The 10 Best Stockpots
Cooking: The Craft That Keeps On Giving
There's a practically endless body of knowledge regarding food and how it's prepared. Everyone starts somewhere different; maybe your dad showed you how to fry an egg or your grandmother taught you her handcrafted, traditional recipes. Some future cooks stood at their family's stove for hours after bedtime as a child experimenting with different spices and honing their palate. Wherever the roots, one thing's for sure: anyone can cook if they take the time and have the dedication to learn.
Many home cooks don't realize that there's one specific skill that underlies some of the basics of all cooking. In fact, at professional cooking schools, it's often among the very first techniques students learn. The creation of this basic ingredient involves a range of different methods, and once it's fully mastered, a budding cook is sure to know at least the foundations of modern cooking. That fundamental skill is the production of stock, one of the most important ingredients in many dishes.
Stock, at its simplest, is just flavored water. In practice, it's far more than that: it's an integral necessity that uses a nearly infinite variety of foods. Meats, fish, vegetables, herbs, seeds, nuts, and even fruits and cheeses can be used to add flavor to stock. Some of these flavors are simple, such as the classic mire poix of onion, carrot, and celery. Others, such as those from roasted beef bones, are so complex that scientists have yet to nail down the exact physiological effects of the chemicals that make them so delicious. Some flavors, such as apple or parmesan cheese, give stocks a unique purpose in special, exotic dishes. But why is this component so important? And how is it made?
Taking Stock of All The Flavors
On a basic level, stock is made by simply simmering your selected variety of foods in water for hours, and straining the result. Don't be fooled by this simplistic description, however. This important procedure really does employ some specific cooking methods that will help any cook perfect their skills and grow towards being a real chef.
The preparation of the ingredients in stock is of prime importance. Of course, when chopping any food, safe cutting practices are first and foremost on the list — as safety always should be. But once the bones are separated and the vegetables chopped, they are often also browned.
To explain browning and why it matters, let's touch briefly on the concept of wet vs. dry heat. It's pretty straightforward: wet heat means cooking with water, dry heat means cooking without it. Steaming, boiling, and braising are examples of wet heat, and grilling, sauteing, and frying are examples of dry heat.
Two things happen when dry heat is applied to ingredients that will soon be simmered into stock. A lot of flavorful foods, especially seeds like cardamom, coriander, and fennel, contain powerfully tasty chemicals locked up in hydrophobic (non-water-soluble) cell walls, and those flavors might never make it into the stock if you don't pay them a little extra attention first. A light roasting unlocks these compounds, helping them to make it into your ultimate soup broth.
But the most important part of dry heat involves a combination of caramelization and the Maillard reaction. Anytime you experience food that's been browned, you're seeing, smelling, and tasting the results of these complex reactions between heat and either sugar or starch. Applying enough heat to brown bones, meat, vegetables, or seasonings causes the food's chemicals to react in unchartable ways and form chemical combinations that are so delicious we don't yet understand them. When those intricate flavors are dropped into boiling water, they dissolve over many hours to create the hearty, complex component known as stock in all of its meaty (and sometimes veggie) goodness.
Another immensely important chemical activity occurs during the near-sacred process of stock-making. Collagen, connective tissue present in almost all meat products and in very high concentrations in bones, is broken down very slowly over time into gelatin and incorporated into the liquid. This gives the stock body, making it ever-so-slightly thicker. This increased viscosity enhances our ability to taste the subtle flavors that make a good broth so memorable.
I Use Bouillon Cubes. Do I Still Need A Stockpot?
Short answer: absolutely.
Of course, stock isn't only an important part of the culinary world because someone's instructor made them learn it first. In truth, there is an entire world of complex sauces that are essentially predicated on having access to a high-quality batch of veal, beef, chicken, or seafood stock. Derived from the five classic mother sauces are dozens of intricate recipes, a majority of which will call for a well-made stock to thin them to the proper flavor and consistency. And today's finest restaurants use the glace de viande, which is just stock simmered until about 3/4 of the water has evaporated. But even if you prefer to skip the entire stockmaking process and buy pre-made soup base, you'll still find plenty of utility in having a stockpot.
Sometimes you'll need to boil a few pounds of pasta or blanch several handfuls of vegetables. The right pot can enable these tasks, letting you produce large batches of food. And what better place to wash and rinse a bunch of tomatoes or squash than a pot with a 2-5-gallon capacity? Even if you buy stock in a cardboard box (which can be delicious), you'll still need somewhere to cook up that soup for your whole family. Speaking of family gatherings, you surely can't simmer an entire cookout's worth of chili in a 4-quart saucepan.
So, pick up a good stockpot. Get one with the heaviest bottom you can find. And make sure you roast those bones before you drop them in the water.