A few years ago (in 2009) I had the amazing opportunity to listen to Chef Thomas Keller speak to a live audience which was mostly comprised of Chefs. His talk changed the way I cook in many tangible ways and those few hours of my life have left a profound effect on me.
Keller claimed that many young Chefs were too restless; that they were constantly trying new things but not using focus or discipline to perfect small skills that could lead to significant skill improvement. To this day I reflect on two of his points several times a week:
- Creativity comes from repetition.
- If you want to become a truly fantastic cook, you should cook the same thing every day for 2 years. He was specific about this: the ‘same thing’ didn’t just mean the same ‘type of dish’ – it meant the same ingredients, same recipe and same technique.
Keller’s ‘prescription’ for becoming a better Chef was cooking stock. As a home Chef I couldn’t take his recommendation to cook it daily but I’ve been working on my stock ever since and it has taught me to be a better cook.
But that’s not why I’m writing today’s article.
When Keller talked about stock he mentioned several common mistakes people make. According to him, one of the most common mistakes was how we strain our stock. His theory was simple:
- When you try to strain a significant volume of liquid through a sieve, most people pour it in. This is a problem; the sheer force and weight of the liquid is often greater than the strength of the strainer and small particles will be forced through the strainer.
I realized I had experienced this – and worse. The force of the liquid often embedded the solids in the sieve which slowed straining (and sometimes stopped it) unless I used a spoon to clear the strainer of sediment and that often forced small particles through the strainer. I couldn’t win.
Keller recommended that you use a spoon to gently pour small quantities of stock into a strainer. This is probably still the best method but, as a home cook, I often lack the time and patience to do so.
I was on a mission to find a way that, as a home cook, I could have clearer stock (and, in turn, jelly, fruit wine and more). I tried cheesecloth, microfiber, dishcloths and coffee filters. The best results came from using a combination of 3 different strainers at the same time (I still use this technique and it’s very effective).
A few weeks back, after 4 years of casual experimentation, it occurred to me that I was approaching the problem wrong. I was looking for a finer filter but I wasn’t really having a filter problem – I was fighting with gravity and the force the solids and liquid placed on the strainer.
That was when everything changed.
My new technique is incredibly simple: place a small bowl or saucer (I prefer the bowl) inside the sieve. Pour your liquid into the bowl – it captures the impact and many solids will stay in the bowl as liquid pours over the top, into the sieve and is strained with little to no direct pressure on the sieve itself.
I’ve used this technique with stunning results to filter chicken stock, raspberry cider, strawberry wine and raspberry brandy. All 3 items had been infusing/ resting for more than a year and were filled with sediment. The raspberry worked the best but the strawberry is the clearest I’ve seen (other than from the steam juicer).
I’m not sure Chef Keller would approve – but I also know I’ll never cook at his level. What I do know is this: I now have virtually crystal clear liquids and I have them because of the creativity that came from repeating the same problem over-and-over.