Whenever I walk past a second hand bookshop, or even the local charity shops, I pretty much always duck inside and head straight for the recipe books. You see, I am a little bit obsessed. My long suffering boyfriend and longer suffering dad are 100% rolling their eyes reading this, as my incessant book buying (hoarding) is nothing new. These are definitely tendencies I inherit from my lovely mum, who by no means limits herself to books when it comes to amassing stuff. My collection is enormously varied, ranging from oil splattered, well-thumbed Chinese cookbooks with weird and wonderful English translations (‘Chicken in Peculiar Sauce’ is a particular favourite) through to enormous, glossy coffee table books from some of the world’s best restaurants that are works of art in their own right. However the books I prize most are definitely my antique recipe books and it is these that I am really on the look out for when I am scouring the bookshop shelves.
I have a selection of books from the late 1800s and early 1900s which I can spend hours flicking through. I love stumbling across familiar recipes that have remained popular and largely unchanged as well as finding the more weird and wacky things that have fallen from grace – like the recipe for a centrepiece of jelly swans made out of meat aspic that I found in a recent buy. It is now my singular life’s mission to recreate this in all its gelatinous glory and serve it to unsuspecting family and friends…
The latest book I bought on a trip to an antiques market in Suffolk was a copy of ‘Mrs A.B. Marshall’s Cookery Book’ with a beautiful scrawling inscription on the inside cover telling me that it had been gifted in 1913 to one F. G. Adnams, presumably of the famous Suffolk brewing family. What really fascinated me about this particular book was not actually one of the recipes but a full page advert on the inside cover advertising Lemco beef essence. At the top of the page it loudly announces that it makes ‘nourishing dishes’. Reading on, it declares that this Bovril equivalent makes a ‘delicious and strengthening broth’ that ‘increased the digestibility of all meats and gravies’ and is ‘a great relish for invalids’.
These loud declarations of the health giving properties of beef stock made me instantly think of the current obsession with ‘bone broth’ – ultimately just stock rebranded for the Millenial generation. Thanks to the likes of the Hemsley sisters and various cult diets, in particular Paleo, bone broth is being lauded once again as a nigh on magical elixir that will cure all manner of ailments and sooth the soul. Even the language used in the advert from 1913 is strikingly similar to so many of the recipes and articles you find in current books and online extolling the virtues of boiled bones. The main difference is that the celebrated bone broth of today is almost always organic, all natural and – particularly if you live in London – available for extortionate amounts of money as a meaty substitute for your morning latte.
I have read a lot about this cult of bone broth and it seems that there is not an enormous amount of evidence behind the extravagant health claims surrounding the miracle broth. While stocks certainly contain collagen and other proteins and amino acids taken from the bones as they break down, these are by no means unique to bone broth and are found in similar, or higher levels in things like cows milk and eggs.
However, this most definitely does NOT mean that I don’t enjoy a proper stock made lovingly and slowly from great quality beef or lamb bones and a whole lot of earthy root vegetables. It is the backbone of so many dishes and frankly, if the current trend is encouraging people to move away from salt and preservative laced shop-bought stock cubes and extracts (the modern day Lemcos!) then I am all for it – that in itself is enough of a health benefit! Making your own is so simple, satisfying, and only costs a couple of quid. To top it off, it really involves very little effort on your part – once the stock is on a gentle heat or in a slow cooker it can be left largely to its own devices.
Below is my recipe for a basic beef bone broth. More often than not I vary which aromatics I add, depending on what I have to hand/which pot of herbs on my windowsill has been less recently massacred. Rosemary or thyme are always classic choices, and a few glossy bay leaves never go amiss. If the stock is destined to be used in anything of an Asian persuasion I sub out the fresh herbs and opt for some star anise, cinnamon and a (sparing) scattering of Sichuan peppercorns, or even a few bruised sticks of lemongrass and fragrant kaffir lime leaves. I use my basic beef stock in so many recipes – from warming beef stews and ragus to light bowls of noodle soup, but more often than not I’ll just throw in fistfuls of whatever vegetables I have to hand and a scattering of seeds to make a gorgeously simple soup that never fails to hit the spot.
Basic Bone Broth (aka Beef Stock)
The best bones for beef stock are the marrow bones, ask your butcher to cut the bones into smaller pieces to expose all the marrow goodness (and to ensure they fit in the pot!) Some supermarkets now sell prepackaged bones if the butcher doesn’t have any. Keep any beef trim or sinew from cheaper cuts of meat and throw them in the bones.
I either make my stock in a large pot over the lowest possible heat on the stove or I use my slow cooker. Both ways work well but the advantage of the slow cooker is that you can largely walk away and leave it unattended!
This stock will keep for a good few days in the fridge but I tend to fill strong ziplock bags with individual portions and freeze them. If you freeze them flat (on a tray can help) they take up very little freezer space and mean you’ll always have some to hand.
- 2.5kg beef bones
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- 3 medium carrots (washed thoroughly but not peeled)
- 2 large onions
- 5 celery sticks
- 1 head of garlic
- 1 large sprig of rosemary
- 2 bay leaves
- 6 sprigs of thyme
- handful of parsley stalks (optional)
- 10 whole black peppercorns
Preheat your oven to 220°c. Cut the onions into quarters, leaving the skin on. Place them in a large roasting tin along with the beef bones and drizzle lightly with olive oil. Put the tray in the hot oven and roast the bones for 3/4 of an hour or until they are well coloured all over. Remove from the oven and carefully transfer the bones to a large cooking pot. While the roasting tray is still hot add a good splash of hot water and scrape it well to deglaze (dislodge the last of the delicious caramelised bits still stuck to it) and pour this in with the bones.
Cut the celery and carrots into 2 cm lengths and add to the bones. Cut the head of garlic horizontally in half to expose the cloves and add to the pan along with the herbs and whole peppercorns.
Fill the pan with cold water and place over a medium heat. Bring the stock slowly to a gentle simmer before turning the heat down to low. Cover the pan with a lid and leave to cook very gently for 4-6 hours. Check the stock every half hour or so to make sure that the water hasn’t reduced too much (top it up as necessary) and to skim off any scum or fat that rises to the surface. The longer you leave the stock the better it is, so definitely don’t be tempted to cut the cooking time.
When the stock is ready pass it through a conical strainer or a sieve. Skim it a final time to remove the majority of the fat. Cool over ice.