Chinese cooking relies heavily on Chinese soup stock. Whether quick-fry, stir-fry, braising, steaming and etc, the flavour are enhanced with stock.
According to An A-Z of Food and Drink in Oxford Reference Online, stock means "something one keeps a stock of for use". Hence a soup stock is a liquid kept in stock for use in the kitchen. It is obtained by boiling meat, fish or vegetable in water until the flavour of the meat, fish or vegetable is concentrated in the liquid. In the past, kitchen of Chinese restaurants or large households kept a pot of soup stock on the stove constantly. Soups, stews, sauces, and dishes they are preparing are flavored using this stock.
Chinese cooking relies heavily on soup stocks. Whether quick-fry, stir-fry, braising, steaming and etc, the flavour of all these dishes are enhanced by adding a splash of soup stock.
Good soup stocks are important for noodle soups and wonton soups. Noodle soups are a class on its own in the line up of traditional Chinese food. They are the staples of many parts of Northern China. It is absolutely true that the soup of the noodle soup must be as good as the noodles. You just can't make good noodle soup with water, no matter how good or fresh your ingredients are. It is unimaginable!
As for Chinese soups that are simmered for more than an hour, soup stocks become optional. This is because when we simmer soups, we are literally making the soup stock while we are making the soup (am I making sense?)</p>
What is the difference between a stock, broth and consomme?
Broth means "that which has been brewed". And that could mean anything, not just soup. It became predominantly restricted to mean a thin soup during the 17th century. A broth can be used as a stock for other dishes but it can also be served on its own. In Scotland, chefs like to add grains such as barley to their broths. A famous example is the scotch broth.
Consomme is French for a clear soup made with meat stock with the idea that it is a product of long slow cooking. So it would seem that consomme is probably the French equivalent for broth.
Both broth and consomme are food terms referring to some sort of clear and thin soups that can be served on its own. Broths and consommes can be found on restaurant menus but not soup stocks. Soup stocks have a clearer functional meaning.
Incidentally, bio-sciences has "encroached" on the culinary territory by calling the gel-like cultures that they cultivate cells and bacteria in as broth. Hmm, can't they invent a name of their own?
It is not difficult to make a Chinese soup stock from scratch. Take note of the following cooking tips:
1. Choose a big stockpot with a thick and heavy base
It is important that the stockpot can withstand and conduct heat evenly. Otherwise, you face the prospect of constant stirring to prevent sticking and burning when making your soup stock. Stainless steel is good. Stainless steel with an aluminium base is even better.
2. Parboil the bones or meat to be used
Parboiling means boiling the bones or meat for about 10 minutes. It helps reduce blood, smells or froth that the meat might produce.
Some cook books and websites recommend browning the meat first. Browning will produce a stock with a deeper color and stronger flavour. Most Chinese soups requires a lightly flavoured and colored soup stock. But it all depends on you and the people you are feeding.
2. Fry the fish
If you are using fish to make stock, it is common to fry the fish together with some ginger first. This will get rid of any fishy smell and helped the fish keep its shape and not fall apart during cooking.
It is possible to parboil the fish with ginger but because fish meat is more delicate, it is better to fry.
3. Do not let the soup stock boil too vigorously
Bring the stock to a boil and then lower the heat to a cheery simmer. If the soup ingredient consist of big bones, use medium heat to simmer. If it is meat or chicken, use low heat to simmer.
4. Do not cover the pot totally
The steam creates pressure within the pot and cause excessive agitation of the soup. Covering the pot also increases the chance of a boil-over. Messy.
5. Do not add cold water in the middle of a good simmer
Adding cold water lowers the temperature of the simmering soup. In the event that you really need to add more liquid, add hot boiling water so that the temperature of the stock is not too adversely affected.
Enough of tips, let's look at a recipe for superior stock 上汤 (shang tang). This is a popular stock in Cantonese cuisine. It is a flavorsome stock with a colour that resembles Chinese tea. Cantonese chefs add this stock to many dishes from stews, stir-fries and steamed dishes.
Recipe for Superior stock
The recipe below makes about 10kg of this chinese soup stock. Reduce the amount according to your needs.
5 kg boiling hen / old hen 老母鸡
3 kg pork
3 kg pork bones
1 kg chinese ham 金华火腿
1 kg chicken feet 鸡脚
150g dried scallops 干贝
50g dried longan 龙眼干
200g rock sugar 冰糖
25g white peppercorns
20 litres water (preferably distilled)
Chop the old hen, pork, Chinese ham, pork bones into big pieces
Place all the meat ingredients into a big pot, add enough room temperature water to cover and parboil for about 10 minutes
Remove them and clean thoroughly
Place all the meat ingredients and the dried scallops into a very large stock pot, add the distilled water, ginger and white peppercorns
Bring to a boil and lower to medium heat
Cook for 6 hours
After 6 hours, add the dried longans and rock sugar
Take the opportunity before freezing to remove as much oil from the soup stock to make your soup low fat and healthy. Leave the soup to cool and stand for a while. The oil will float to the surface where you can then scoop them out with a spoon.
Alternatively, place the soup (in pot or bowl) into the refrigerator for about 10-15 minutes. Take it out and check if the oil floating on the surface of the soup has congealed sufficiently. If yes, start "skinnying" the soup (I like starting at the side of the pot or bowl and try to see how big a piece of fat I can lift off before it breaks up).
It takes a long time to make soup stock so it is better to make a huge batch at one go. Most soup stocks can be kept in the freezer for up to 2 months, although it's best to use it up quickly.
To store soup stock in the freezer:
Measure out the amount you need for your family needs
Freeze them separately in ziplock bags
When you need them, take one or two out, thaw by putting the bags in warm water. If you are not sure of the amount you may need each time then freeze smaller packs. It is easier to use 2 or 3 smaller packs than try to re-freeze un-used soup stock.
Another super easy way is to pour them into muffin or cupcake tins and then freeze them. When they are frozen, take out the muffin stocks and store in a ziplock bag.
Ready made soup stocks
No time to make your own stocks? Okay, you can use ready-made stocks. Before the advent of modern food convenience, do-it-yourself is the only way to enjoy a good pot of soup. Now there are much quicker ways to whip up a soup stock.
There are so many types: cubes, concentrates, canned, and packets.
1. Stock cubes
Stock cubes or bouillon cubes are dehydrated stock compressed into small cubes of about 15mm in size.
The picture above shows the two most common and popular brands of stock cubes in Singapore.
Bouillon is French for stock. In UK, it is known as stock cubes. It is commonly added to a variety of dishes to enhance the flavor. These could be soups, gravies, sauces, rice dishes, pasta dishes, meat or vegetables.
Bouillon or stock cubes were being commercially sold as early as 1882. Maggi started selling theirs in 1908. They don't taste as good as fresh stock but they have a few things going for them. They are cheap, saves time and space, and comes in many flavours. Lastly, they keep very well.
You can also find bouillon in granular form. The most common one found in Singapore's supermarkets is from Maggi. Knorr is another familiar brand. The granular form makes it easier to adjust the amount of bouillon added but it is not very popular in Singapore because the grains tend to stick together due to the high humidity here.
Common flavours are chicken, beef and vegetable. Other newer types and flavours include dashi, a Japanese powdered fish stock and vegetarian stock powder made predominantly from mushrooms.
Health concerns over stock concentrates and canned soups
I like using stock cubes. Just drop a cube or two into a boiling pot of water and tada! a nice pot of soup stock ready for use.
However, stock cubes or canned stocks are highly processed foods and there are chemical additives added as flavour enhancers or preservatives. It is good to read the food labels of stock cubes or canned stocks and make sure that they do not contain or contain very little of the following stuff:
1. Monosodium Glutamate (MSG)
This is commonly used as a flavor enhancer in Chinese food. There have been concern over the over-use of monosodium glutamate (MSG) to create the umami taste. Many ready-made Chinese soup stocks contain MSG, so do take note before buying. You may want to select those that are MSG-free.
2. Sodium Content
Many commercial soup stocks contain high concentration of salt. This can create fluid retention, undue stress on the kidneys and other not-so-good effects on the body. Make comparisons and choose those with the lowest salt content. In the case of bouillon cubes, salt can constitute between 50%-70%.
One way to remove excess salt from the stock is to add cut potatoes to the rehydrated stock, bring to a boil and let it simmer for about 10 minutes. Remove the potatoes and strain the soup.
Trans-fats, also known as hydrogenated vegetable oils, are quite common in a lot of ready-made food. There have been reports about the effects of trans-fats on the body.
Trans-fats are vegetable oils that have been chemically treated to emulsify them. They were products of the saturated fats scare. They seem like a good alternative to saturated fats like butter and ghee, but now people are beginning to realize that they create new problems.
Food preservatives may not be so easy to avoid with ready-made food. Check out the food label of the soup stocks you want to buy and look out for the sulphates.
After all that has been said, I believe that we should do things in moderation. It is not good to be too paranoid and completely abstain from ready-made food, nor totally ignore the health concerns. A little diligence can go a long way. Let's enjoy life!