With winter in full swing, hearty wild game meals like braises, soups and stews are often on the menu and a good stock is the foundation of many of these recipes. The base of savory sauces and gravies also starts with stock so it’s a good idea for aspiring MeatEaters to be able to make their own. Any recipe that calls for chicken or beef stock or even water can be made even better by using a wild game or fish stock made at home.
It makes me cringe to consider the lost opportunities when I see hunters–thinking only of speed and convenience–take just the breasts from game birds or toss an elk femur. By using the parts and pieces of game and fish that often get thrown in the trash or left in the woods, making homemade stock is a great way to add more value to your wild game and fish and you’ll rely less on the grocery store.
I prefer to pack out animals like deer and elk with the four quarters intact because they’re easier to handle than deboned meat despite the few extra pounds. If you’re able to get an animal home in one piece, that’s even better. As an added benefit, the leg bones that make packing, hanging and aging meat more convenient also serve as a key ingredient in making stock.
After I’ve butchered an animal at home, I freeze the leg bones with scrap meat attached to make stock. You can saw them into manageable pieces before freezing or break them easily with a hammer or hatchet after they’re frozen. It’s also a good idea to freeze the odds and ends of meat, tendon and silver skin that build up as you’re butchering. The gelatin in bones, cartilage, tendons and ligaments makes for a silkier stock. If you don’t keep rib racks or rib meat for cooking, they’re worth saving to make stock. For hunters who don’t butcher their own animals, many processors will be happy to unload some bones for free.
Along with bones from big game, the carcasses of smaller game and fish also work well for stock. Red meat game like venison or waterfowl will make a darker, more beef-like stock but small game like rabbits, squirrels, upland birds and turkeys create a lighter product more like chicken stock. Also save the heads, bony carcasses and skin of fish that have been filleted or gutted for the stock used in bouillabaisse, chowders and bisques.
Making your own stock is best done in large batches and it’s a good idea to get the biggest stock pot you can find. While smaller portions can be made, the time involved in making stock doesn’t lend itself well to single meals. You’ll need a storage system once the stock is done. I used to freeze my stock in one-quart plastic yogurt containers which work well but now I use glass Ball jars. Just make sure not to over fill them, leaving a couple inches of space below the lid to allow for expansion while freezing. Otherwise, the jars will crack. Stock will last for a year in the freezer and it can also be made shelf-stable with a pressure canner.
Other than meat scraps, bones or carcasses, a stock pot and storage containers, you’ll need some basic vegetables. Making stock is a good time to use carrots, onions or celery past their prime. Salt, pepper, garlic, herbs and spices are also staple stock ingredients.
Basic Wild Game or Fish Stock Recipe
Game or fish bones, carcass, scrap meat etc.
– Quantities will vary depending on the size of bones or carcasses. but more is better than less. One moose femur is plenty, while several rabbit or small game birds are necessary. A few deer leg bones or a single wild turkey carcass will do the job. For fish stock, the same rules apply, so you could use a couple large salmon or a dozen or more small trout or panfish.
Salt, Pepper to taste
4 Bay Leaves
One whole head of Garlic
Herbs such as rosemary, thyme, basil and parsley- a tablespoon of each
4-6 large Carrots
Several Celery stalks
2 large Onions
Saw or break bones to expose marrow. This creates a much richer stock. Place bones or carcasses on cooking sheet. Sprinkle with salt, pepper and olive oil. Roast at 400 degrees for 30 minutes to an hour depending on size. Roast until well-browned and aromatic.
Fill stock pot about halfway with lightly salted water and turn on heat to low. Place cooked bones, carcasses and trimmed meat into pot and add enough water to fill. Add roughly chopped vegetables now or wait until the last hour or two of cooking. Add herbs and spices. Cook on low heat. Avoid bringing the stock to a boil. A very slow simmer is best. Cook covered with a slightly vented lid for at least 4-6 hours, but 8-12 hours is best. You want to extract every bit of flavor. Taste and add salt or pepper if needed. Some reduction is expected and intensifies flavors, but if the stock reduces too much while cooking you can add a little water to offset evaporation.
You’ll see that as the stock cooks, liquefied fats and oils will rise to the surface. You can periodically skim this away, but I’ve found an easier way to remove fat is to wait for the stock to completely cool first. You can even set your stock outside on a cold day to speed the process. When the stock cools sufficiently, the fat will solidify on the surface and can be removed easily.
When completely cool, strain the stock well before storing. A fine wire mesh strainer is good for a first run. If there’s still a lot of particles in the stock, on the second run, line the strainer with a paper towel. This will filter the stock thoroughly and you’ll be left with a clear liquid. I’ll usually end up with 12-14 quarts of stock so a couple batches this size will get me through months of meals.
A Note on Demi-Glace
Demi-glace is a richer, thicker variation on classic stock. Just short of jelly or syrup-like in consistency, demi-glace is made by reducing stock very slowly until it thickens. This removes water and concentrates the gelatins from meat, tendons, ligaments and bones the adds intense flavors to sauces, soups and braises. Just a little goes a long ways and it keeps very well for months when refrigerated.
Brody Henderson is a hunter, fly fishing guide, writer, wilderness production assistant for the MeatEater television show and MeatEater‘s editorial contributor.