The difference is in the flavour and the texture, both of which — but particularly the texture — come from the long, slow simmering of bones. Homemade has it. Store-bought doesn't.
You can see for yourself if you ever boil a sample of each side-by-side. A homemade stock thickens, becoming concentrated and jelly-like. A store-bought stock simply evaporates into thin air. Poof! Makes you wonder what the heck it's made from in the first place.
I make my chicken stock from chicken wings because each one boasts equal amounts of the three components you need to make a good stock — meat (which contributes flavour), bones (their gelatin provides body) and lots of skin (its fat amplifies the flavour). And you need to start the wings in cold water to get the most out of them.
Making a clear stock requires skimming off the scum that rises to the top of the liquid during the initial part of the cooking process. What is that stuff? As the wings boil, the protein solids and the fats coagulate, get trapped by fat, and float to the surface. Do your skimming with a slotted spoon or, better yet, with a tool made just for the job. It's called — Duh! — a skimmer. Once the scum is gone, you can add vegetables and aromatics.
Meanwhile, keep an eye on temperature so that the stock doesn't boil. If it does boil, the protein solids and fat get mixed into the liquid and the stock becomes cloudy. And make sure that the bones are always covered with liquid; if the liquid evaporates to below the level of the bones, add more water.
Wait a minute, you say. Making stock at home sure takes a lot of time! Indeed, it does — four hours of simmering! But it's not hands-on time. I see it as a great weekend project. You make the stock one day and chill it overnight. The fat will rise to the top and solidify, making it easy to scoop off the next day. (You'll then want to freeze the fat, which has great flavour, for special occasions, like making matzo balls).
After scooping off the fat, you'll need to boil down the stock to concentrate its flavour. Then you can season it with salt and pepper, and divide it into 1- and 2-cup amounts and freeze it. Don't add any salt or pepper before this final stage or you might end up with a salty stock.
To me, homemade chicken stock is like liquid gold; it makes any soup (such as my quick Asian chicken noodle soup) or sauce that much tastier.
QUICK ASIAN CHICKEN NOODLE SOUP
Start to finish: 45 minutes
1/2 ounce (about 1/2 cup) dried shiitake mushrooms or mixed dried mushrooms
6 cups chicken stock (recipe below), divided
4 ounces rice noodles
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 tablespoon finely grated fresh ginger
2 teaspoons minced garlic
8 scallions, separated into white and green parts, the white parts finely chopped, the green parts thinly sliced crosswise
1 pound bok choy, separated into white and green parts, the white parts halved lengthwise then sliced crosswise into 1-inch pieces, the green parts thinly sliced crosswise
3 tablespoons soy sauce
3 cups chopped or shredded cooked chicken
Salt and ground black pepper
Chopped fresh cilantro, basil or mint leaves, to garnish
Chili-garlic sauce, to garnish
Lime wedges, to serve
In a small saucepan, combine the mushrooms with 3 cups of the stock. Bring to a boil, then remove from the heat and let stand until the mushrooms are softened, about 30 minutes. Remove the mushrooms from the stock, remove and discard any stems from the mushrooms. Chop the mushroom caps and set aside. Strain the soaking stock, discarding any solids, and set aside.
Meanwhile, cook the noodles according to package directions, then drain, rinse and set aside.
In a large saucepan over medium, heat the oil. Add the ginger, garlic and white parts of the scallions. Cook, stirring, for 3 minutes. Add the white parts of the bok choy and cook, stirring, for 3 minutes. Add the reserved mushroom soaking stock, the mushroom caps, the remaining 3 cups of unused chicken stock, the bok choy greens, soy sauce and chicken. Simmer just until the greens are wilted, about 2 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.
Divide the noodles among 6 bowls and ladle the soup evenly over them. Garnish with the fresh herbs and scallion greens, then serve with chili-garlic sauce and lime wedges.
Nutrition information per serving: 400 calories; 160 calories from fat (40 per cent of total calories); 18 g fat (3.5 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 75 mg cholesterol; 32 g carbohydrate; 2 g fiber; 6 g sugar; 27 g protein; 980 mg sodium.
HOMEMADE CHICKEN STOCK
The trick to this recipe is avoiding a sustained boil, which results in a cloudy stock. The method below calls for bringing the ingredients to a boil twice, but then immediately lowering the heat to maintain just a simmer. The goal is to bring the ingredients up to temperature, then quickly level them off at a simmer.
Start to finish: 2 hours 45 minutes (20 minutes active)
Makes about 8 cups
5 pounds chicken wings
2 medium yellow onions, quartered
2 small carrots, halved crosswise
2 medium celery stalks, halved crosswise
Handful fresh parsley
Handful fresh thyme
1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
3 Turkish bay leaves
In a large stockpot, combine the wings and enough cold water to cover them by 2 inches. Bring the mixture just to a boil over high heat, skimming the surface with a slotted spoon. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer, skimming frequently, for 20 minutes.
Add the onions, carrots, celery, parsley, thyme, peppercorns and bay leaves. Return to a boil, then reduce the heat to a simmer. Cook for 4 hours, adding water as necessary to keep the chicken covered.
Strain the stock through a colander into a bowl and discard the solids. Let rest, then skim off and discard any fat that rises to the surface. Alternatively, cool the stock and chill it overnight. The fat will harden on top of the stock and is easily scraped off and discarded.
Once the fat is discarded, return the stock to the pot and simmer until reduced by one third, about 30 minutes. Refrigerate or use as desired.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Sara Moulton was executive chef at Gourmet magazine for nearly 25 years, and spent a decade hosting several Food Network shows. She currently stars in public television's "Sara's Weeknight Meals" and has written three cookbooks, including "Sara Moulton's Everyday Family Dinners."