Winter’s Bone (Broth)

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Beef, lamb, and chicken bone broth packaged and ready to go.

Bone broth is having a serious moment right now. From write ups in the New York Times, and features on prominent paleo blogs like Nom-Nom Paleo, bone broth is firmly in the meaty zeitgeist of the moment. Many people looking to avoid overly processed fats and refined sugars are looking towards grassfed, pasture raised meat as an excellent source of nutrients and protein.  

The paleo diet, which is very much in vogue right now, eschews processed foods and touts the benefits of meat based protein and bone broth is one of the easiest and most delicious ways to dip your caveman-like toes into this neo-primal diet. New York restauranteur Marco Canora even recently opened a take-out bone broth cafe where the idea is that customers are foregoing their daily latte for a nourishing cup of the meat liquid.  (For the record, the cafe’s name is Brodo, but they missed a serious opportunity to call it the “bone-brothel.”  That one’s on me Marco, just give me a shout out in the rebranding).

The health benefits attributed to drinking broth are numerous.  Proponents argue with near religious fervor that bone broth can fight infections, reduce joint inflammation, boost the immune system, even give you shinier hair and fingernails.  While most health claims made by excited foodies should be taken with a grain of (locally sourced, hand harvested) salt, there is research to back up many of the claims.  Joint health is probably the biggest medical no-brainer. Collagen (remember collagen?) located in bones and connective tissue in the bits of meat attached to them breaks down and releases Glucosamine, which enriches weakened collagen in our joints and spurs further growth by activating fibroblast cells.  As a butcher, I’ve long been concerned with keeping the joints in my hands and arms limber and free of the scar tissue that seems to be so common in many of the old timers I come across; I can certainly draw a connection between drinking bone broth and waking up less sore in my hands, wrists and elbows.

So what exactly is bone broth?  There’s two schools of thought on that one.  The purists will tell you to go for roasted bones of whatever well-raised meat animal tickles your fancy; add water, simmer, and boom: you’ve got yourself a broth. Alternatively, The fancier recipes will add in a mix of stock vegetables along with a hit of something acidic to dissolve connective tissue and extract more nutrients from the bones.  The concept of adding an acid in the form of vinegar, wine, or tomato paste makes sense if you’re looking for a relatively quick cook, but my bone broth usually goes at least overnight and I’m pretty confident simmering for that long doesn’t leave too many nutrients untapped.

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The crucible upon which bones and water are formed into an elixir worthy of the gods. Or, a giant hotpot.

Those schools of thought lead to two distinct ways of producing the broth. On one hand you have the bones and water approach: the bones, well roasted are added to the water with no accompanying vegetables or herbs.  Maybe you’re looking to add a little flavor to a sauce, or needing to thin out a gravy – for those uses you want your meaty flavor clear and strong but not necessarily complex.  The idea being that you want beef broth to taste like beef, chicken to taste like chicken, and so on.  It’s one-note, but deeply so. I always have a quart or two of this sort of stock on hand in the freezer and I find that, like a jar of lard from a well raised pig, there’s plenty of opportunities to use it if you look hard enough.

On the other, less utilitarian hand, you have a strongly flavored, stick-to-your-ribs meal of a broth.  Veg gets added, along with whatever spices and herbs your heart desires. Really, you can add any number of different vegetables to add flavor; carrots, onion, and celery being traditional, but bell peppers, leeks, and mushrooms add some deliciously unique flavor.  This is the sort of broth that people line up outside of Marco’s take out window to start their day with.  It’s a deep, flavorful drink that warms you from the inside out, and is certainly a healthier alternative to a double frappucino.

Making Bone Broth

There’s no real “recipe” for making a bone broth, but I’ll attempt to outline the process.  As ever, the River Cottage Meat book is the authority on this meaty preparation and I’ll attempt to paraphrase some of Hugh’s points along with my own:

-Source fresh bones from your local butcher.  Knuckle bones, from the joint end of the long leg bones like the femur and tibia have the most connective tissue and collagen, which is essential for body and nutrients.  I also include some meaty neck bones for flavor, and a few marrow bones for richness.  Get as many bones as will fit your pot (this is a bit of a trial and error process – start with 5 pounds or so; too few isn’t a big deal, just use a bit less water; if there’s too many just freeze them for next time). A good ratio is 50% knuckle bones, 25% neck bones, 25% marrow bones.

-Roast the bones and any veg you plan to use in your oven until nice and golden brown.  You want to start the malliard reaction to get that deep roasty flavor, but be careful not to go too dark, the broth will have a slightly burnt taste as a result.

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Beef knuckle bones, nice and roasted. You can see the crispy bits of meat and connective tissue waiting to release their goodness into the broth.

-Pack all those bones and vegetables tightly into your stock pot and add in just enough water to barely cover everything.  Bring the mixture to what Hugh lyrically terms a “tremulous simmer.” You want the water to simmer just barely enough to extract flavor, but not so hard that it risks boiling and bringing out the chalky flavor from the bones. Occasionally skim any dark colored foam that may rise to the top, and try to skim off the fat as best as possible (protip: save it and use it for cooking!)

-Best case scenario is you prolong this tremulous simmer as long as possible to bring out every last iota of flavor hidden inside your broth ingredients.  I like to start mine first thing in the morning and let it go all day, 12 hours or more if possible.  In the shop we do ours in a giant steam kettle and let it simmer at least 24 hours.  You can also make broth in your slow cooker if you aren’t going to be around all day to monitor something on the stovetop.

-Once you’ve simmered as long as possible, strain that sucker through a fine chinois or cheesecloth, portion out into portion-sized containers, and freeze whatever you don’t think you’ll use in the next few days.  A well-strained, well-packaged broth will keep fine in the freezer for 4-6 months, provided it’s well sealed so no off flavors get picked up.

Watch that you don’t overfill your stockpot, or as the fat melts off the bones and rises to the top, you’ll run the risk of making a mess:

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