My Goals

  • Rich, concentrated taste

  • Pure poultry flavor

  • Gelatinous body

I ’ve been the primary cook for my family’s Thanksgiving feast for about 20 years now. I gladly inherited this honor from my mom, but there’s one task I never took off her plate: making a batch of stock from the leftover turkey carcass. I’ve always felt guilty about saddling her with the job, so this year I vowed to keep it for myself. Anticipating a bit of postholiday fatigue, I intended to keep this recipe as simple as possible.

Skin and Bones

As it happened, a colleague was roasting lots of whole turkeys, producing a ready supply of carcasses that I could use for testing purposes. I gathered two that had the leg quarter and breast meat removed but still included meaty bits, the wings, and a fair amount of skin. I prepared two bone-and-water stocks, the first using a carcass straight from the roasted turkey and a second one for which I roasted the carcass for 45 minutes, thinking that this might produce a richer-tasting stock.

The first stock simmered into a lovely pale gold hue, whereas the roasted-carcass stock turned a deep mahogany brown. I assumed that the darker sample would be more popular, so I was pleasantly surprised when tasters gravitated toward the easier-to-make golden stock. It tasted clearly and deeply of turkey, whereas the stock made with twice-cooked bones tasted more generically of roasted meat.

We found that stock made straight from the raw carcass was preferable to stock made from roasted bones—a plus for us in both simplicity and saved time.

I experimented with aromatics next. To one stockpot containing 4 quarts of water and a whole carcass, I added raw mirepoix (chopped carrots, onion, and celery); to a second, the same mix of vegetables that I had first caramelized to a deep golden brown in the oven. Finally, I made a third stock with only water and a carcass. To my delight, we preferred the near-effortless bone-only stock to those made with vegetables. The raw mirepoix stock was too vegetal and the roasted one too sweet, but the bone-only stock boasted nothing but pristine, though slightly weak, poultry flavor.

Happy with the way things were progressing, I made one more bone-only stock, but rather than use the carcass whole, I broke it into smaller pieces—a step easily accomplished with a chef’s knife or ktichen shears—so I would need only 2½ quarts of water (enough for a batch of soup) instead of 4 quarts to cover the bones. The upshot was a more concentrated stock. I also found that I could squeeze a broken carcass into a Dutch oven, a boon for cooks who don’t own a stockpot.

Breaking down the carcass allows us to use a smaller pot and less water for a more flavorful, concentrated stock.

Things Start to Gel

Next up: consistency. To attain the viscosity I wanted, the stock needed plenty of gelatin, which develops from collagen, a protein found in connective tissue, skin, and bones. It lends subtle body you won’t find in commercial products and is the hallmark of a good homemade stock. Many recipes call for simmering bones all day to ensure adequate gelatin extraction. Was that truly necessary?

Collagen, which gradually breaks down when cooked, is responsible for homemade stock’s viscosity. Instead of spending hours coaxing the gelatin out of the bones, we found a time-saving shortcut.

To find out, I filled four pots with equal weights of bones and water and cooked them for 1, 2, 3, and 4 hours, respectively. After an overnight chill in the refrigerator, the 1-hour stock was slightly thickened, indicating the presence of a small amount of gelatin. However, the 2-, 3,- and 4-hour stocks were all lightly set and wiggled like Jell-O when I shook their container. Although the 3- and 4-hour stocks were slightly firmer when cold, when we tasted them hot, they were nearly impossible to distinguish from the 2-hour stock—each was richly flavored and infused with an ample amount of gelatinous body.

Scoring yet another victory for simplicity, I went with a 2-hour simmer. I occasionally skimmed the surface of the bubbling liquid to remove any foam or impurities. Then, once the time was up, I strained out the bones, let the stock cool for 20 minutes, and spooned off the surface fat. Energized by the fact that my stock required nothing more than water, bones, and time, I decided to use the reserved turkey fat to sauté aromatics for a quick batch of soup.

In keeping with our simplistic approach, we use fat skimmed from the broth to sauté the aromatics in our richly flavored turkey soup.

Friday Soup

My first try at an easy postholiday soup—with fennel, rosemary, and kale—was a little too complex; the bold ingredients overwhelmed the poultry flavor I had been at pains to create in my stock. I altered the ingredient list, ultimately ending up with three variations; each one combined 2 cups of shredded leftover turkey meat with a starchy component—barley, orzo, or rice—along with carefully selected aromatics, complementary vegetables, mild-mannered seasonings, and a last-minute addition of fresh lemon juice to brighten things up.

A little seasoning is all it takes to complement the rich flavor of our simple post-Thanksgiving turkey soup.

Now I was guaranteed to eat well on the Friday after Thanksgiving while still having plenty of time to kick back on the couch.

Zen and the Art of Turkey Stock

At every turn, we were happy to find that doing less produced a better-tasting stock.

Test 1: ROAST BONES

Roasting the bones once the cooked meat was picked from the carcass produced a dark stock that tasted like generic meat broth. Upshot: We liked the pure poultry flavor of stock made with unroasted bones.


TEST 2: ADD VEGETABLES

Stocks containing onion, carrot, and celery, whether added raw or roasted first, tasted too vegetal or sweet. Upshot: We preferred the clean flavor of stock made with no vegetables.

Test 3: EVALUATE SIMMERING TIME

We simmered identical water-and-bone stocks for 1, 2, 3, and 4 hours, respectively. After chilling overnight, the 1-hour stock was slightly thickened, indicating that it contained only a small amount of mouth-coating gelatin. The 2-, 3-, and 4-hour stocks, on the other hand, contained enough gelatin to set up like Jell-O—the hallmark of a good stock—and the longer-cooked stocks tasted no better than the 2-hour version. Upshot: It only made sense to opt for a 2-hour cooking time.

Keys to Success

  • Rich, concentrated taste

    Breaking the carcass into pieces and simmering it without aromatics in a minimal amount of water produces concentrated stock that tastes like turkey, not vegetables.
  • Pure poultry flavor

    Skipping the optional browning step keeps the turkey flavor clean instead of generically roasty.
  • Gelatinous body

    Two hours of simmering is enough time to convert collagen to gelatin, creating a rich, mouth-coating consistency.