A well-made broth is one of the most versatile ingredients in the kitchen. It can be consumed on its own as a hot beverage, with a little bit of seasoning. It can serve as the basis of a soup, or lend richness to any one of a number of classic sauces. Broths are so versatile, the French call them "fonds de la cuisine," the foundations of cooking. The distinctions between stock, broth and consomme are not immediately obvious.
How Beef Broth Is Made
Broth or stock is made by simmering bones or meat in water, with aromatic ingredients to enhance the flavor. Professional cooks draw a distinction between stock, which uses bones for the flavor, and broth, which uses meat for flavor. In practice they may be used interchangeably. Onions, carrots, celery, peppercorns, bay leaves, thyme and parsley stems are all common flavoring ingredients. Salt is seldom added because it limits the versatility of the broth. Beef broth will typically be made with marrow bones and tough portions such as shank, which add flavor and body to the broth.
Qualities of a Good Beef Broth
A good stock or broth should have a clear, distinct flavor of beef. The broth should be largely free of fat or grease, should have few particles floating in it and should not be cloudy. These goals are all achieved by simmering the broth at low temperatures rather than boiling, which can lead to murkiness. A good broth also has a rich taste, which comes from the naturally occurring gelatin in the meat and bones. The water should not weigh more than double the weight of bones and meat. Broth is usually used as the basis for soups, although it can be added to dishes to add flavor.
Consomme and "Consomme-Double"
When the legendary French chef Escoffier was working and writing, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, any clear broth was referred to simply as consomme. But some preparations demanded an unusually clear broth, one that was absolutely crystalline in its purity. This required an extra step in preparation, and the resulting broth was referred to in Escoffier's time as "consomme-double." What we call consomme today is this same "double consomme." Among professionals, it is said only half-jokingly that the broth should be so clear, you could read the date on a dime at the bottom of the pot. Consomme is used to form the basis for sauces and also to add flavor to other dishes. You can also drink it alone to savor the essence of beef.
How Beef Consomme Is Made
Beef consomme begins with a clear, well-flavored broth that has had all surface fat removed. Some finely chopped onions, carrots and celery and minced or ground beef are mixed with a quantity of beaten egg whites and an acidic ingredient, usually tomatoes. This mixture goes into a tall, narrow pot along with the cold beef broth, and is slowly brought to a simmer. The egg whites and meat form a gray-white "raft" on top of the broth, which acts as a filter to strain out impurities. After an hour's simmering, the clarified broth may be ladled out.