Pressure on budgets and staff have made pre-made stocks a lifeline for many kitchens. John Porter looks at how suppliers are meeting the demand for better-quality, healthier formulas, with a more natural flavour and appearance
In an ideal world we would all stick within the recommended guidelines for alcohol consumption and eat our five daily portions of fruit and veg. In the same utopia, every professional kitchen would contain a lovingly-tended stockpot, made entirely from scratch.
In reality, most operators have to work with limited budgets and streamlined staffing, now more than ever. Kitchen resources have to be focused on serving customers, while health and safety regulations mean that the traditional stockpot should really not be left to bubble away unattended.
Lee Maycock, chef-director of menu consultants LBM Food Solutions and a member of the Craft Guild of Chefs, said: "If you can make a good veal jus and produce your own stock, it's probably second to none - but it takes quite a few hours, and with cost constraints and low staffing levels, there just isn't time."
Skill levels are also an issue, he believes. "The other thing is that young chefs just aren't taught how to make a stock at college these days, so it's a very steep learning curve for them when they get into a hotel or restaurant. It doesn't make sense when the quality of the pre-made products on the market is so bloody good."
As Maycock identifies, there is no shortage of choice for chefs when it come to pre-made stocks. Essential Cuisine's range of stocks, jus, glace and gravy have been developed by Nigel Crane, Dorchester-trained chef and managing director. Crane insists that there is no compromise on quality if chefs invest in high-quality pre-made products. "Stocks are a key ingredient in your recipes, the heart and soul, delivering depth and balance of flavour in the final dish. Without them, food will be bland and uninteresting.
"Using a good, bought-in stock really is the most cost-effective way to deliver great taste, with the stock component cost of an average dish under five pence. You can, of course, buy in cheap stock, but is it worth risking the meal for a couple of pence? It's a false economy." Crane advises chefs to consider the following issues when buying stock:
A stock should not contain a high level of fat or oil, which floats as it dissolves, and adds work in skimming it off.
â- A ready-made vegetable stock should smell of vegetables, not because it's laden with tomato purée and dried herbs, but because it is made with the real thing.
â- A stock should taste subtle, not overbearing, with no unnatural, lingering taste. Some companies use acid to break down fats in their products, creating a metallic, processed flavour.
â- Ready-made stock should have a clean, not over-seasoned, taste.
â- Do the taste test. Compare stocks diluted in hot water at the recommended dosage and don't accept a tasting when the stock is hidden in a finished dish. Think carefully about appearance, taste, mouth feel and aftertaste.
One point made by all brand owners is that reading the instruction is vital. Premier Foods, owner of the Bisto brand, recently undertook research into the way that caterers use stock and bouillon in their kitchens. It found that misreading the instruction can have a dramatic impact on flavour, and this becomes more of an issue when caterers regularly move about between brands.
Different stocks need to be made up in different quantities, which should be borne in mind when cooking. However, this does not mean they can't also be given a personal touch. Mark Rigby, senior business development chef at Premier Foods, suggests adding red wine, chestnuts, mushrooms, garlic, rosemary and redcurrants to roast beef gravy; cider, honey, clove, sage, mustard and apricots to pork; and port, bay leaf, juniper, smoked bacon, walnuts and cranberries to game such as duck, goose or guinea fowl.
Flavour is just one consideration, according to Nikki Adamo, head of category marketing at Nestlé Professional. "When it comes to prepared stocks, it's important to use one that can deliver on flavour, consistency, appearance and nutritional benefits."
The company has a range of products which can be selected according to both occasion and budget. "For example, our Chef Premium Fonds range has been developed by using concentrated cooking juices and the finest ingredients to help bring together a unique subtle and versatile flavour that is perfect for chefs to use as they wish.
"Chef dehydrated and paste fonds and fumets are quality products and perform like scratch-made; perfect for those serving up a banquet. Once prepared, the Maggi bouillon range is virtually fat and saturated fat free, helping to create healthier dishes."
Also highlighting its nutritional credentials is the relaunched Recipere range from Kerry Foodservice. The range has been reformulated to be free from artificial colours, flavours and preservatives, free from monosodium glutamates (MSGs) and hydrogenated vegetable oils (HVOs), and to meet Food Standards Agency guidelines on salt content.
The relaunch comes at a time where demand for comfort dishes is at an all-time high. Gerard Murphy, food development manager for Kerry Foodservice, said: "Many diners are turning to dishes rooted in tradition and nostalgia - from lasagne and fish pies, through to Lancashire hot pots or steak & kidney puddings.
"As a result, we're seeing an uplift in sales of our traditional culinary sauces - such as our Recipere béchamel and demi-glace sauce mixes, as well as a traditional curry sauce mix."
CASE STUDY: PECKFORTON CASTLE, CHESHIRE
Peckforton Castle, named Small Hotel of the Year 2009 by Visit Chester and Cheshire, is one of Cheshire's busiest function venues. Executive head chef Mark Ellis said: "We have at least five weddings a week alone, that's 620 guests a week minimum, and this rises to every day of the week at the height of the season."
While the venue's flagship 1851 restaurant uses stocks made from scratch, Ellis has overcome his initial cynicism about pre-made sauces.
"I was looking for good quality stocks that would be undistinguishable from our own across conferencing and banqueting," he said. "The problem was, I wholeheartedly did not believe they existed. Everything I had tried before was packed with artificial flavourings and colourings.
"I tried Essential Cuisine's stocks with anticipation and was genuinely surprised by the fact they tasted and smelt like fresh stock, with an absence of additives and preservatives, an all-natural product as far as it could be. We now use a number of stocks in the range and particularly like the veal stock, which we use in chicken dishes for a more generic taste.
"While we continue to make small batches of fresh stock and jus from scratch for the 1851 restaurant, the Essential Cuisine products are fantastic in areas such as banqueting and conferencing and, to be honest, I don't think most chefs would be able to tell the difference."
CASE STUDY: THE FEATHERS HOTEL, NORFOLK
The Feathers hotel is a family run business in Holt, close to the North Norfolk coast. Established in 1650, the hotel offers modern European cuisine, driven by influences such as seasonal ingredients.
Rob Robson has been head chef for 12 years, and cooking dishes with fresh ingredients and prompt service form key elements of the hotel's menu. However, the time and labour involved in meticulously preparing each dish is considerable. Using Knorr's Professional Herb & Spice Purées saves the time previously spent chopping fresh herbs during lunch and dinner services.
Rob comments: "We used to chop all our herbs by hand, which took time. I know it's not hours' worth of work but in a busy kitchen, every second counts. We also do not grow our own herbs so we had to ensure they were always in stock and kept in the fridge to keep them fresh, which led to a lot of wastage. We don't have to worry about any of this now as the puréed herbs have a long shelf life."
0800 328 4246
Unilever Foodsolutions (Knorr)
0800 783 3728