Food

Flash in the Pan

Bullish on bone broth

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It was noted by Edward Abbey that hunger is the best sauce. Along these lines I can attest that being in a state of total exhaustion makes for the best time to eat broth.

The words "broth" and "stock" are often carelessly interchanged, but there are crucial differences. They're both mostly water, and both carry the essence of long-simmered bones, meat and veggies. But stock is a culinary foundation that's used as an ingredient in various dishes and sauces, and doesn't taste like much on its own. Without salt or fat, stock is the glue behind the glitter of a finished dish. Broth, by contrast, is fully seasoned, ready to consume, and has a rich, incomparably fulfilling flavor. It's part meal and part medicine. It's also part spatula, as it once helped scrape me off the floor after an adventure in the mountains of Siberia.

With the sun setting over the mountain range near Lake Baikal, my dad and I knew that we were in for a hellish descent after a day of backcountry skiing with outdated gear. Our friend and guide, Ura, was better equipped. A researcher at the nearby sable preserve, Ura was a quiet beast of a man, a force of nature perfectly tailored to that unforgiving environment, right down to his Siberian ski gear. His skis, called kamoos, were short and wide, with seal skins—peeled from the freshwater seals of Lake Baikal—glued to the bottoms. Instead of ski poles, Ura carried a single angura, an 8-foot staff cut from a birch sapling.

The trip down the mountain was a series of painful face-plants for me and my dad. Ura, by contrast, sailed through the trees, looking positively relaxed on his slow ice breakers. When we finally reached his cabin in the hamlet of Davsha, Dad and I were battered and broken. I huddled by the fireplace, sore, bruised and spent.

That's when Ura handed me a bowl of beef-bone broth. The thin, salty elixir was simple, but full of warmth and rejuvenation. It was first aid for my own bones, a helping hand that lifted me from the cabin floor and delivered me to the table, where we ate a dinner of fried trout, fried potatoes and a salad of shredded carrots and garlic.

I'll never know exactly what was in Ura's broth. I've been trying to replicate it ever since, but my version has never tasted as good. But then, I've also rarely been so physically and mentally broken as when I consumed it.

PHOTO BY ARI LEVAUX
  • photo by Ari LeVaux

Various vegetable-based broths exist, with mushrooms often being used to add a meaty flavor, but the most potent broth is made with bones. The marrow, cartilage and other connective tissues deliver protein, minerals like calcium and other body-building nutrients that you can taste and feel when you sip it. The long, slow cooking also frees the amino acid glutamate from its more common bound form. This enhances flavor in the same way that a dash of MSG (monosodium glutamate) would. This flavor is often referred to as "umami." By the same token, those who fear MSG should be very afraid of bone broth (and stock). If your leftover broth turns to Jello overnight, don't worry. It's from the collagen and other proteins from the bones, connective tissues and marrow, which congeal when cool. Upon reheating, the gelatin will melt.

In its simplest form, bone broth need be little more than simmered bones and salt, with the solids removed before serving. That should be enough to peel you off the cabin floor. But for a more sophisticated culinary experience, there are some extra steps worth taking.

Browning the bones first adds additional umami (aka free glutamate) and depth of flavor. I bake them for about two hours at 300 degrees, checking often to make sure they don't burn. Pros will sometimes carefully coat the hot bones with tomato paste, or even a little ketchup—just a tablespoon or two per batch of bones—for the final half-hour of cooking.

Add the browned bones to a kettle of water and simmer on low. Be sure to add the drippings from the bone-browning pan, and if necessary deglaze the pan to remove the stubborn yet tasty material stuck to the bottom.

As the bones simmer, add whole carrots and an onion, cut in half, for more fragrance, as I suspect Ura did. Some celery or celery root is recommended as well, as is garlic powder. Cook on low for four to six hours, then turn off the heat and leave the pot, covered, to cool, ideally overnight. Then, strain the bones and veggie chunks.

The steps up to this point can be used to make either stock or broth. In the case of stock, skim the fat, while broth makers can leave it in place, and add salt, pepper and other seasonings.

You might want to pick any good meat off the leftover bones and scoop out any accessible marrow. It makes for a yummy snack, or you can add those meat scraps and marrow back to the broth. At this point you might be crossing the line into soup territory. But as long as it peels you off the floor, it's probably not worth getting too hung up on semantics.

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