Basic Shellfish Stock

You might have noticed that I go through a lot of shellfish in my day-to-day preparations. In quite a few of the previous posts, I’ve also mentioned that you want to save the shells and/or carcass remnants of consumed critters for stock. I suppose now would be as good a time as any to show how I usually make that stock.

Shellfish stock is awesome. It’s great as a soup and sauce base, it adds flavor to rice and pasta, and can be used in place of water to give anything you’re cooking a quick boost. I always have a supply of frozen stock — chicken, vegetable, and shellfish — on hand in the fridge for last-minute recipe tweaking. You could buy the powdered bouillion cubes or canned/boxed stuff at the grocery store, but the fresh stuff is so easy to make and so much tastier (less preservatives, yo) that I really don’t see the point. It also makes you feel good about not letting anything go to waste in your kitchen. Try it out, you’ll never go back to the supermarket stuff!

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Here’s a big pot of newly made shellfish stock (lobster, crawfish and shrimp), strained and cooling off. You won’t get that dark, rich color out of a box. Making stock doesn’t rely too much on set recipes — it developed as a way to use up what was in the kitchen and get the most out of it before it was binned. There are a few things you should do to get the best results, but the rest is all up to personal creativity and taste. My ingredients list varies every time I make a pot, so no batch ever turns out the same, but it always falls into the same realm of distilled seafoody goodness.

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In this particular pot, I used rehydrated chopped garlic (ignore the garlic salt label, I just happened to be using that bottle to store it in), some cheap dry white wine, rehydrated chopped onions, and canola (or vegetable) oil. If I have fresh garlic or onions, I’ll use them, but more often than not I prefer to rehydrate the dried stuff for convenience. At least, I did back at the old apartment. Now that I have a food processor, though, all bets are off!

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My stash of frozen stock shells. Some raw shrimp, steamed lobsters, and leftovers from a crawfish boil. The latter gave this particular batch a nice kick because there were still some spices left on them. You’ll need to do some prepping for the larger pieces of shellfish. Shrimps can be tossed in whole or cut up into smaller pieces with a pair of kitchen shears. For the lobsters and crawfish, I pretty much placed the bags on the cement outside and went to town with a hammer. You need to get the shells broken up enough to give them surface area to release their seafoody essence. Rolling pins are good for bashing in smaller crustaceans, but the tougher lobsters and crabs really require some loving attention with the heavy metal. Some people like to roast the shells in the oven for about ten minutes on high-ish (400 F or so) to further enhance the flavor. I don’t usually bother to do so but might some day. I hear it can be really nice.

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Heat up some oil on the bottom of the pan, then toss in one onion, sliced or chopped. Let the onion cook a bit to release the aroma. About to where it’s starting to look a bit translucent.

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Toss in all the frozen shells and fill pot with water halfway up the pile of shellfish. Cover and heat on medium until they’re defrosted.

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As you can see, everything’s starting to look separated and cooked now. Fill water the rest of the way until it’s just covering the top of the shellfish.

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Toss in a splash of wine. If I were not using pre-spiced crawfish shells, I would also toss in some flavoring herbs at this point, like thyme, parsley, garlic, cloves, pepper… whatever you like with your seafood. The most efficient way to deal with the herbs is to wrap them up in a bouquet garni — keeps the loose stuff from getting all over the place and makes the final straining much neater. I like cutting a square of plain muslin (cheesecloth), popping the herbs in, then tying it shut with a strip of the same. Then again, I have several rolls of the stuff to spare courtesy of design school.

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Toss in a bay leaf or two. The ones I use are very small and sometimes broken, so I have to guesstimate a bit.

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Heat the pot until it’s just below simmering. Do NOT stir it. The key to cooking this stock is to not disturb the bottom, which will muddy the liquid. Boiling will disturb it, as will poking at it with a wooden spoon. Just let it heat and do its thing. Little bubbles will rise to the surface — that’s okay, just don’t let them get to the point of an actual simmer.

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Foam will start to come to the surface as impurities are released from the shells. Skim the foam away as it forms. I use a small sieve, but a slotted spoon works just as well. Continue heating the stock and skimming for an hour or so. You can toss in chopped carrots, celery and other stuff you’d use in vegetable stock at this point. I don’t bother unless I happen to have some lying about, but the veggies do help to round out the flavor. Use them if you have them.

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Cook at fairly low heat for another couple of hours. Some people go for as long as five, some as few as one and a half. I try to let it go for as long as I can to make sure it gets a good soak. I usually throw in another splash of wine somewhere around this time. By this point, you should be smelling cooked shellfish pretty strongly. Keep the air circulator on and the windows open if you’re not a fan. There will come a point in the cooking process where the shells will start bobbing to the surface and they’ll start smelling less, like they’ve been leeched and all that’s left is washed-out shrimp-shaped cardboard. It’s hard to explain, but it’s true — all the flavor is now in the liquid.

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This being the liquid. It should be looking clear and very deeply colored by the end of the cooking time. Crawfish tends to give the broth a reddish tinge, lobster tends to be a brownish curry color, and lighter shrimp or crab will result in something amberish. Take it off the heat and let it cool for an hour before you start straining.

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In the meantime, work on your straining setup. I use a large pot on the bottom to catch the liquid, then put a colander over it.

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Then I place a layer of muslin over the colander and put another sieve over the cloth.

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So this is what happens when I start pouring. The first few rounds will be mostly getting rid of the bobbing shells. Let them drip as much as possible, then toss right away. ¬†After a few pours, you’ll start seeing a film of impurities building up on the fabric. Either wash the cloth when that happens or just toss it and use a new one. If you don’t do anything, it’ll eventually clog all the holes and you won’t be able to strain any further.

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The final result is a clear, deeply tinted liquid with the strong flavor of shellfish. You should have been tasting along the way to see if it is seasoned to your liking — I don’t usually bother with adding salt since it will be added in any of the recipes using the stock anyway. Optionally, you can now boil the strained stock to reduce it further and make it easier to store. I have enough room in my freezer for a few batches, so don’t usually reduce the liquid down too far.

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Frozen stock in the freezer, awaiting use in recipes. I like using plastic containers because they adapt nicely to the expanding liquid. Sturdy plastic ziploc bags work great, too.

And that’s it! Stay tuned for some recipes to use that stock on, coming up soon…

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