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First, what should homemade stock taste like? Should it be fairly bland? When I cook other things like pasta sauce, dressing, etc. I can always taste and add seasoning and adjust as needed while it cooks. Since it seems to be a rule to not salt stock, what should I be tasting and adjusting for to know if I'm going in the right direction? Is stock tasting during even a thing or are you supposed to rely on a proven recipe and just wait and hope?

I'm making beef stock for the 1st time and I'm around the 3 hour mark and it tastes pretty bland. I used 2lb oxtail, 4 onions, 1 large carrot, 2 celery stalks, couple bay leaves, 2tsp thyme, 1tsp rosemary and enough water to cover everything (guessing around 3 liters). If it tastes bland at the 3 hour point should I consider adding salt or something else? If after 8 hours, it's still bland, is there any chance of salvaging by reducing?

I always got the impression that stock is pretty versatile and you can throw leftover bones and scraps you accumulate and have tasty base to use but as of right now I'm a bit underwhelmed. Have I overlooked something?

  • Did you use any spices like peppercorns, cloves,.....? – Stephie Dec 18 '16 at 11:58
  • Did you roast any of your ingredients? – Stephie Dec 18 '16 at 12:00
  • What I personally like to do, is when I think the stock is ready, ladle a little in a bowl, and salt that before tasting. Otherwise you always feel like there's something missing when tasting, even if your broth is perfectly alright for cooking. – Sarumanatee Dec 21 '16 at 15:51
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Since you are going to be using it for cooking, you're absolutely right to not add salt. Especially if the cooking involves reduction, you want to be able to control the salt level at that point. Unfortunately, that does make it a bit hard to gauge the flavor of the stock. A beef stock should actually taste like beef, like if you thickened it and added salt, it would be a passable gravy.

Especially for beef stock, it helps to thoroughly roast the meat and vegetables before adding them to the water. Don't skin your onions, roasted onion skins add great flavor and color.

If you didn't roast your ingredients before adding to the water, consider roasting them now. Fish your beef and vegetables out of the water, dry them with a paper towel, and put them in a 450°F (230°C) oven, flipping every 20 minutes or so. Meanwhile, keep the water (stock) at a simmer both for safety's sake and a bit of reduction.

Once your meat and vegetables are very brown (just this side of burnt), add them back to your stock and simmer for at least another three hours.

If possible, deglaze your roasting pan with a bit of the stock or even better, some small amount of wine. Any brown bits on your roasting pan are going to boost the flavor of your stock.

If after all of this your stock still seems flavorless, ladle a bit out and salt it just to taste (leaving the stock in the pot still unsalted).

If your salted broth still tastes too weak, yes you can reduce it. You can also add a reduced-sodium beef base like Better Than Bouillon. Doing so will add considerable salt (unfortunately reduced-sodium =/= low-sodium), so be judicious.

Like Stephie alluded to in comments, several peppercorns, a few bay leaves and some thyme couldn't hurt.

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    Roasting the meat may or may not be the way to go. If intended for a sauce, by all means roast. For soups, not necessarily a good idea. – Stephie Dec 18 '16 at 12:06
  • I've never seen a reason to not roast the meat for a beef stock, for soup or anything else. If I want a really light broth, I go for chicken broth even if the protein in the soup is beef. Honestly though, I rarely make beef broth. The difference between homemade beef broth and Better Than Bouillon seems too small to be worth the time and expense. An exception to that would be for beef pho, in that case the roasting is critical. – Jolenealaska Dec 18 '16 at 12:13
  • Good answer but I wanted to call out what I think is the key part for the OP: to taste stock while you're cooking it, ladle a bit of it into a mug or whatever, add a pinch of salt, and taste that. – Dan C Dec 20 '16 at 17:02
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    "several peppercorns, a few bay leaves and some thyme couldn't hurt." is not true. If you want to keep your stock as versatile as possible, and be able to use it in as many dishes as possible, keep it as simple as possible: meat and veg (onion, celery, and carrots) only. Rosemary and thyme don't go with everything. – Dan C Dec 20 '16 at 17:11
  • I second @Jolenealaska's point about the salt. Yes, your broth will taste weak and flavorless without it. But you don't want to salt the broth yet, since it will concentrate as you continue to cook. I take out a little in a spoon, sprinkle in a few grains of salt, swirl, and taste. That tells me where the flavor is going. – Joshua Engel Dec 20 '16 at 17:55
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Since it seems to be a rule to not salt stock

This is not a rule. Salt is fundamental to our sense of taste. Without it, your stock will taste bland pretty much no matter what you put in it or how long you cook it.

Whether you salt the stock as you make it is up to you and what you use your stock for. If you cook low-sodium for dietary reasons, then of course you should use little or no salt in your stock. Ditto if you want to keep your stock as versatile as possible: salt as needed when you make the final dish. In those cases, you should still taste your stock during cooking by ladling a small amount into a mug or something, then salt and taste that sample.

But if you always use your stock for making one of a few soup recipes, for example, it's perfectly fine to add some salt to the stock while you're cooking it. It makes taste-testing easier and no matter what soup you're making, chances are you're going to eventually put salt in it. You do want to err on the side of caution when salting your stock: use less than you think you'll need in the finished dish, because you can always add more when making the finished soup, but you can't remove it.

  • Stock isn't traditionally salted when made as it's an ingredient in a future dish; salt is added when making the final dish, according to the desired outcome of that dish (and not the stock). Sometimes a stock is used to extend savoury notes, where if it was already salted it would also affect the saltiness in an undesirable way. This is similar to why unsalted butter exists: for dishes that do not need additional salt. It's important to remember that stock is a common base ingredient for many things, so in some kitchens it's part of dozens of dishes (each with different seasoning needs). – Bruce Alderson Aug 27 '17 at 19:42

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