Stocking up on chicken stock stock stock

We save the bones from chicken quarters, turkey drumsticks, and other pieces of poultry that pass through our kitchen. They get tossed into the freezer, and when two freezer bags or so get full, it’s time to make a pot of chicken stock.

I joke about renaming winter to “baking season.” It’s soup season, too. Chicken soup to ward off the cold, leek and potato soup for variety, split pea soup with its pork cracklings… Chicken stock goes into stir fries and sauces too. Very useful to have around.

Since we’re trying to eat more vegetables and less meat, we don’t have that many bones to cook with—not as many as we would want if we’re having soup weekly. Fortunately, a large bag of chicken bones costs $1. The largest stock pot we have can fit two bags of bones initially, with a third squeezed in once the chicken bones settle.

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This is what all that stock looks like: three layers of containers, probably around 40 cups. There’s no room in the fridge (there’s a turkey defrosting) and the stock has to cool before we can freeze it, so W- took the containers to the shed, where they’ll cool (and most likely freeze, too). Side benefit of winter: free cold storage. Not quite a walk-in freezer (at least until it hits -18C), but decent at chilling things quickly.

I want to learn how to make vegetable stock as well. That’ll give me another use for all these vegetable odds and ends, and it might lead to other interesting soups along the way.

Making bulk cooking easier

Jenn Turliuk’s thinking of organizing a bulk cooking lesson/party. Whee! I thought I’d pass on some things W- and I have been learning about bulk cooking:

Standardize your food containers! The importance of this cannot be overstated. You’ll thank me later when you don’t have to shuffle around for matching lids, and when your containers stack beautifully in the shelf. Consider the maximum capacity of your freezer and how much of it will likely be taken up by other things like ice cream. Get as many sets of food containers as you think you need, and then get some more for replacements or fridge leftovers. We like the Rubbermaid TakeAlong containers, which are just the right size for us. Note: tomato-based sauces and fat/oil will etch plastic if heated, so transfer pasta and similar things to bowls before heating.

imageMake a shopping list, but be flexible. This will save you from having to run back to the store frequently. We make our list based on the sales, but we also keep an eye out for things that have discount stickers. Meat at 30% off on the last day of sale is just fine cooked, frozen, and turned into delicious lunches or dinners. (I recently bought five pounds of ground beef on sale so that I can turn it into meatballs.) Sort your shopping list by rough location so that you can check things off easily. We write our shopping lists on the back of envelopes, and we usually organize it like this: produce, bread, meat, dairy, other.

imageRice and frozen veggies are good fillers. Most of our frozen meals are rice/some other starch + frozen veggies + some kind of meat. If people don’t like rice, you can substitute other things like potatoes instead. Frozen veggies help cool the meal down quickly, so you can store it in the freezer faster. Also, they give you more variety. (Don’t add too much hot food to the freezer at one time.)

imageWe like storing individual portions of cooked meals so that they’re super-easy to microwave at work. Most once-a-month cookbooks focus on preparing casseroles and other things that you can freeze uncooked for later "fresh meals", but they might have good ideas. (We tend to not do the usual once-a-month-cooking strategies because we don’t like going through that many freezer bags, even if we wash and reuse them.) For more inspiration, take a look at the frozen dinners aisle. Chances are that you’ll be able to duplicate some of those at home. You can also look at those batch cooking places like Supper Solved. Another way to increase your freezer cooking repertoire – freeze a portion of leftovers from the meals you make to see if they survive the freeze-thaw process.

Try to store cooked meals rather than raw ingredients. Raw ingredients take up too much space and can get forgotten in the freezer. Ready-to-go meals are much more convenient.

imageLabel. Always. Skip the fancy labeller. Masking/painter’s tape + Sharpie marker works fine. Label it before steam, condensation or freezing makes the lid un-stickable. We usually write down the initials of the item and the number of the month we made it, so chicken curry made in August is CC8. If you have time and space, you can write down the name of the food for easier recall. Labeling makes eating a variety of things much easier and avoids freezer fatigue.

imageRotate your stock. If possible, put freshly-prepared containers at the bottom of the stack, or in a separate stack. That way, you can go through the old stuff before it gets freezer burn. This may involve taking everything out of the freezer and then stacking everything up neatly again. Gloves can help.

If you have a kitchen scale, you can use it to make your meals more consistent. Figure out what makes you just the right level of full at lunch.

If you can make room for a chest freezer, it is a totally awesome buy. It saves us lots of time. (Plus it will save you from fighting over fridge/freezer space.)

imageGood knives make a difference. Sharp knives are less dangerous and less frustrating than dull ones. Take good care of your tools: no throwing them in the dishwasher, no sticking them in a drawer without at least a knife guard.

imageAprons make you feel more official and less worried about messing up your clothes. Ponytails are great for keeping hair out of the way. It may make sense to give your hair a good brushing before you start cooking, or even do the hairnet thing.

Plan your groceries so that you can cook lots of food on that day. Hard-core once-a-month cooks usually stock up on groceries on one day, then cook on the second day. If you cook in smaller batches (say, a week or two at a time), you can fit it into one day without getting too tired. This means not having to cram all that stuff in your fridge.

Batch your ingredients and parallelize your recipes. Review your recipes to see where you can combine ingredient preparation, or when you can do something while stuff marinates. Chop all the garlic together, etc. I don’t like chopping onions, so if I can chop everything else and then do four or five onions all together at the end, I’m all for that. Especially if I can get W- or a food processor to chop them instead.

An easy way to fill up your freezer is to double or triple your recipe whenever you cook. That way, it doesn’t feel like you’re doing too much extra work, since you’ve got the chopping board and the pots out anyway.

Frozen sauces and soups are easier to transport than defrosted ones. Allow for expansion when freezing. Don’t fill your containers to the brim, because liquid expands when freezing. Allow plenty of space. If you’re taking these to work, don’t defrost these the night before unless you trust your food container and lunch bag well, although you can defrost them in the morning.

When reheating, you may have to microwave in two steps. Microwave it for a couple of minutes, then stir it and microwave it some more. Check for a cold centre – not fun to eat! It’s usually a good idea to let things defrost overnight (in the fridge) or all morning.

imageIt’s encouraging to calculate the cost-per-portion. You can make lots of great meals for much much less than they would cost at a restaurant or even as take-out. For example, I think our cost per portion for chicken curry was around $2.50, and our cost per portion for lasagna or lamb korma was around $4-5. If you enjoy cooking (especially if you’re cooking with people you like, which turns it into a bonding activity instead of a chore), you might even consider the labour a benefit instead of a cost.

Assembly lines are good for packaging the meals. We usually pack each meal with rice (sometimes we measure this). Then we add the main part of the meal. Then we pour frozen vegetables. We secure the lids, add all the tape (for labeling it), then write all the labels. If the meal is too hot, we stick it in the fridge to cool down. When it’s ready, we clear out space in the freezer and stack things up properly.

Here are our favourite bulk meals:

  • Chicken curry: three bags of chicken quarters, two packs of curry sauce; fuss-free and frugal – pot
  • Shake-and-bake chicken: the no-name powder works just fine; easy to do this with two club packs of chicken drumsticks. – oven
  • Pasta with sausages – pot
  • Pasta with meatballs – oven
  • Lasagna: two pans are just as easy to make as one pan of lasagna, and can cook simultaneously – oven
  • Japanese croquettes: a little soggy after microwaving, but still yummy; if you have time to fry, freeze uncooked to make it crisper – skillet
  • Lamb korma: pricy, but yummy – pot, food processor
  • Bubble and squeak: great way to get rid of cabbage – skillet
  • Okonomiyaki: freeze before topping with sauce; take sauce and bonito flakes separately – skillet (small is okay)
  • Chicken tikka masala: watch out for the tomato in the sauce; heat in a bowl – pot
  • Tonkatsu: a little soggy after microwaving, but yummy – skillet
  • Rice and lentils: simple and frugal – rice cooker
  • Rice and beans – pot
  • Pinakbet: W- loves bitter melon – pot
  • Beef stew – pot
  • Japanese curry – pot
  • Souvlaki – grill
  • Barbecue chicken – grill
  • Ham steaks – skillet or raw
  • Hamburger steak – skillet
  • Roast chicken – oven
  • Yakisoba / yakiudon – wok
  • Pad thai – wok
  • Stir fry – wok
  • Fried rice – wok, needs cold rice
  • Congee – pot, can probably do this in a rice cooker
  • Beef bulgogi: can be a lot of effort especially if you make plenty of appetizers (banchan) as well, but it feels totally indulgent to dig into a 10-course meal at work – skillet
  • Wontons: movie marathons are a great time to wrap hundreds of wontons. Cook and freeze each batch instead of waiting until you finish them all, so that they don’t dry out or get soggy. Control portions – we find that 15 wontons is just about right for us (measure a decent portion, then use the scale to make this consistent by weight). This is important because if you stuff 30 wontons into the container just because they fit, people will eat 30 wontons per serving. – pot

There are probably lots of great vegetarian freezer meals out there, but I haven’t looked into them.

What a bulk cooking party could look like:

  • A. Bulk cooking swap
  • People choose recipes (keeping dietary restrictions in mind) and then bring stacks of cooked meals on the day itself (possibly already frozen).
  • Swap 1:1, to increase variety and try different tastes.
  • B. Bulk cooking together
    • People choose recipes, keeping dietary restrictions and cooking methods in mind. Ex: one large skillet, one or two large pot meals, one quick oven recipe (~20 minutes), one long oven recipe (~ 60 minutes or more)
    • Bring extra knives and chopping boards, or prepared ingredients.
  • C. One big recipe with lots and lots of appetizers
    • Bulgogi is great for this: one or two people in charge of cooking all the meat, and then lots and lots of people making little appetizers. Try to marinate the meat overnight. Ex: seaweed, soy potatoes, shiitake mushrooms, anchovies, green onion pancakes, meatballs, noodles… May require coordination.

    Ideal bulk cooking party space:

    • plenty of counter space for lots of people preparing ingredients while chatting
    • multiple sets of knives, measuring cups, liquid measures, and chopping boards
    • food processor
    • one or two large pots
    • a couple of 9×12 pans (foil is probably okay too) or other oven things
    • dishwasher, so it’s not such a chore afterwards
    • snacks
    • mixing bowls and lots of regular bowls for prep (we use rice bowls, cereal bowls, and soup bowls)

    Bulk cooking is fun and a great time/sanity-saver. We use this to make work lunches frugal and hassle-free. Since W- and I enjoy cooking, we often make dinners from scratch, but it’s nice to know that lunch is in the freezer. Hope this helps!

    Bulk cooking by the numbers: A ton of tonkatsu

    From last month: We don’t eat pork or beef as much as we eat chicken, since chicken is so cheap and easy to prepare. When I found pre-sliced pork tenderloin halves at $3.04/kg (30% off the sale price because it was nearing the best-by date), I knew that tonkatsu was definitely in the cards. It’s one of my favourite freezer meals, and I always like to make it when pork’s on sale.

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    The previous week, when the pork first came on sale for $4.34/kg, I had bought one package and turned into a good stack of frozen tonkatsu lunches. I was reasonably confident that I could scale up to two packs, so I bought two for a total of $14.75, or nearly 5kg.  I had planned to work on that after making pad thai for supper, which I needed to do in order to use up some of the vegetables in the fridge. Sure, it was a weekday, but I didn’t have plans for the evening anyway.

    Fortunately, W- saw the magnitude of the tonkatsu-making task I’d set for myself and helped out. J- got conscripted into tenderizing the pork. W- battered and breaded the cutlets while I prepared the pad thai. After dinner, I breaded the remaining cutlets while W- fried the previous ones.

    A full rice cooker yielded 18 portions of 180g cooked rice, which we packed along with frozen vegetables and tonkatsu. We stored the remaining tonkatsu cutlets in whatever other containers we could find. In total, we made 50 portions of tonkatsu (including the two that we ate while cooking, cut into small bites and dipped in chili sauce).

    Ingredient costs: (18 portions with rice and frozen vegetables, 32 portions without)

      Portion cost Ingredient Notes Total cost
      $0.33 Frozen vegetables ~3/4 of a large bag at $7.99 $6
      $0.30 Pork   $14.75
      $0.13 Rice 10 cups is 1.44kg, or ~16% of a $14.99 bag $2.39
      $0.06 Eggs 13 eggs out of an 18-egg carton for $4.27 $3.08
      $0.05 Panko half a $4.59 box $2.29
      $0.05 Oil half a $4.49 bottle $2.24

    + salt, pepper, flour

    Each lunch portion was $0.92 (not including electricity), or roughly $1.

    Time-wise, it was about 3 hours by 2 people. Assuming each lunch has a value of $11 including tax, that’s a labour value of $83/hour for something that’s tiring but enjoyable. Since W- and I were working together, it was good relationship bonding time too.

    We usually save our cooking marathons for the weekends because they take up time (and besides, time-of-use charging means it’s more expensive to cook during the week). The pork was near its use-by date, though, so we had to make it right away. While we were cooking, I wondered out loud what I’d gotten myself into. W- smiled and said I probably wanted something to write about on my blog. He’s at least a little bit right – everything’s an adventure.

    Now we have neat stacks of tonkatsu in the chest freezer. Life is good.

    It’s difficult to argue with the economics of bulk cooking, if you’ve got the space and the stamina for it. I enjoy cooking, and I love knowing that lunches (and the occasional lazy dinners) are already taken care of. Bulk cooking reduces the risk of regular cooking, too. I can experiment with new recipes easily, because even if it turns out terrible and I have to throw it away, there’s food in the freezer.

    I’m glad we do this! For more about bulk cooking, see my post on Making bulk cooking easier. Enjoy!

    Avoiding spoilage with bulk cooking

    We’d been letting some vegetables and cooked food go to waste, so I’ve been tinkering with how we prepare our meals in order to reduce spoilage. Here’s how we now cook in bulk.

    During the weekend, we review the past week’s leftovers and freeze them as individual meals. We packaging food in individual lunch-sized containers (~500g, including rice) until the freezer is full or the fridge leftovers are done. I label the containers using painter’s tape and a marker, writing down the initials of the recipe and a number for the month. For example, chicken curry prepared in July is labeled CC7.

    I prepare one or two types of dinners. I usually pick bulk recipes based on what’s on sale at the supermarket. If there are unused groceries from the previous week (sometimes I end up not cooking things), I prepare a recipe that can use those up: curry, soup, etc. I start a large pot of rice, too, since I’m likely to use that up when packing individual meals and we go through a lot of rice during the week. We’re more likely to enjoy the variety if it’s spread out over the coming weeks. Freezing the leftovers means we can avoid spoiling food out of procrastination.

    After the food is cooked, I put portions into our large glass containers. That way, we have a little room to cook fresh dinners during the week (which W- likes to do), but we also have some backups in case things get busy. We alternate the prepared dinners for variety. For some meals that are inefficient to portion out, I just keep the entire pot in the fridge. If there’s more, I’ll freeze the rest as individual portions. If the freezer is full, I’ll keep the extras in the fridge.

    When it comes to the freezer, individual portions are much more convenient than larger portions. You can take one to work and microwave it for lunch. Sometimes I pack larger portions (ex: pizza, pasta sauce), so we need to plan for that when defrosting them. If a dinner portion is thawed in the fridge, it has to get eaten since it can’t be refrozen (unless we re-cook it, which we rarely do).

    Our costs tend to be between $1.50 and $3 per portion. For example, the Thai curry I made last time resulted in 20 portions out of $22.39 of groceries. Even if you account for the spices and rice in our pantry, it still comes to a pretty frugal (and yummy!) meal. Sure, there’s labour and electricity, but I enjoy cooking and we schedule it for the lower electricity rates of the weekend. Well worth it for us, and we’re working on getting even better at it.

    Aside from reducing spoilage, I’m also working on increasing variety, maybe cooking smaller batches and cooking more often during the week. I’d still like to use the freezer to spread out meals over an even longer period of time so that we can enjoy different tastes. Getting the hang of spices, ingredient combinations, and cooking techniques will help me with variety, too. So much to learn! =)