Gallus gallus domesticus - Giving Its Best, Down To the Bones

As part of the Seasonal Herb Series, I taught a class a few weeks ago on immune boosting herbs. We sampled a number of different herbs that are good for supporting the immune system such as astragalus, ginger, and elderberry but I also had to share  the power of broth. Hands-down, one of the best and most effective things that I have included in my diet for improved immunity and ability to bounce back after a bout of cold or flu like sickness, has been chicken broth. Specifically "bone broth", as it is now called. About five years ago, I was struck by a strange gut-wrenching craving for meat which I named "The Growl" and thinking that it may have been from a nutritional deficiency of some sort, I made a pledge to myself to learn how to make a good soup stock and thus began the love affair that I have had ever since. I mean I really got into soup. So much so that I am really surprised that I have never written about my broth making prowess until now.

Many of us are probably familiar with the wonders that have been attributed to chicken broth or chicken soup.  Its reputation, no doubt, was the inspiration for the title of the popular 'Chicken Soup for the Soul' book series.  I have even heard it called "Jewish penicillin". I liked a good chicken soup as well as the next person, but I had underestimated the value of knowing how to make a good, tasty and nutritious chicken broth from scratch.

When I first decided to start making soup, I used my rotisserie chicken leftovers. Sometimes I would even buy a whole rotisserie chicken for the purpose of making soup. To tell you how green I was, I would actually throw away the gelatinous juices and fats that had coagulated in the bottom of the rotisserie chicken container. Like, seriously? That is like the best part. But I didn't know. I just didn't know and I went about making my broth in a very wasteful way. I can say that now but at the time I thought I was doing something with my expensive rotisserie chicken, the perfect center portions of the celery ribs, the perfect central portions of the carrots, the interior sections of the onion and garlic and I would throw away all of the tops and bottoms and peels and scraps.

I would let that simmer until the chicken began to come off of the bones at which point I would pour off all of the broth into a large bowl, pick all the meat off the chicken carcass and throw the bones away. I would mash up the chicken skin, gristle, carrots, celery and onions for Riley to have a little treat.  The soup that I would then create from the rotisserie chicken broth would be… OK. I mean, at the time I thought it was amazingly delicious. Don't get me wrong, it was pretty good. I will share those recipes below because I do still make those exact same soups, The base is just so much better now. To me. To each his or her own.

Let me stop here for a moment and talk about maturity because I had to reach a certain level of culinary maturity before I could even appreciate homemade soup. I am a child of the 70s and I wanted my soup to be 'umm umm good' and my macaroni and cheese to be Kraft. I did not appreciate those huge chunks of chicken in my mother's homemade soups, some of which would still have gristle or bone attached. Heaven forbid there was a wayward piece of skin floating in there with those bits of herbs and peppercorns and what not. No. Thanks. I wanted those symmetrical little cubes of chicken and that concentrated, sunshine-yellow, salty stuff that it was in. So I have to give myself a big pat on the back for now being able to appreciate homemade chicken soup and especially the gelatinous stuff that is in the bottom of the rotisserie chicken container, because that used to straight up make me gag! Here I am, at probably the exact same age at which my parents were when they were fighting with me over homemade soup versus Campbell's.

Anyway, back to the chicken broth. What put my #BrothGame on the next level? 

I read a blog post by a farmer friend of mine that made all sorts of lightbulbs go off in my head about my soup making.  He's probably surprised that I am even referencing his wonderful blog, little house on the urban prairie, but there is a wealth of awesome information there in addition to his post about making stock. I remember reading that stock post and feeling like a lightbulb literally popped on inside of my skull.  It's interesting how, looking back at the post now, I don't recall what was so earth shattering about it. I mean, it is an excellent post, but I am way more familiar with what the author is describing. I remember reading it three years ago and going, what? You mean I can put the celery tops in my stock? The tops of the carrots? A half of a lemon? What? And I could be using bones that I have saved up in my freezer? What? and saving up vegetable scraps for this undertaking? Like I said, I have a chuckle now when I go back and read it because it seems like "common sense" but nothing is ever common sense until you internalize it, normalize it and make it a part of your lifestyle.  There is an important lesson here, I believe, as it relates to self-improvement or a lifestyle change or any of the number of things that we talk about we need to do, or other people need to do or how the world would be a better place if everyone would just do…

There were probably plenty of people running around saying this world would be a much better place if Lottie would stop making wasteful, extravagant, weak chicken stock. But I didn't know any better. I didn't know my stock was weak and wasteful and extravagant, so I definitely did not know how to make it intense, economical, and accessible (Woah, the food justice force is strong with this one). I'm sure my farmer friend had no idea how his blog post would change my life, but I daresay that it did. After those improvements I went on to seek out other ways that I could be making this soup stock better. I was still impressed with my finished soups though. I had come up with two particular recipes that I really enjoyed and would share with folks when they would come over or if they were sick and needed a hot home-cooked meal. I had begun to associate wellness, comfort and nourishment with the slow simmering of chicken stock in my blue Speckleware stock pot.

Level Up!

Then someone near and dear to me gave me a stockpot that was double the size of my blue Speckleware one. It could hold three whole rotisserie chickens! That is a huge stockpot, to me. Also by this time I had at lucked up on a copy of "The Nourished Kitchen" in a used bookstore and had graduated to cooking my bone broth slow and low for hours until the chicken bones themselves were soft and could be easily crushed between my thumb and forefinger. Riley was eating really good these days… when I took him to the vet she even made a comment about him being such a wide-body.

I knew that I was hooked when I found myself on the phone with a butcher in the Eastern Market trying to figure out how I could fit a 50 pound box of chicken feet into my refrigerator freezer. I realized that probably was not going to happen, but by then it was evident I was no longer a rotisserie chicken girl.  We would still have our rotisserie chicken from time to time, but I would cut the meat off for the meal and save the bones, freezing them in large Ziploc bags until soup making time. I was much more flexible about what kinds of chicken parts could go in the stock and was always looking for bargain chicken on sale. I began bugging the butcher at the gourmet grocer for chicken backs.

The best laid plans...

One day while running errands, I decided to stop in a local grocery store on Meyers near 6 Mile (or McNichols for non-Detroiters.  *insider*), and they had packages of chicken feet in the freezer! I was so delighted that I snapped a photo and texted it to friends. Shortly thereafter they made their debut appearance on Facebook. I admit to being a bit intimidated by them though and it took me about six months before I could actually cook them. When I did cook them,  it was with a mixture of trepidation and disgust. Chicken feet look a LOT like hands.  All the way down to their little toenails and finger-print like pads...ewwww. They smell very "chickeny" too.  Because of that,  I really had high hopes for that broth.  I just knew it was going to be a solid quivery block of rich chicken flavored collagen after it had cooled down in the refrigerator (#BrothGoals) but it wasn't. Maybe I didn't reduce it enough? I may get up my nerve and try chicken feet again, one of my FB post  commenters advised me to roast the chicken feet first. That makes sense because roasting is often done to improve flavor.

Is that a gang sign? What up doe?

Are we ever going to get to the good part?

Here I have gone on and on and on and have not given one solid recipe for this supposed wonder-broth. Well, that's just it, there isn't "one solid recipe". That too is part of the beauty, but I can definitely give you some ideas.

First you need chicken bones and meat. This can be raw chicken parts or last night's leftover baked chicken. I have had very good broth making experiences with thigh and leg quarters. They are on sale quite often and are very inexpensive. A package of six will yield a lot of tender meat that doesn't dry out as easily as breast meat can. You could roast them in the oven first if you want to get some caramelization on that skin or toss them in the pot as is. Season it the way you like or don't season it at all. Entirely up to you.

A word here about organics. 

Now, The Urban Farm Girl (that would be me) would most definitely prefer her chicken to be organic. Unfortunately The Urban Farm Girl cannot always afford organic chicken and that is my reality. I do try to make sure the chicken I purchase is free of hormones, antibiotics and is minimally processed. I have found organic chicken thighs on sale at Meijer for a very reasonable price and I bought about four or five packages of them at the time. So keep on the lookout for the organic chicken and if you can find some that is within your budget then by all means stock up for stock! That's one of those food justicy dilemmas…

Is it better to have a homemade soup from scratch with lots of love and nutrients and herbs and medicinal mushrooms in it that are not organic? Or does it's non-organic status just negate the health benefits, the social benefits and all that goes along with preparing a meal from scratch and sharing it with your family for their well-being?

No easy answer there. I will say I am concerned enough about GMO's to seek out organic produce when I can afford it, non-GMO produce from Trader Joe's, or locally grown produce where I can ask the farmer how it was grown. Seriously. But an organic rotisserie chicken at Whole Foods is like $14 so the likelihood of that chicken in every pot is a blog post for another day.

OK! Let's work with what we've got here.

My basic chicken bone broth recipe:

Chicken as we have already discussed

Carrots

Celery

Onions

Garlic

Bay leaves

Everything else on this list is optional. Depending on what I want my finished product to be used for and the flavor profile I am after, I will sometimes switch it up. If I were to find that I had all of these items on hand, then probably they would all go into the pot.

Ginger

Red pepper flakes

Coriander seed

Leeks

Fresh parsley

Peppercorns

A few cloves

Fresh mushrooms

1/2 of a fresh lemon

Rosemary

You can really use whatever vegetables you decide to use although I tend to stay away from bell peppers because I feel like they would impact the finished flavor. I don't know that to be true I just have never used bell peppers in my chicken broth. I don't use potatoes or anything starchy in my chicken broth either because it would just dissolve eventually during the long cook time.  I save squashes, cabbage, and broccoli for the end-game soup culmination as well, not broth making, for the same reasons.

To boost the nutritional value, I usually add nourishing herbs and/or medicinal mushrooms. Herbs such as nettles, oatstraw, astragalus, and burdock root can be put inside of a little mulling spice pouch or tied in cheesecloth so you don't have to fish out little woody and grassy bits. They can be fresh or dried, although I will say I've only used dried herbs to date because I haven't been lucky enough to have them on hand fresh. Fresh burdock root is available in Asian markets under the name "gobo", but its not organic that I know of. These herbs and roots have a pretty neutral flavor and will not affect the taste of your finished chicken broth. The medicinal mushrooms that I like to use are shiitake, reishi in dried slices, and hen of the woods. There are many other things that could be added to your chicken broth and I'm sure a quick Google search will more than overwhelm you with options but these are my tried-and-true ingredients.

Now we are at the good part?

To actually make the broth I put my chicken parts, or carcass, or bones, or roasted rotisserie chicken in the pot along with my vegetables that have been very coarsely chopped. I put in everything, the celery leaves, the top of the carrot, the skin of the onions, the intact half of a lemon, roughly smashed garlic cloves  the ginger pretty much in just a chunk. Then I fill my stock pot with enough water to cover all of the ingredients plus a couple of inches. I know this isn't very precise and if that makes you uncomfortable then you may want to consult an "official" recipe of some sort to put your mind at ease but trust me, after you have done it a few times, you too will be throwing things in your pot with abandon.

So, like I said I have all of my chicken and my vegetables, my herbs, my spices, my fugusus...I mean fungi and I turn my stove on to medium high and let that come up to a good rolling boil. Once it comes to a boil,  I turn my heat down to just enough to keep a steady simmer going but not so much to where the steam is coming out of the sides and forming puddles all over the stove top. Now there are a few decisions you have to make. This is sort or a "choose your own adventure." or flow chart if your mind likes that analogy more.

Do you want to use the chicken meat for your finished soup or other meals? Possible answers: Yes, No, and What meat? Those are just bones in there...

If no, or just bones, do nothing. Skip the next paragraph, sit back and admire your pot of soon-to-be stock.

If yes, then you will have to get the meat out of the broth before it turns into sawdust. If you are using cooked chicken, after about a half hour of simmering, use a slotted spoon to take those bones out and remove the meat from the bones. Set the meat aside and return the bones to the pot. If the chicken you are using is raw to start with, you could probably do this after 45 minutes or an hour, but the same thing, use a slotted spoon to lift out your leg and thigh quarter or whatever piece it is. Do this gently because you don't want it to fall apart and have all the meat go right back into the broth.  It  can be really hard to locate it ever again down with all the other stuff. Set the chicken pieces to the side until they have cooled a little bit, you don't want to sear your fingertips off trying to handle hot ass chicken right out of the pot. Once it has cooled a little bit, pull off the skin, remove the meat from the bones and set the meat aside. Return the skin and those bones back to your pot to simmer. And simmer. And simmer.

Making broth, although pretty passive, is a 2 to 3 day process for me. I usually turn the broth off before I go to bed and then turn back on the next morning. My goal is it to reduce the amount of liquid to about half of the original liquid amount. For a traditional "bone broth" you would slow simmer until those bones are soft. You should be able to crush the end of a leg bone between your fingers easily. This is when you know that that chicken and all of those vegetables and other ingredients have literally given you the best that they've got.

And because it wouldn't be right if I didn't put my 80s stamp on this post, here we have appropriate melodic accompaniment. 

If chicken broth were a song it would be this.

Love you Nita!! 

Once you're satisfied with the concentration of your chicken bone broth, strain it carefully using a cheesecloth lined colander or a large sieve and pour it into a large pot or a few large bowls depending on how much stock you have. At this point I usually pour myself a bowl too if it's not too greasy (depends on the chicken parts used), season it with a little sea salt and have myself a nourishing bowl. Allow the rest of the broth to cool before popping it in the fridge (or in my case, on the screened in back porch depending on the time of year and fridge real estate situation) either overnight or for several hours until the chicken fat has hardened into a layer across the top of your broth. Once it has hardened,  I scrape off all of the chicken fat with a spoon and put the fat in a small Ziploc bag in the freezer, being the zero waste a gal that I am trying to be. (I have yet to figure out what I'm going to use the little Ziploc bag of chicken fat for, but I felt really good when I remembered to do that instead of throwing it away. It may just roam the freezer...) Once the broth has been defatted, I will either make a nice hearty pot of soup and/or pour the remainder into large Ziploc bags, date and label them and put them in the freezer. I use 1 gallon bags, comfortably filled.  I usually get about three bags of broth and make myself a pot of soup as well. I have read about storing frozen broth by freezing it in ice cube trays and then putting the frozen cubes into the Ziploc bag. Sound like would be easier to make a smaller quantity, like a mug full or a bowl full or just enough to steam your broccoli. I have not tried this yet but thought I would add it here so you have, you know, options. Let me know how that works for you. (Said in a truly non-sarcastic way.)     

I do love to keep a good chicken stock on hand. It comes in handy for so many things besides soup. You could use it for cooking rice, grains and vegetables. You can use it to moisten homemade dressing too. And, of course, if you feel a touch of a cold or flu coming on or just feel rundown in general, especially when the weather is cold, just thaw some broth, season it a little with either sea salt or a dash of Bragg's amino's, add a small smidgen of sriracha or garlic chili paste if you like, put it in a mug and have a steaming cup for breakfast or lunch or dinner or all three. I tell you what, it is sure to help your healing process! It just seems to put everything back in proper working order. It helps to keep you hydrated and warm and it makes a nice change for the taste buds from tea or water. Bone broth is good for clearing a stuffy head and helping with cough, thinning mucus secretions. The protein and collagen in bone broth is great for your muscles and your skeletal system.

If you are not a carnivore, you can definitely make a nutrient dense vegetable broth although I am not sure if there is a way to make it collagen rich. I will be researching that as I am working to limit my own meat intake.  I have not worked on making a good vegetable broth, but I will and I'll report back.

As for beef broth, I have not had the same success as I have with chicken broth. I admit I haven't tried to make beef broth nearly as many times as I worked with my chicken broth. Like, I tried it once.  I thought I did everything right. I roasted the bones in the oven and then pressure cooked them. I thought that was going to yield a very hearty and concentrated broth, however, it did not. So that will have to be a challenge to undertake possibly in 2017 because I definitely want to learn how to make pho. I did made some outta sight turkey broth once during this time. Definitely need to revisit that. The collagen levels are off the charts with turkey neck broth. It is a very rich and satisfying stock as well. There is always fish stock too...oh the possibilities!

My favorite chicken soups:

Chicken, white bean and kale soup two different versions:   add a can of fire roasted tomatoes to the chicken broth, 1 can of cannellini beans, and couple of good handfuls of kale, oregano and basil. Let simmer until the kale is tender, then add chopped cooked chicken and a diced zucchini. Let simmer about 10 more  minutes.

For version two, instead of tomatoes, add sliced white potatoes, cannellini beans and the kale. So yummy!!!

My favorite soup using chicken stock:

Another version of soup that I have made is with fresh blackeyed peas (Or pre-cooked frozen or vacuum packed  - they have those at Trader Joe's), collard greens, diced carrots, celery, red onion, yellow orange and red peppers, dried oregano and paprika.  Let simmer until collards are tender. I did not add any chicken into this soup.

I have also used the broth as a base for mushroom soup, pinto beans and ham, pasta dishes, etc.

The boiled chicken that comes from your soup making is also ideal for chicken chili, quesadillas, enchiladas or burritos or anything that requires a shredded chicken because it will be pretty tender and shreddable. You could also make an awesome chicken and dumplings, a chicken pot pie, or chicken salad.

Again, to each her own and I am not saying that my way is the right way. This is just what my chicken broth journey has been. I hope this has been helpful and feel free share your own broth experiences too. I would love to hear about it!

Thank you for reading.