the ball joints and connective tissues. Exposing the inner bone will enable you to extract the gelatinous compounds in a much shorter cooking time.

Some recipes recommend blanching or boiling the bones first. This effectively removes the fat and leaves less scum to scoop off the top as it cooks. Personally, I don't think it matters whether you do or don't blanch, so long as you take the time to scoop the scum as it cooks, and later, as you cool the finished broth, scoop off the fat at the end. You can use this, by the way, for cooking something else – so if you're a waste-not-want-not kind of person, feel free to put it in a jar for making baked beans or something fat-loving later.

Next, preheat your oven and season the bones with salt and oil if you wish. It isn't imperative but all seasonings added at the start will avoid further addition of seasonings later. Roast the bones in a hot oven until they smell cooked and even a little bit burned. The lighter the roast, the more delicate the end flavour. The darker the roast, the more robust the end flavour. There is a lot of deep flavour in beef bones. Chicken bones are more delicate. It's a matter of personal preference – let your nose guide you.

At this point you can actually freeze the roasted bones - ready for stock-making another time. Then you can pick up where you left off and continue the process knowing the hardest part has already been completed. 

A basic stock contains no vegetables – just seasoned, roasted bones. Convention then states that you cover with cold water and add some vinegar and let sit for up to an hour to facilitate extraction of minerals. To be honest – this will happen through the cooking process anyhow – but if you like the sour note and are time poor, do give this a try. Then add some aromatics if you desire, and simmer on the stove until the broth tastes as good as it smells – again, let your senses guide you. This could take as little as two hours for chicken stock, or twelve hours and beyond for beef stock – and of course depends on the ratio of bone to water.

I do also like to add a mirapoix – the classic combination of onion, carrot and celery with a bouquet garni (traditionally parsley, thyme and bay leaf). You can also experiment with classic recipes and apply those combinations to a stock – for example, poultry with orange and aniseed, lamb with garlic and rosemary, pork with apple and fennel, beef with mushroom and red wine. The options really are only limited by your imagination. Flavours of Asia may also satisfy – garlic, ginger and soy. Avoid over-complicating things though. No more than two or three contrasting flavours in any one batch.

Once cooked to your satisfaction, use a sieve to strain the hot liquid into a large enough vessel that cooling will be facilitated. This is the time when opportunitistic bacteria will be most active so stir it regularly as it cools to avoid hot spots and once cool enough, chill in the fridge. Avoid placing too-hot liquids into your fridge as it may heat the internals of your fridge and put your other foods at risk of contamination or spoilage. You may need to syphon the stock off to several smaller containers – so do this while it is still liquid as the jelly is not so easy to manipulate.

You may find that a layer of fat sets on the top. Again, just remove this layer and dispose or use for other cooking. It won't do you harm to reheat and drink it with your broth but it will detract from the flavour and mouth-feel of your finished stock (broth). Don't be alarmed that your broth has set solid in the fridge – that means you've done it right!

I find bone broth is a great pick-me-up if I'm feeling unwell, if my appetite is off, or I'm skipping a meal (because it makes me feel full and satisfied). It is a nice night-cap before bed, a great substitute for coffee, tea or alcohol. It's a great base for a soup or stew, and a spoonful can can give your risotto or pasta sauce an extra flavour boost. It freezes indefinitely and stored at 4C (being mindful of cross-contamination - use a clean spoon every time) it will keep for two weeks or more.

Waste not want not. You'll never go hungry with a jar of home made broth jelly in your fridge.

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