Chicken Stock in the Slow Cooker Changed My Life (and My Cooking)

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Flickr/Jessica Spengler

There is something romantic to me in the idea of making your own chicken stock. It is one of those ingredients that usually only chefs have the time or luxury to make, especially when there are perfectly suitable boxes of pre-made stocks on every grocery store’s shelves. Still, the idea of taking scraps and turning them into something rich, delicious, and entirely useful was extremely appealing.

I first had the inclination to make my own stock when my roommate and I stupidly tried an extremely restrictive, all-organic diet as a way to “detox.” In the first few days of the diet, you are only allowed to eat soup made with organic chicken, broccoli, and garlic in order to “give your digestive system a break.”

The soup simmered on the stove for a full twenty-four hours, which resulted in a rich and gelatinous broth that we eagerly drank six times a day, probably because we were starving. The diet lasted an excruciating four days before we ended up pounding cheeseburgers and beer at a bar like our lives depended on it. We decided to quit “detoxing” after a few spells of dizziness, chronic headaches from caffeine and sugar withdrawal, and a generally bad outlook on life. Life without carbohydrates is a really sad place.

But homemade chicken stock was a permanent and essential change in my diet. After you’ve had the real thing, it’s hard to go back to the salty, flavorless stuff in a Tetra Pak box. Real chicken stock adds richness to sauces, soups, and grains, and it became an indispensable ingredient in my kitchen. I spent hours perfecting my method. I tried extracting flavor from all kinds of chicken parts, once lugging home a ten-pound, pallet-sized bag of chicken feet that I bought from a very confused Mexican butcher for $5.

After a few months of experimenting, I’d found a good rhythm. I would simmer chicken backs, wings, and leftover bones in a huge stock pot with garlic, celery, and carrots overnight. This process filled my sub-1000 square foot apartment with a smell that affectionately became known as “chicken farts.” I more than once sustained probably second-degree burns after accidentally pouring the steaming hot stock over my hands. Or feet. Or down the front of my entire shirt.

Straining chicken stock is a remarkable test of character. Being able to maneuver a gigantic 20-quart stock pot filled to the brim with hot liquid and bones into a six-inch-deep apartment sink is no small feat, especially when you’re trying to keep all of that delicious golden liquid contained into one place. It must be strained once in a colander to remove the large pieces, then again with a fine-mesh sieve to remove the icky particulates left behind. Then the stock is funneled into storage containers, sealed, and refrigerated or frozen for future use.

It was complicated, but I was dedicated to the process. There was a kind of “foodie street cred” in making my own stock, a task that most home cooks were just too lazy to do. What I was making in my kitchen was inarguably superior to anything that I could buy at a grocery store, and didn’t really take that much time in the scheme of things.

When I saw a recipe on Pinterest for chicken stock made with a slow cooker, I was skeptical but entirely intrigued. According to the pin, which I have since lost, making chicken stock in the slow-cooker would “revolutionize” my cooking. All I had to do was put chicken soup bones into my slow cooker with a few aromatics, fill it to the top with water, and wait nine hours as it simmered on low. I wasn’t willing to waste any of my good chicken feet on this idea, but I was planning to roast a chicken, and I figured it could at least be a good starting point for the recipe.

I followed the pin’s instructions, using the leftover bones and wings from a 3-pound chicken that I had roasted in the oven for dinner. I also threw in the leftover roasted carrots, some puny celery stalks, and half an onion that had been hanging out in my refrigerator for a few weeks. I clearly didn’t have high hopes.

After only a few hours, though, my entire apartment started to smell like chicken soup. After forgetting about the stock for an entire night, where it warmed in the slow cooker on low heat, I woke up to a stock richer than I had ever made on the stove before. The gentle heat extracted more delicious gelatin out of the chicken bones than I’d thought possible, resulting in a stock that was thick when warm, jelly-like when chilled.

The straining process was exactly the same, but working with a smaller volume of liquid made it much easier than trying to batch-cook enough stock for a full-service restaurant in a kitchen not much bigger than a shoebox. It also means not having to wash a massive stockpot and the eighty-three stirring, skimming, and smashing utensils that I used in the original stovetop process.

I have since made this slow cooker chicken stock every time I roast a chicken, which is often. Even after being burned to a crisp in a too-hot oven, a badly cooked chicken can still yield an excellent stock in the slow cooker. There is no real recipe, only a handful of celery ribs, however many carrots I have lingering in the produce bin, onion, and a few garlic cloves. It freezes well, but needs plenty of headspace in the container to allow for expansion.

However relaxing the process of making chicken stock was before, it is doubly so now. Knowing that I have at least two quarts of stock in the works without also having to obsess over regulating the temperature necessary for a clear stock, cleaning a messy stove, or doing a bunch of dishes is invaluable. And I get to still maintain my foodie street cred without doing nearly as much work.

Amy McCarthy is a writer and editor living in Dallas, Texas. She enjoys lipstick, cooking, and fighting with celebrities on Twitter.

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