PSA: Instead of Stock, You Can Just Use Water
Not all of us have endless homemade stock, and sometimes water works even better.
I’m a stock maker. Ever since we renovated our kitchen and put in a giant freezer, I am blessed with an ability to stash away chicken carcasses and vegetable scraps until I reach critical mass and then turn them into beautiful slow-simmered stock. I strain this golden goodness, then return it to the pot to reduce by three-quarters of its volume into a richly condensed thickened stock that I freeze in pint containers. When I thaw it out, it turns a solid wobbly mass of chicken jelly, full of flavor and collagen and all good things, and then I thin it with water when I need stock. So far, I have never run out of tubs of reduced stock before acquiring enough bones and vegetable scraps to make another batch.
But it was not always so. For twenty years, I had a tiny apartment freezer section on top of my refrigerator, always made a little tinier by the buildup of frost, and it was barely big enough to keep me in ice cubes and frozen broccoli, let alone a stash of either stock or scraps to make it with. I dreaded reading a recipe that listed stock in the ingredients, especially if it was for a dish I wanted to make right now, and not have to go to the store and purchase boxed or canned stock or the necessary ingredients to make some fresh. And in these dark days, that I refer to as B.F. or before freezer, my own pre-ice age, I relied on an age-old chef’s trick for soups, stews and sauces: I used plain old water.
Not fancy French water or water in bottles or even filtered water. I just used water, straight from the tap. Because here is the not-so-secret secret about stock: It is mostly water. And while the flavors in a stock can enhance the flavors of whatever you are cooking in it, water also takes up those flavors. That’s how stock works to begin with. If you don’t have stock, just use water.
I actually prefer my vegetable-based soups and stews with water instead of stock. Adding meat stock muddies the flavor of the produce and makes the soup less vegetarian or vegan friendly dish. Using just plain water really lets the freshness shine and gives a deep vegetal intensity that I prefer. Simple pan sauces that are starting with aromatics caramelized in fat and deglazed with wine or juice frankly don’t need the extra flavor of stock; just adding water and then enriching with butter and herbs works totally fine. My piccata sings with just white wine and lemon juice and a splash of water to balance, the extra chicken flavor from stock is never missed. And since stock is always unseasoned, you don’t even need to change your salt and pepper levels.
I do keep some jars of Better Than Bouillon for emergency stock, and some French “fond” pastes for very traditional sauce work or for boosting umami in dishes. And I always gaze fondly at the tubs of stock in my freezer. But as someone who managed without for a long time, I want to empower you in the kitchen. So that the next time you flip a magazine page or cookbook cover to find a recipe that intrigues you with no stock on hand, to think of water as a good substitute, and forge ahead. You might even like it better.