Stock answers: when to home-make, and when a cube will do

Innocuous to some, inspiring ire in others, stock can be a culinary dividing line. Marco Pierre White was branded a “shill” for flogging cubes, and another British chef, Tom Kerridge, found himself embroiled in a very middle class stir when he admitted his home use of those little kitchen helpers.

Making your own stock is fundamental for some cooks. There’s payback on flavour, the knowledge you’ve ticked that zero-waste box, and the “it’s what Nan would have done” mantra. It can also be calming. Shannon Martinez, chef/owner of Melbourne’s vegan institutions Smith and Daughters and Smith and Deli, says “stock is my most favourite thing to make in the world. It’s super-therapeutic, taking my time, skimming it.”

Personally, I’m a cook who thinks they’re aware – even a little virtuous. I’m for concentrating on seasonality, standards, and the thought that a little bit of effort goes a long way. But I find making stock frustrating, time consuming, and my results aren’t consistent. Added, I’m not sure that either of my nans would have made a stock from scratch, with a cube at hand.

But I have a sticking point on stock cubes too: processed foods. I don’t think convenience is a dirty word; it’s the ingredients. There are variations, but in a standard powdered stock, you could expect MSG (to some deeply misunderstood), other flavour enhancers, and the very much understood palm oil.

There’s a question of transparency: where do the dehydrated animal and vegetable ingredients come from? A blurb from one of the big three (Oxo, Knorr and Maggie have been around since the earliest days of soup-in-a-cube) claims their beef stock cubes are “gluten free, made with sustainably grown vegetables and herbs, have no added MSG, no artificial colours or preservatives”. But what about the beef, and a wider question, what is the definition of “sustainable”?

There is a halfway house. Martinez uses “real stock” for soups and broths at home, but acknowledges many of us are time poor and that pre-made products can take up the slack. She raves about the Chef Professional range, a liquid concentrate stock. She’s mindful of artificial flavourings in cubes and powders but these liquids, she says, are “a concentrate of proper ingredients and, holy shit, it tastes like when you make a meat roast: all those beautiful bits on the bottom that you scrape up and make gravy.”

Chef and creative director Matt Wilkinson is part way through an ode to the basics of making stock at his Melbourne home when he finds a packet of San Elk in the cupboard. The Melbourne based company manufactures powdered organic stock containing no maltodextrin, palm products, GMOs, preservatives, additives and so on. “Sharlee [Gibb, Wilkinson’s wife] uses it as a flavour enhancer in risotto and fried rice,” he laughs. “Now, where were we?”

Wilkinson gets back to the joy of stock. He’s no snob. The Yorkshire born chef reminisces fondly of his mum crumbling a stock cube into meat juices. He’s of the opinion that making your own is often the way to go, as long as you know when to use it. “If you braise lamb shanks, just add a bit of water, you don’t need extra stock. If you’re cooking mussels, that leftover liquid, the juices, that’s a stock. But for risotto you do need a beautiful veg stock, as water just won’t cut it.”

Even Martinez is all for the cube or powdered forms of stock common in commercial cookery, fond as she is of making her own. “We use Massel [at Smith & Daughters] to replicate meat products as it’s vegan,” she says. “When I’m making my faux turkey or beef, I use vegan stock powders to give it meatiness.” She also uses it as a seasoning base for faux fried chicken. But as a flavour enhancer there is a caveat on quantity. A little goes a long way, but a lot will give you “that two-minute noodles taste.”