Master Stock

Master stock, a richly flavored poaching liquid used in Chinese cooking, will last for years if you treat it right.

Master Stock
Master Stock. Photo:

Jennifer Causey / Food Styling by Melissa Gray / Prop Styling by Christina Daley

Active Time:
15 mins
Total Time:
5 hrs 15 mins
Yield:
8 cups

There’s stock, and then there’s master stock. Unlike common broths and liquid bases, master stock — a braising liquid found in Cantonese and Fujian cuisines — isn’t meant to be consumed by itself or used as a soup base. Instead, it is meant mostly for cooking other things. The stock has a circular relationship with whatever ingredients you cook in it: It imparts flavor into meat while taking on the meat’s flavor in the process. Once the cooking is done, master stock is strained, cooled, and stored to be used again. A good master stock is simultaneously savory and sweet, with intense richness and depth that come from the various meats, aromatics, and spices that have had a stint in the liquid. That richness and complexity increase the more it is used.

When I was younger, I once pointed out a restaurant sign to my dad, commenting that I — even with my almost complete inability to read Chinese — recognized the characters for master stock (鹵水). He told me the rest of the sign said that they’d been using the same stock for a few generations. I was fascinated. Soon after that trip, I returned home to Detroit, determined to make my own.

To make and keep a master stock at home safely is simple — just use it as often as you can once it has been made. If keeping it in the fridge, make sure to use or boil it every three days; if leaving it unused for extended periods of time (say, up to a month), freeze it. I once managed to keep a master stock going for two and a half years but tragically lost that batch to a power outage while I was away. I’ve yet to attempt another one, but I think this winter might be as good a time as any to do so.

One thing I like to do with my stock is to impart seasonality into it. In the summer, when local tomatoes are available, I braise meat in the stock with an immense amount of hand-crushed tomatoes, giving a brightness and vibrant umami note to the liquid. Once tomato season is over, I swap them out for dried mushrooms, which add a deeper, earthier flavor. I particularly enjoy experiencing the gradual changes in flavor that are in sync with the change of seasons — but at a slight delay.

There are a handful of dishes that put the master stock front and center, one of which is called lou mei, a regional Chinese dish from Teochew cuisine. Basically, various meats, offal, and other ingredients like eggs and tofu are braised together in the master stock and served on a platter. While everything has a similar taste, the differences in texture from such things as chicken or duck wings, hard-boiled eggs, and slivered pig’s ears provide textural variety. When I am not braising proteins and vegetables in the stock or making lou mei, I like to use the master stock as a dipping sauce or add a spoonful or two to a bowl of plain rice to kick up its flavor.

While creating your first master stock calls for a rather large initial investment in terms of how much soy sauce, cooking wine, and spices it requires, because it is used over and over again, you’ll find that investment is very much worth your while. In fact, if maintained properly, it could last for several lifetimes.

This Master Stock is packed with savory chicken wings, aromatics, and spices, including dried sand ginger, a rhizome related to galangal, with a bright, citrusy, pine-sap flavor. The salty-sweet and intensely umami stock is perfect for using again and again as a poaching liquid to infuse flavor into various proteins and vegetables. The flavor of the stock will change slightly with each round. Try poaching meats and vegetables like chicken, beef, pork, tofu, and kohlrabi in it. Avoid using it to poach fish or gamey meats, which can give the stock a more pungent aroma and flavor. A fine wire-mesh sieve or tea wand may be used to remove the spices instead of cheesecloth. Find Chinese licorice root, dried sand ginger slices, and slab cane sugar at most Asian grocery stores or tsemporium.com.

Ingredients

  • 3 (3-inch) pieces fresh ginger (about 6 ounces) (unpeeled), cut into 1/4-inch-thick slices

  • 1 (2-ounce) bunch scallions, trimmed

  • 1 1/2 tablespoons canola oil

  • 3 cups chicken stock

  • 2 cups wine

  • 2 cups light soy sauce

  • 1 cup dark soy sauce

  • 15 whole star anise

  • 5 (1-inch) dried Chinese licorice root slices

  • 5 (3-inch) cinnamon sticks

  • 1 1/2 tablespoons fennel seeds

  • 6 (1/4-inch-thick) unpeeled dried sand ginger slices

  • 3 black cardamom pods

  • 20 ounces slab cane sugar, Chinese rock sugar, or light brown sugar (about 4 cups)

  • 4 dried tangerine peels (about 1 ounce)

  • 1 1/2 pounds chicken drumettes

  • 3 1/2 cups sliced sweet onion (from 1 large [1-pound] onion)

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to broil with rack 4 to 5 inches from heat. Line a rimmed baking sheet with aluminum foil. Toss together fresh ginger slices, scallions, and oil on prepared baking sheet until coated. Spread mixture in an even layer. Broil in preheated oven until lightly charred, about 3 minutes. Remove from oven.

  2. Pour chicken stock, wine, light soy sauce, and dark soy sauce into a large saucepan; set aside. Place star anise, licorice root, cinnamon sticks, fennel seeds, sand ginger slices, and cardamom pods in middle of a 4- x 5-inch piece of cheesecloth, and secure using kitchen twine.

  3. Bring stock mixture to a simmer over medium-high. Add sugar, and stir to dissolve. Add tangerine peels, charred ginger and scallions, and cheesecloth bundle with spices. Reduce heat to medium-low; gently simmer, stirring occasionally, until mixture is fragrant and full-bodied, 45 minutes to 1 hour. Remove from heat.

  4. Remove and discard cheesecloth with spices from stock mixture. Pour mixture through a fine wire-mesh strainer into an 8-cup glass measuring cup; discard solids. Pour strained stock mixture into a 6-quart slow cooker; add chicken drumettes and sweet onion. Cover and cook on low until chicken is fork-tender, about 3 hours.

  5. Pour stock mixture through a fine wire-mesh strainer into a large heatproof bowl. Discard chicken pieces, or reserve for another use. Let stock cool at room temperature 1 hour; transfer to an airtight container, and store in refrigerator up to 1 week or in freezer up to 3 months.

Note

A fine wire-mesh sieve or tea wand may be used to remove the spices instead of cheesecloth. Find Chinese licorice root, dried sand ginger slices, and slab cane sugar at most Asian grocery stores or tsemporium.com.

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