Chefs are increasingly deserting the stock pot in favour of commercial stocks and bouillons. The twin constraints of hygiene and cost control frequently make it more sensible to buy in products that can be used without laborious preparation, hours of boiling and careful chilling.
Chilled, fresh stocks are available from supermarkets, but the quantities needed by caterers rule out this approach, so most foodservice products are in paste or dehydrated form. However, Van den Bergh claims to have introduced the first concentrated liquid stock under its Batchelors Culinaire label.
Most bought-in products follow the same format as traditional chef-made stocks. Beef, chicken, vegetable and fish are the most popular, while lamb, mushroom and ham are also available.
There are signs that this is beginning to change. Notably, Caterplan has launched two special cooking bouillons under its Knorr brand. One is for pasta, and gives a garlic and herb flavour, while the other, for rice, adds a touch of saffron.
Although chefs may be spending less time creating their own stocks or bouillons, it cannot be said that bought-in products stifle creativity. Indeed, chefs often have ways of adding their own signatures to enhance the products and sometimes use them in unusual ways.
Hospital Chef of the Year Steve Brogan is an extensive user of paste stocks at Birmingham's Selly Oak Hospital, where he is head chef. A fan of the Major brand, he uses the beef, chicken, vegetable, lobster, mushroom, ham and lamb versions.
"They are perfect for a hospital situation," he says. "We can't make our own because of hygiene constraints and these are natural products with no additives other than salt. Also, they give a natural, instant flavour which you don't have to cook out."
Brogan also believes it is important to use appropriate herbs with the stocks when using them for recipe dishes. He uses undiluted stock pastes as an ingredient for some dishes. For example, skinless supremes of chicken are scored with a sharp knife and brushed with a little ham stock paste before being floured, egg-washed, bread-crumbed and fried.
Similarly, lobster stock may be added to the mayonnaise for a prawn and cabbage salad, or vegetable stock to a celery and nut risotto. Another idea under development is a Dutch pasty, made by adding a little lamb stock to the pastry, with a filling of savoury minced lamb, spring onions and Edam cheese.
At Akeley Wood School near Buckingham, catering manager Jenny Shackleford has used the Country Range brand and is currently using Knorr's beef, chicken and vegetable bouillons. She often adds Knorr dehydrated soup.
"We're on quite a tight budget so it's a good way of thickening and stretching dishes a bit and it gives a better flavour," says Shackleford. "We often use oxtail soup with the beef bouillon, or if we're doing something such as lasagne or spaghetti we might add tomato soup."
To add taste to vegetarian dishes, vegetable bouillon with a touch of Marmite is used. Similarly, white sauces are often enhanced with the addition of a little bouillon - for instance, for a chicken and ham pie.
Stock products from Nestlé and Caterplan are favoured by freelance chef Colin Capon, who is producing the food for the production of Pride and Prejudice, which will be screened on BBC next year. "One of the reasons for buying in stock is that when I'm doing demonstrations, I don't have time to make them," he says.
"And there can be other advantages. A lot of establishments used to use the same stock as a foundation for all their recipes, so the base flavour of every dish would taste the same. By using commercial stocks, it is easier to have a different stock for each recipe."
Capon believes that to get the most out of stock products, it is best to cook them for longer than suggested by the manufacturer to mellow the flavours. He also enhances them by using trimmings that he may have to hand, such as the end of an onion, celery stalks or parsley stems. For colour he might add some browned onions, or for body a little rice flour or arrowroot.
The make-it-yourself option is still largely favoured by Karl Kenny, head chef of the Hilton National in Bristol, but he buys in for banquets and as a back-up when he is unable to get sufficient bones. His choice is Knorr chicken, beef and fish bouillons plus Vecon, a vegetarian paste. He says, however: "I don't think you can beat a stock you have made yourself - most bought-in products are too salty and too strong."
When making a beef stock, Kenny uses bones, vegetables, red wine and tomato purée. The stock is cooked for eight hours, strained, chilled and refrigerated. "I don't believe in making a stock pot into a dumping ground and leaving it on all week," he said. When using a commercial beef stock, he again adds wine and tomato purée to enhance it.
Michael Kitts, head chef of the Swallow Royal hotel in Bristol, also makes stock for restaurant use, but buys Major beef and veal pastes for banqueting.
"In terms of quality, the bought-in stock comes a close second, but it's a case of choosing horses for courses," says Kitts.
Throughout Forte Heritage hotels the Nestlé Chef range is used. Catering director Keith Hudspith says stocks made from scratch were out of the question for hygiene reasons, and the Nestlé products were chosen because they reduce well.
Ian Morgan is in full agreement. As head chef of the Bear, one of the group's hotels in Woodstock, Oxfordshire, he gets through some 40 litres of stock a day for his hearty English style of cooking. As well as beef and shellfish stocks, he also uses Jus de Veau which is a thickened product. "I can use the Nestlé Chef stocks almost like an essence, whereas you just end up with a pile of salt if you try to reduce some stocks," he explains.
Morgan believes strongly in reduction. For a red wine sauce, he fries off shallots, adds red wine and reduces. He then adds beef stock and reduces again before finally adding some cubes of butter to thicken and glaze.n