Fully developed consommé is delicious without being filling. It should never be the entire meal; present as either an appetizer or as an extravagant saucing. The fun comes in “fully developing” it. It turns out to not be hard, and in fact is made easier by understanding what’s going on.
In essence, it’s a stock which is enhanced and clarified. It has to be enhanced because the clarification can and will remove flavor that’s carried by those small particles. (Actually we’re not perfectly clarifying it. If we used a powerful enough tool we’d see particles remaining after clarification. But it’s ‘close enough for cooking’.)
Generally there are two ways of clarifying. If you have a thin broth that’s low in gelatin (for example a fish or veggie stock) you can add a portion of gelatin, freeze the result solid, then let it strain through a cheesecloth as it melts. The gelatin will have bound with the particles and won’t pass through. If on the other hand you have a high-gelatin broth (my chicken or beef broth for example) you’re better served by making a raft. That is, adding egg whites (lightly beaten and tempered) to the stock, letting the raft filter out the particles, then removing the liquid while leaving the raft. Yes, that’s tricky. As I said, in both cases it’s generally recommended that you add flavor before clarifying.
There’s a third way that’s a bit more wasteful but I’ll mention it – and it works for both types. If it’ll gel, let it, if not put it in the freezer. Either way, put it in a tall, narrow container – preferably slightly larger on top than on bottom. When it’s firm, ease it out of the container and cut away the top and the bottom. Fats will have collected at the top, particles at the bottom. If you’ve been reading you will see I do that already with my broth, but it’s worth restating it. However it’s not going to be as clear as the other two techniques. shrug.
I want to go through making a meat-based consommé, however, because I think you’ll enjoy some of the additional information that comes to light – and it’ll help you understand when I toss a couple of variations at the end.
Let’s make a quart of beef consommé. You want to start with a quart and a cup of stock. You’re going to use a half cup (about a half-pound) of chopped beef – minimal fat, but you do NOT need any special cuts as this is all coming out again. If you can, in fact, chopped heart or tongue is a great choice here (if it’s less expensive) as these are strong ‘beef’ flavors that are low in fats. You are also going to need a half cup of mire poix – that’s 2:1:1 onion:celery:carrot. Mince it fine, please, so it catches in the filter. I’m going solely with a catalytic spice at this time – 1/8 teaspoon of ground cloves. You’ll want three egg whites. And we’re going to add a quarter cup of dry white wine.
(Some of you are going to ask why the wine and where’s the tomato. Bear with me.)
Start warming the stock in a tall soup pan. While it’s warming whip the egg whites enough that they froth a bit, then mix in everything but the wine so you have a wet, very veggie, meatloaf. By the way, this is called a clearmeat.
Pour a ladle of stock into the clearmeat and stir. Do it again. And do it a third time. Now that the egg whites are tempered, move the clearmeat to the stock. Break it up, add the wine, turn up the heat, and start stirring gently. Not vigorously as you don’t want to form lots of particles, but you want to keep the clearmeat from setting (settling and clinging) to the bottom before the broth comes to a simmer. DO NOT BOIL, just simmer. And when the simmer starts, quit stirring. OK, time for some digressions and comments.
Tempering, as I’ve mentioned before, is basically heating the eggs before they go to the main stock. This prevents them from curdling (or in the case of just the whites, seizing) immediately on entering the hot pot and so be thick strands and clumps instead of forming a filter.
What about the tomato and the wine? Well, what you need to know is we’re denaturing the proteins in the egg whites (and to some extent the meat). When you denature proteins they loosen up. Then they bind to other proteins. If they denature sufficiently they get rather stiff – see meringues. Not the stiff peaks prior to baking though they’re close, but after baking.
Now the slower the denaturing the more likely the strands will be fully loosened before they go to locking up. (Yeah, that seems contradictory. That’s because I was a bit sloppy in that discussion. I’m not going back, just know I’m being sloppy and it really does happen.) There are four denaturing mechanisms – heat, acid, enzymatic, and mechanical. Heat tends to lock up the proteins pretty fast, so we want to use other mechanisms as well. Thus we added mechanical when we frothed the whites, and we also added acid with the wine. In a classic consomme we would have added a minced tomato instead. The tomato’s acids do the denaturing. It also adds some color, giving us a lovely amber. It also adds tomato to the flavor. The last is why I skipped it this time. In my experience the tomato is surprisingly strong as a flavoring ingredient – it almost becomes the primary star instead of the beef.
So if you look in your pan you see you’ve formed a scummy looking object floating on top – full of bits and pieces though sorta white at base. That is your raft. If it doesn’t have a hole in the middle, make one – gently, mind you, but make one of at least a couple inches diameter. You want everything to bubble up through the hole and come back down through the filter, er, raft. Let it simmer for about half an hour.
Now we’ve an opportunity here to increase flavor, but it’s a bit of a pain. What you do is turn off the heat and let it set for about 20 minutes, then bring it back to a simmer for another 15 minutes before going on. Alternately we move to the clarification now.
Now if you’re a professional you paid for a fancy pot with a spigot that’s designed for exactly this purpose. I don’t really like these pots – they’re expensive and they leak after a while. So there are a couple of other solutions. There are two common solutions. One is to ladle the consomme out through the hole in the raft. The second is to use a spider (click the link) or something similar to carefully lift out the raft. The problem with both is the tendency to break the raft and let particles fall back into the consommé. I’ve seen people do better with a turkey baster if you’re going back and forth like this.
My preferred solution is a siphon. A long (CLEAN) tube that is gently put through the hole in the raft. Plug the end with your thumb, lift the end up and over the side of the pan into another pan, release the thumb. If you’ve gotten your end lower than the original (easiest by putting the second pan into a sink, or the first onto a platform) physics will move the liquid with no more effort on your part.
(I’ve also heard of people succeeding by pouring gently through cheesecloth lined colanders. It’s never worked for me but since others mention it I pass it along.)
Wow, all that work. For what?
For an almost jewel-like liquid that’s bursting with flavor. It won’t fill you – in fact the most frequent result of eating/drinking is to wake up your hunger. That’s why it’s typically an opener to the meal or a sauce over a meat.