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Should we abhor stock cubes?

"I've had several friends with romantic notions of writing down their bubba's chicken soup recipes, only to discover that the 'secret ingredient' isn't love, it's stock cubes." Alice Zaslavsky

Here is yet another mildly intriguing statement from Alice Zaslavsky's book, which is still sitting on my desk, waiting to be disposed of - either to my cookbook shelves or my daughter-in-law's. It's a very interesting read, but the recipes are more my daughter-in-law's style than mine I think. More for one of those younger generations. Anyway I thought it an idea worth exploring - at least just a little.

Alice Zaslavsky's comments reminded me of my hairdresser (who is of Croatian ancestry) saying that his mother made a wonderful stuffed cabbage dish and that the 'secret' ingredient was Vegeta. That Vegeta gave it that special umami taste. So I went and bought some, not really knowing what it was. I thought it might have been yet another new and trendy - based on old and traditional - spice mix. But no it's a vegetable stock cube in powdered form. Which I confess I have barely used.

In fact the stock cube is really a good example of how cooking since the early 1900s - has passed through phases from doing everything in old traditional ways - and I include making your own stock here, through a wave of various processed foods that made cooking quicker and easier, back to old traditions with the emphasis on fresh, natural, home-made. Processed foods are still there of course, but they carry with them a slight air of disdain from the foodie professionals - and we foodie cooks.

So when did they come into being?

"The invention of stock cubes is attributed to a few different sources. In the 1800s, chemists were breaking food down into their elemental parts and trying to work out which were the essential for our survival. Scientists discovered the importance of protein, and identified creatine – the key to muscle action. German chemist, Justus von Liebig, developed a liquid meat extract in 1840, that could be used in cooking. This was expensive for the average family budget so scientists created bouillon (stock) cubes which they brought to market in the early 1900s, to be sold at an affordable price; one penny per cube." Chatsfood

Back in the 40s and 50s my mother would put a stock cube into gravy sometimes, or a stew. She made her own chicken stock from the leftover roast carcasse, but I don't remember her making vegetable or beef stock. Vegetable stock is pretty easy, but then we weren't that interested in vegetarianism or veganism back then, and chicken stock is also pretty easy. Mind you, she, like I, only ever made it with a carcasse - bones and scraps of meat, but these days most recipes will tell you to put in a whole chicken. Which seems a bit of a waste of a chicken.

At first sight anyway. Of course, you actually then eat the chicken, either as a delicious meal in itself or in sandwiches, salads, stir fries - whatever. Just make sure to keep the liquid in which it has been cooking because this is the stock.

Beef or fish stock, on the other hand is somewhat more time consuming and difficult. I did find a recipe for Home-made beef stock cubes on a website called The Cook's Pyjamas, but even the writer said:

"I’m not going to lie. Making your own beef stock cubes does require a significant time investment."

So I don't think I shall be having a go anyway. Besides how often do we use beef stock? I use beef stock much less often than chicken or vegetable stock though. I confess that when I do I tend to use a liquid one, and I do add a beef stock cube to my bolognaise kind of ragù. Just to give it that extra depth of flavour.

Because I think that's what stock cubes do, better than the liquid stock, whether home-made or bought in packets. Well they are pretty concentrated aren't they?

"when creating a stock cube, dried herbs, seasonings and dehydrated meats are mixed together, left in optimal conditions to mature, then shaped into blocks." Chatsfood

Not that it's good to dwell too much on what goes into them really. The Cook's Pyjamas lady says:

"Read the ingredient list on almost any commercial stock cube. Beef is often listed as 2–3% of the total ingredients. The remainder of a commercial cube contains salt, sugar(s), modified starches, oils, yeast extracts and flavour enhancers, many present in larger amounts than the beef extract after which the cube is named." The Cook's Pyjamas

It is certainly true that chefs in general are very snobby about stock cubes and the main thing they deride them for is the quantity of salt in them. Which I think is pretty hypocritical because when you see a chef adding a 'pinch' of salt to his dish in a video it often looks more like a handful to me. A horrifying amount anyway.

However, should we be so scornful? The basting sauce for our Christmas turkey, courtesy of Robert Carrier includes a crumbled stock cube. And I do sometimes add one to a stew or a braise if I feel that the dish is missing something.

Because Alice Zaslavsky is so enthusiastic:

"These canary-yellow cubes and powders be they Massel, Vegeta or similar, are a brilliant way to add flavour and the special something to all sorts of dishes." Alice Zaslavsky

Because of that I thought it might be a trendy ingredient, so I had a look to see what I could find. She used it in her Orange veg one-tray soup, shown here, as a boost to the vegetable stock that is the base liquid. So since she is young and presumably 'on trend' I thought I would find all sorts of people using them in interesting ways. But no. All I could find, in fact, were various chefs admitting to using them occasionally at home.

I did find a page of suggestions however on a website called simply My recipes. Here are some of them:

  • Add them to any kind of cooking water, including in a rice cooker, because:

"One cube or one spoonful of powder or paste will give you a more subtle roundness to the flavour but won't make the whole dish taste of chicken or beef the way it would if you cooked in pure stock."

  • Add them to savoury doughs or sprinkle on top.

  • When caramelising onions, add a dissolved cube halfway through the process. She recommends a mushroom flavoured one.

  • Add to stir fries or sautés.

All of which I think goes to show that really it's sort of a substitute for MSG or any other flavour booster like Worcestershire sauce or vegemite.

Or the much more fashionable miso - which I have to say I used last night in a marinade for some grilled chicken kebabs - and very tasty they were too. Just marinade your chicken for 2 hours - (it was supposed to be thighs - for 4) in 4 dessert spoons of white miso paste; 2 dessert spoons of maple syrup; 2 teaspoons of sesame oil; 3 dessertspoons of peanut oil. It was a Nigel Slater recipe. I added some sliced zucchini and peppers to the mix. Yum. David gave it 4 stars.

All in all I think that the stock cube is a really useful thing for we everyday cooks, as long as we don't overdo it. Because then everything would taste the same.


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