Back to Basics: Brodo
It’s the very first recipe in Pellegrino Artusi’s 700-recipe cookbook. It’s what the older generation of nonni will tell you will make you feel better, no matter what. It’s also the basis of good Italian cooking and something that Elizabeth David said is “one of the most interesting and satisfactory of all cooking processes.”
Brodo (literally meaning ‘broth’) is essentially a beef or vegetable stock that is often used on its own as a broth, such as in the beloved tortellini in brodo, or as the base for sauces, stews and more.
Yes, it’s easy just to grab a stock cube, but it’s just as easy to make your own and a stock cube will never taste as good as the homemade version. There can be many undesirable additives (such as monosodium glutamate, MSG) in commercial stock cubes and stocks. I avoid MSG whenever I can, not only because it has a tendency to make everything taste the same but also because since the age of about eight I discovered I’m intolerant to it – avoiding it prevents getting pins and needles, headaches and intense heart palpitations, all of which contributes to a terrible, sleepless night and 24 hours of feeling a bit rough until it’s all out of my system.
When I don’t have stock, I prefer to use water (maybe enhanced with a bit of wine) rather than reach for a dreaded supermarket stock.
We make stock at home whenever we can and freeze it in smaller containers so there’s always something on hand. It’s something to think about when you have, say, a whole fish that you’re filleting or prawns that you’re shelling – don’t throw away the head and bones or shells, but use them to make a beautiful stock for your next seafood risotto. It’s not about treating the stock pot as a rubbish bin, but it’s about using prime ingredients – fresh, organic vegetables, fish or meat – that you choose purposefully for making a stock. And it helps make the most out of that good produce that you’ve spend your money on.
On the question ‘Will a stock cube do?” Elizabeth David said, “Ninety-nine times out of a hundred it will do nothing.” The stock is what seeps a base note of flavour into your dish – make it from the best ingredients and make sure it tastes absolutely divine. I’m sure no one has ever thought a stock cube tasted divine.
In most Italian cooking, a beef stock is the default stock, but vegetable stocks were common when meat wasn’t available or for “lean” days. By the seaside (and Italy has a lot of seaside), a fumetto of fish stock is made with heads of fish and prawns. You will rarely need chicken stock in Italian cooking – the closest thing may just be for the one and only hand-reared capon broth, a tradition of the Christmas table that my in-laws still uphold.
The following is based loosely on Artusi’s beef stock (and when I say ‘loosely’ I mean his original is not so much a recipe but simply a banter about what type of pot to use, how to conserve it in in pre-referigator days and how brodo is not actually as nutritious as people in 1891 thought) but if you want to make it a vegetable stock, simply omit the beef.
For this beef stock, use a good marrow bone, a sponge bone for giving good flavour and fragrance and some beef chuck, a good cut for braising, slow cooking and stewing. Artusi points out that if you want to make a good stock, use cold water that you slowly bring to the boil. If you’re using a nice piece of meat that you’d like to eat afterwards, such as in bollito, begin with boiling water.
A note on the herbs – I like a bouquet garni composed of herbs from my garden such as bay leaves, thyme, sage and rosemary, but Artusi uses the Tuscan way of making brodo which doesn’t use herbs with little leaves that fall apart in cooking but instead the stalks of parsley and basil. Elizabeth David warns that rosemary and sage can be too strong for some recipes but for most dishes I would use my stock for they are most welcome herbs. The underlying rule here is: experiment and use what you like.
Makes about 2 litres of beef stock
- 1 kg of beef bones and chuck steak
- A bouquet garni of your favourite herbs
- 1 stalk of celery
- 1 white or brown onion (apparently a charcoal-roasted onion is ideal)
- 1 carrot
- Several parsley stalks
Place the ingredients (whole or chopped in half to fit the saucepan) in a large pot with a lid and cover with cold water. Bring very, very slowly to the boil and when you first see some scum appearing, remove it with a slotted spoon, but then you can cover the pan and let it bubble away oh so slowly for the next couple of hours and up to three.
Add a pinch of salt if you like, but consider also leaving out salt so you have more control over your seasoning depending on the dish you’re using it with.
If you are using a piece of meat, remove it when it is tender and set it aside to use as you like. Remove the vegetables and herbs. If you’re in no rush, a good thing to do is to let the pot cool and remove the layer of fat on the surface when it has cooled and solidified. Then strain the broth through a muslin cloth over a colander for a nice, clear broth to use in risotto, soups, stews, sauces or for making tortellini in brodo. Transfer into small containers for freezing so you have some always on hand. Couldn’t be easier.