Ellen’s Fabulous Chicken Broth
Guest Article: © The material on this page is copyright by Ellen Ussery, January 2008 and May 2012. It is an update of an article first published in the February/March 2008 issue of Backyard Poultry Magazine, with modifications based on her evolving techniques with this fundamental recipe. Ellen also published a description of her broth-making techniques in the chapter “Poultry in the Kitchen” of Harvey’s book The Small-Scale Poultry Flock.
The best use for old hens declining in productivity is the making of broth. As advised in the article on butchering, you should clean and save the feet when you slaughter your birds. (You can save the heads as well, but always save the feet.) There is no more valuable addition to the stockpot.
This revision of Ellen’s original article was posted to the site May 18, 2012.
Chicken broth is not only a delicious base upon which to build a flavorful soup or sauce—it is an extremely nourishing food. When properly prepared by slow gentle cooking, the bones and connective tissues are broken down into nutrients easily utilized by the body:
- Mineral salts not only build bone, but are essential in countless metabolic functions.
- Gelatin provides the amino acid glycine, which aids digestion by enhancing gastric acid secretion and supports the liver in its function of detoxification. Though not itself a complete protein, gelatin helps the body more fully utilize protein from other foods.
- Glycosaminoglycans naturally adhere to collagen throughout the the body, thus strengthening the health of the skin, joints, and every organ.
Historically, broth has been the first food offered to invalids on their path to recovery. Should it be surprising that modern research has confirmed traditional wisdom: Chicken broth does indeed help prevent and moderate colds and flu.
What follows is not so much a recipe as some guidelines about how I make chicken broth now, based on my own experimentation and requirements. I will also tell you how I used to make it, and why I made the changes. I think it will be helpful to understand the possibilities, then experiment with your own chickens and your own lifestyle. If you can find a method that fits comfortably into your schedule, you will be more likely to make it on a regular basis. But let me say up front that it is almost impossible to make a failed chicken broth. Once I added too much water relative to the amount of chicken parts I was using. But even this was still usable as a soup base. I just had to add more flavoring ingredients to the final soup.
Of course, the quality of your chickens is of primary importance—if you have raised them yourself, you are off to the best possible start. When slaughtering your chickens, be sure to clean and save the feet, which contribute a lot of collagen (source of that all-important gelatin)—a component of all bones, muscles, skin, and tendons. If you don’t save them for your dog to eat raw, you can use other “spare parts” such as necks, hearts, gizzards (even the heads). If you cut the chickens into serving pieces and do not want to eat the backs, you can reserve them as well for broth making. In addition, the carcasses of cooked birds such as roast chicken can be saved. We hold all these ingredients in the freezer wrapped tightly in plastic until ready to make broth.
I usually start with a whole stewing hen, the older the better—an older hen has more collagen and more flavor. I surround it in the pot with as many of the above ingredients as I have on hand, then cover, just barely, with water. Occasionally I use only lots of feet plus recycled bones of previously cooked birds. But in either case I use a pruning shears (the same Felco No 2 pruner which Harvey reserves for butchering chickens) to cut open all the long bones, to enhance extraction and help form a good gel. I add two tablespoons of vinegar per gallon of water and let sit for an hour. This soak in the acidulated water helps to extract the minerals. I then bring it to a boil and carefully skim off the scum that rises to the surface. After that I reduce the heat for the gentlest possible simmer, and cook until a poke with a fork indicates that the meat will easily come off the bone. The length of time this takes will vary, depending on the age of your chicken. The older, more flavorful chickens may take six to ten hours or more, whereas a young bird might be ready in an hour or two. At this point I take out the stewing hen, or whatever fresh chicken parts I started with, let them cool slightly, and remove the meat, which I reserve for later use. Note that you need to be careful that no tiny bones remain in the meat.
At this point I should say that I used to cook the broth in a huge stockpot. But recently I have been using a two-gallon slow cooker. This way I have no worries about the flame going out on my gas stove during the long cooking. Other benefits are the slow cooker’s timer, and easier meal preparation when I don’t have to contend with a crowded stove top.
After you have removed the meat from the bones, put the bones and the skin back into the pot. I used to then simmer the broth another fifteen to twenty hours. However, the firmness of the gelatin, once the broth was fully chilled, varied considerably. According to Harold McGee, the food science author, “At long extraction times, the gelatin molecules that have already been dissolved are gradually broken down into smaller pieces that are less efficient thickeners.” With that in mind, what I started to do was just let everything sit in the pot until the next day for a period of passive extraction, then bring it to a boil and simmer for about an hour just to make sure it was free of pathogens. To be honest, I am not sure that this passive method actually does extract more minerals, nor do I know for certain that over-cooked (broken-down) gelatin is less valuable, nutritionally, than the more firmly gelled. I hope that someday these questions will be experimentally tested in a lab.
I know some people who are not comfortable with letting the pot sit out at room temperature, and therefore put it in the fridge for the passive extraction. There are others who go through several more cycles of cooking and resting that can last for three days, and still others who just stop completely at this point. Frankly, I would err on the side of caution with a bird which I did not know with certainly to be completely healthy, and butchered with utmost care.
Although I used the passive extraction method quite happily for a number of years, I have recently switched to straining out the broth after about ten to twelve hours and then making one or two more new batches, reusing the bones until they are crumbly, indicating full mineral extraction. I use less water in each successive batch because the bones take up less space, so it takes less water to just cover them an inch. But each time I do add some more acid. With this method there is little or no collagen in the additional batches, but that liquid will be mineral-rich and can still contribute nutrition and flavor to your cooking. I use it for making rice, or steam-sautéing vegetables, and save the first batch for soups. When those bones are hard to come by, or you want to maximize your intake of minerals, this method will give you more bang for your buck.
Whenever you decide to stop cooking, just strain out the solids and refrigerate the broth. I usually put mine into half-gallon canning jars using a wide-mouth canning funnel, fitted with a fine sieve and a straining cloth. The cloth gets rid of the scum if I only used the crock pot and have not done an initial boiling and skimming, and leaves me with a beautiful clear broth. After a day in the fridge I have a solid gel and a nice layer of fat on the top. This fat seals the broth and protects it from spoilage so it is always ready in the fridge. We usually consume it within the week, but I have kept it this way for six weeks. If you like, you can always freeze it.
I noticed when I started using shorter cooking times that the fat smelled and tested fresher. When I cooked it for twenty-four hours I distrusted it as a cooking fat—it did not pass the smell test—and I discarded it after “unsealing” the broth. Now I would feel quite comfortable using it as a cooking fat, though as a matter of fact I rarely do. Carefully rendered fresh poultry fat is superior not only in flavor but nutrition, and as I have plenty of that (from geese, ducks, and chickens) on hand along with other stable cooking fats, I never get around to the fat from broth making. So we put it out in the woods to feed the wildlife.
If you are not getting a firm gel I would suggest that you take into consideration the age of the birds you are using and experiment with shorter times for the younger birds and longer times for the older ones. The breed of the bird and how it has been fed may also come into play here. There are no hard and fast rules for the exact amount of time to cook the perfect broth.
There will also be great variation in how many hours of cooking produce crumbly bones.
You may have noticed that there is nothing but chicken in this broth. I make my broth that way because it gives me total flexibility later. You could, however, add salt and some aromatic vegetables (carrot, onion, parsley, celery) for flavor and some seaweed for more minerals.
With regard to the reserved meat, there are many possibilities depending on how much flavor has been removed. You can add it back into the soup along with rice, pasta or potatoes, and/or carrots plus some green veggies for a one-dish meal. You could make potted chicken by putting it in the food processor along with some seasonings and one half to three quarters of its weight in rendered poultry fat or softened butter. This will keep in the fridge for two weeks in a glass jar topped with a good layer of fat. Or, if most of the meat’s flavor has been extracted, you could feed it to the dog or even back to the chickens.
We often start a meal with a cup of broth. Many times I just heat it up and stir in some flavorful miso, such as the red pepper and garlic miso from South River Miso Company. Otherwise I add salt, and drink as is or simmer with any of the following : a pressed or minced garlic clove and chopped parsley, trimmed shiitake stems that I have frozen, shredded spinach, or coconut cream concentrate and fresh ginger. When the greens in the garden get to the “use ’em or lose ’em” stage, I cook them all up and puree them in with the broth for a thick soup that can be heated or served cold. Either way, I stir in some fermented cream. The possibilities are endless.
[Note from Harvey: As for the spent residues once you’ve strained off the stock? Feed them to the flock: Ain’t nothin’ they like better than—chicken!]