If asked to select the single most important ingredient in my kitchen, it would have to be the little glass tub of demi-glace that jiggles in the back corner of my refrigerator. Admittedly, I use the term casually. A French chef would likely have me strung up by my toes for awarding this wondrous gelatinous blob such a name. By definition, a true demi-glace is a brown sauce made by first concocting an espagnole sauce, then blending it with an estouffade, or clear soup, then making a reduction. My version of a demi-glace (if you will allow me the privilege of the term), is simply done by making a huge vat of broth from whatever mixture of bones (yes, I mix species), odd vegetables, leftover wine or splashes of vinegar, simmering it on the stove for a few days, straining it, then reducing it down from 8 quarts of liquid to just a few cups.
While a jury of French chefs may convict me of gastronomic heresy, I have every faith that an army of French housewives would scurry to my defense, brandishing their stock pots and wooden spoons with intimidating valor. Most French chefs aren’t trying to get a two-year-old daughter to stop playing with the kitchen knives, another daughter to learn her addition and subtraction, fixing lunch, scheduling meat processing on the telephone, and turning out a serviceable demi-glace all at the same time. Faced with those daily challenges, most French chefs would probably choose the Shannon Hayes “semi-demi-glace” technique as well.
Demi-glace, made in my slovenly way, is an amazing ingredient. It concentrates all the benefits of a rich, nourishing broth down to a small, easy-to-store volume that can then be re-constituted to add flavor and nutrients to nearly all my dishes. When the kids are swapping winter flu germs, I add four tablespoons of my demi-glace to a quart of water to make them a lovely clear stock to sip. I toss a few tablespoons into the water when preparing beans, rice and legumes. I use it for making gravies and pan sauces even richer. Reconstituted in water, the demi-glace turns a few caramelized onions into a delightful onion soup, especially if topped with a handful of grated cheese. Mixed with any leftover ingredients I may have on hand, the demi-glace turns fridge fodder into feasts: delightful soups can be turned out by adding most any leftovers – perhaps some leftover salsa, fresh vegetables, scraps of meat or fish, or cooked beans – to the pot. The combinations are endless, and the flavor is terrific, Larousse Gastronomique be damned.
While the authenticity of the ingredients certainly contributes to the magic of the demi-glace, perhaps one of the best flavors to come through is satisfaction, which arises from knowing that we made thorough use of the gifts our grassfed and pastured animals have offered. The world’s greatest cuisines are not founded on prime cuts of filet mignon or porterhouse steaks, but on the prudent use of the 20% of the animal that is frequently discarded in this country – the bones. Incorporating bones into our diet through meat broth and demi-glace immeasurably improves the flavor of our soups, stews and braised dishes, and better still, offers countless health benefits.
According to Sally Fallon and Mary Enig, nutritionists and authors of the book Nourishing Traditions, broth ( the base of the demi-glace) contains the minerals of bone, cartilage, marrow and vegetables in the form of electrolytes, ionic solutions that are easy to assimilate into the body. They also contain proteinacious gelatin, which supplies hydrophilic colloids to the diet, a property that attracts your stomach’s digestive juices to the surface of cooked food particles; this is especially beneficial for folks suffering from intestinal disorders such as hyperacidity, colitis and Crohn’s disease. Moreover, in hard times, when meat seems too expensive to serve daily, the gelatin in bone broth and demi-glace helps the body fully utilize other proteins that are ingested. And, of course, there are the time-tested remedies of good broth for relieving the symptoms of colds, flu, myriad forms of gastroenteritis, and even bone injuries.
The Italians have an expression, “Tutto fa brodo” – “Everything is broth.” Nearly anything you can find in your kitchen can be added to a broth to enrich its flavor and nutritional value. Once the broth is made, this simplified demi-glace is merely a matter of reducing it down. The five basic elements are bones, vegetables, herbs, acid and water.
Naturally, this is the most essential ingredient. Many mistakenly believe that only the marrow bones make good stock; while marrow does add lots of flavor and minerals, in fact, a variety of different bones is ideal. Knuckle bones and oxtails are a great source of gelatin; neck, rib and other meaty bones add color and flavor, as does that left over bone from Friday night’s rib eye steak, or the remains from Sunday’s leg of lamb. All the meat, bones and vegetables that have simmered in the pot for hours will be strained and discarded from the complete broth; virtually all of their nutritive value is in the liquid.
Be creative with your broth. A pure beef or chicken stock is lovely, but some of the most exciting dishes result from mixing varieties of bones, using anything that is on hand – a few lamb bones, perhaps a chicken carcass, mixed in with some pork chop leftovers, all create a dynamic broth flavor. Long ago in France, cooks had la bouilloire éternelle – the “eternal kettle,” a large pot that never left the fire. If a piece of chicken was taken out, then new chicken was added; the same with a piece of beef or a slab of pork. Whenever broth was removed from the kettle, water was added, yielding in a steady supply of delicious stock, and a ready boiling stock for cooking meats for feasts. While the idea of a non-stop simmering pot crowding the stovetop is unlikely in a modern kitchen, the notion of incorporating all different kinds of meats when making stock reduces waste and creates dynamic flavor.
Leftover cooked vegetables can go into the pot, along with fresh veggies, and even those errant odds and ends that might be on the cusp of spoiling – open your produce drawer and be generous to your stock: broccoli about to flower, carrots gone floppy; peppers, tomatoes and onions growing soft on the kitchen counter. Don’t be fussy, as they will all be discarded (hopefully composted) once their flavors and minerals have been captured by the broth.
If you have fresh herbs, make a bouquet garni by tying the sprigs together with a piece of kitchen string before adding them to the stock pot. If using dried herbs, make a little sachet of cheese cloth so they are easily removed.
Acid and Water:
Once the vegetables, herbs and bones have been added to the stock pot, fill it with water, then pour in an acid, such as vinegar or wine. Use as little as a tablespoon of vinegar, or as much as a few cups of wine, depending on your taste. Allow the stock to rest for 30 minutes to an hour prior to cooking, so the acid can draw minerals out of the bones and into the broth. It will also enhance the flavor.
Bring the stock to a medium boil, then turn it down to a simmer. The longer you can simmer your stock, the better. Twelve hours will be sufficient, but 72 hours will be even better. If the pot gets too low on liquid, add more water. Once it is complete, you have a wonderful base for cooking soups, for cooking rice, grains and legumes, for a hot drink when someone is under the weather, or for braising those other luscious (and inexpensive) bone-in cuts of meat so often overlooked: shanks, necks, oxtails, bone-in shoulders, or ribs. But to magnify the intensity of the flavors and save storage space, I suggest taking the broth to the next level and reducing it down to the demi-glace (directions follow).
Basic Meat Broth
Makes 8 quarts
4 -6 pounds bones (beef, lamb, pork or poultry bones will all work. Ideally, some will be raw and some will be pre-cooked from previous meals, which will add a rich color and flavor dimension.)
2-3 large carrots, cut into large chunks
3 ribs celery, cut into large chunks
2 onions, halved (if onions are clean, feel free to leave the skins on)
8 quarts water
3-4 sprigs fresh thyme
3-4 sprigs oregano
3 cloves garlic, unpeeled and crushed (optional)
1 tomato, coarsely chopped (optional)
Any other leftover vegetables you might have lying around (except maybe for lettuce)
2 teaspoons salt
2 tablespoons vinegar, or 1-2 cups wine
Add all the above ingredients to a very large stockpot. If herbs are fresh, tie them into a bouquet garni before adding them to the pot. If they are dried, make a small sachet out of a piece of cheese cloth to contain them. Allow all the ingredients to rest for 30 minutes to one hour before turning the flame on your stovetop to medium. This step will enable the acids in the vinegar or wine to draw the minerals from the bones.
Bring the mixture to a boil slowly, skimming off any scum that rises to the surface. Reduce the heat to low, and slowly simmer the broth for a minimum of 12 hours. The longer you cook it, the richer it will be. If your cook top will allow a slow, steady simmer and you will be nearby, consider allowing the mixture to slowly bubble, with the lid in place, for about three days straight, replacing water as necessary. If you don’t feel secure leaving the pot untended overnight, simmer the stock all day, or while you are home, turn it off before going to bed or leaving, then resume simmering it when you are around once more. Be vigilant about adding additional water if the fluid level gets too low. (Personally, if the cooking is interrupted, I leave the stock unrefrigerated on the stove, as I know it will be returned to a high enough temperature to kill food-borne pathogens. If this practice makes you uncomfortable, simply refrigerate your stock between simmer sessions.) When the final simmering is complete, pour the broth through a sieve to strain out all the bones, vegetables and herbs. Return it to the stovetop and simmer once more, uncovered, until the volume is reduced by one-third. Chill. Ideally, once it is cold, it should be mildly gelatinous. Store the broth in pint or quart containers in the fridge or freezer.
For the “demi-glace,” when you return the strained broth to the stove, you will be cooking it down much further. If you started with about 8 quarts of broth, reduce it until you have approximately 5 cups. Once it has chilled, skim off any fat that has risen to the surface before using. You will then have a rich demi-glace that will be firm when cool, and will store beautifully in your refrigerator for about one month. (Confession: I’ve kept it much longer, and simply scraped off any moulds that grew on the surface…my family is still alive and healthy.) Broth and demi-glace can be frozen indefinitely.
Shannon Hayes is the author of Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture, The Grassfed Gourmet Cookbook, and The Farmer and the Grill: A Guide to Grilling, Barbecuing and Spit-Roasting Grassfed Meats (and for saving the planet, one bite at a time). She is the host of grassfedcooking.com and radicalhomemakers.com. Hayes works with her family on Sap Bush Hollow Farm in Upstate New York, and is currently writing her fourth book, Long Way on a Little: An Earth Lovers’ Companion for Enjoying Meat, Pinching Pennies and Living Deliciously. Copies of her books are available through her websites, grassfedcooking.com and radicalhomemakers.com.
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