IS IT A BROTH, OR IS IT A STOCK?
The basis for chicken soup is chicken stock, a flavorful liquid that results from simmering chicken bones, scraps and vegetables in water, preferably for a prolonged period of time. When boiled, chicken bones release gelatin into the stock, which gives it body and what chefs call “mouth feel”. Stock traditionally is not highly seasoned since it is used as a base ingredient for other, more complex, dishes that each may require different seasonings. For that reason, some culinary experts will tell you that chicken stock should not be served alone.
So, if you salt chicken stock can you serve it alone as a chicken broth? Those same experts would tell you no. In addition to seasoning, stock needs exposure to meat, not just bones, in order to develop the rich, meaty taste characteristic of chicken broth. After your stock is strained and degreased, and simmered with meat, more vegetables and other seasonings, it becomes chicken broth, the liquid in a finished chicken soup. It now can served alone, strained and reduced into a more refined consomme, or combined with noodles or other ingredients. Chicken bouillon (bouillon de poulet) is the French term for chicken broth.
Commercially prepared chicken stock is available at every grocery and is useful if time is limited. But if you have the possibility of a few hours of unsupervised simmering, creating you own stock will result in a more authentic, interesting and sophisticated soup. Even if time is limited, a short simmer with bones and vegetables will significantly improve store-bought stock.
Chicken stock can be made from a whole raw chicken, raw chicken bones (2 quarts packaged chicken backs and necks from the grocery is enough for 4 quarts of stock) or from the carcass of last night’s roasted or store bought rotisserie chicken. (I usually roast two, giving me plenty of bones and left-over meat for other purposes.)
If you are using previously cooked chicken, remove and reserve any meat remaining on the bird and chop the bones and scraps into pieces that will fit into your stock pot. Put the bones into the pot and add water to cover by 1 inch (3 to 4 quarts) and a tablespoon of salt. Bring the pot to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer for 30 minutes. As the simmer is reached, a gray scum may rise to the surface for several minutes. Skim it off repeatedly until it almost ceases to rise. (It may be replaced by white foam which will disappear of its own accord without skimming.)
If you are using an uncooked chicken, rinse the bird under cold water and remove any excess fat or giblets stashed in the cavity. Put the whole bird into the pot with water to cover by 1 inch and 1 tablespoon salt, cover partially, and simmer over medium low heat for 30 minutes. Transfer the chicken to a plate and let it cool. Discard the skin, remove the meat from the bones and shred it. When it is cool, cover the meat and refrigerate it until you’re ready to finish the soup. Return the bones to the pot and skim any scum from the stock as directed above.
Add any optional flavorings you are using: ½ cup each roughly chopped onion, celery and carrot, 1 bay leaf and 8 parsley stems are traditional. (Flavorings will vary according to the soup you are making — dill, garlic, gingerroot, hot pepper, lime peel, parsnips or other ingredients may be required by individual recipes.) Partly cover the pan (put the lid on slightly askew) and simmer 1-1/2 hours, adding a little water if the liquid evaporates to expose the ingredients. (Some recipes suggest simmering chicken stock for 1 hour, some suggest all day – unlike seafood stock, which becomes bitter after more than a half hour of simmering, chicken stock improves.)
Strain the stock through a sieve into a bowl. Discard the bones and flavorings and degrease the stock. (You can try to remove the grease that rises to the surface of the pot by skimming if off with a spoon, or you can put the bowl into the refrigerator overnight. The grease will congeal on the surface and you will be able to easily lift or spoon it off.) The stock may be prepared well in advance. Cool it, uncovered, then cover and refrigerate or freeze it. (Some cooks freeze home-made stock in ice cube trays. Once frozen, the cubes can be turned out of the trays and stored in the freezer in ziplock bags. If a recipe calls for a small amount of stock, you have your own at the ready.)
If you are using a leftover carcass without enough meat to complete the soup, buy two pounds skinless, boneless raw chicken breasts from the grocery. Season them with salt, add them to the strained and degreased stock, and poach them until the juices run clear, about 20 minutes. Remove the chicken with a slotted spoon to a plate to cool and then shred. Proceed to complete the soup, adding the chicken back in at the very end, just long enough to heat it through.
Most of the recipes that follow give instructions for making your own stock, but some simply call for the store bought variety. Of course, if you can’t make chicken stock from scratch, canned chicken broth may be substituted in any of the recipes, but remember that canned broth is often very salty, so be sure and buy low salt broth and, if necessary, reduce the salt called for in the recipes. I think that Swansons tastes best.
Some of the recipes call for previously cooked chicken and others call for raw chicken. You can use either in any of the soups and the notes at the end of the recipes will remind you how to make those changes.