I almost always walk home with the bird carcass from any family gathering. Nobody ever fights me for it because nobody knows how to make delicious soup from it. Or they can’t be bothered. Their loss! It makes me giddy because I love soup, and I’d rather have the soup than huge chunks of leftover turkey.
It can take a bit of time to stock a carcass (I usually do it over the course of a couple of days). If you’re smart at the outset, the total amount of time you spend attending to the actual process is under an hour. You can do this with any roasted bird. I even make stock from the carcasses of rotisserie chickens I buy during fits of laziness at the super market.
Whether you’re starting from a chicken carcass or a turkey carcass, the process is fundamentally the same, but the turkey stock will be thicker, richer, and of course, you get tons more. Considering you can end up with about 10 quarts of stock or more from a good-sized turkey… Everybody got time fo dat!
I will tell you how to do it super easy.
What you need:
- Carcass (chicken or turkey)
- Very large pot (chicken) or stock pot (turkey)
- Vegetable scraps of the mirepoix family, or 2-3 chunk-cut carrots, celery stalks, and a half an onion.
Strategically plan your attack:
We always celebrate with the old school types. They scrub and then peel every vegetable–something I never bother with at home (the peeling part, I mean). If I can get my hands on them, I bag the carrot and potato peels and toss them into the freezer. The veggies cooked with the carcass always get tossed, so why use good whole vegetables if you don’t have to? If you’re cooking turkey and don’t use the giblets, toss the neck and any fatty bits of skin you may have trimmed off the neck into the freezer too. I don’t use the guts, so you feel free to do whatever with those.
If you aren’t cooking the bird and you know you will get the carcass, come to dinner already armed with the stock pot. Hey, the less you have to touch it, the better.
If you can manage to do the carving yourself, absolutely do so… you can save so much time just by removing the breasts whole and slicing them up off the bird (sacrilege, I know). You do that by sliding a sharp knife down along the sternum and then rib cage, and carefully peeling it back in a large, muscular chunk. Then you remove the legs by severing them at the hip joint. The meat is then easy to strip from remaining bones and slice. With a little practice, you can carve up a 20 pound turkey this way in about 3 minutes, no joke.
If you lost the carving battle (darn those traditionalists!), while everyone’s doing dishes and people are finishing picking the meat off the turkey, immediately toss any big bones from the legs that may have been separated straight into the pot, stripped of meat. Grab the wings and their tips and the leg bones. Grab the fatty bits of skin. Most most most important, keep the back of the turkey and all the meat and skin on it.
What DON’T you want? Any meat (other than the wings) that’s visible on the front side of the turkey. DO NOT WANT. Cut that stuff off and save it for sandwiches, or whatever.
I can’t tell you how often I’ve seen the back of the chicken or turkey just tossed. This is where the oyster is and all the other meat that’s the perfect texture for soup. It seems to be no small coincidence that there’s almost always more than enough of this meat to make a rich, meaty soup out of every drop of stock you can create. I like to call it the “grey” meat, because it looks somewhere halfway between white and dark, most of it is a bit lighter than the thigh. Ironically, or maybe not so ironically, the French call the oyster of a bird sot-l’y-laisse.
The translation: “a fool leaves it there.”
At any rate, once you’ve salvaged the back and bones and wings and skin, add your vegetables and/or scraps, the neck if you have it, and fill your pot to the brim with water.
Boil and bubble, toil and trouble…
That very first night, if possible, bring your pot to a boil, and reduce the heat just enough to keep it simmering. Turn off the heat when you go to bed, and just leave it sitting on the stove. When you wake up the next morning, bring it up to a boil again. If you don’t have time or fridge space, you can most definitely safely leave a cooked turkey carcass submerged in water overnight without worrying about food poisoning. Just get to it first thing in the morning.
The bigger the bird, the longer this part will take. The longer you make the process take, the better it will taste. With a chicken, you can probably get a decent tasting stock in about 6 hours, though you may have to add water to keep it from boiling dry. I usually add some white wine and more seasoning to chicken stock; it will need salt or even a couple tablespoons of soy sauce to give it salt and colour. Turkey never needs more water or as much help to taste great, and sometimes I’ll let my 16 QT stockpot go on and off for a couple days.
Either way, when it’s done the carcass should pretty much fall to pieces.
Let the mixture cool a few hours or up to overnight, and set a colander over the top of another pot or a large Tupperware tub. Then carefully pour your mixture through.
If you’re interested in making meaty soup instead of stopping at the stock phase, now comes the “yucky” part, but you can get it done in 15 minutes if you start prepared. Get a large bowl, and line it with a compost bag (or a garbage bag :'( if you don’t compost). Get another bowl for your meat and arrange for some handy freezable containers to be nearby. If this is your very first time, you absolutely must do this bare-handed. I know it’s yucky, but your fingers will be able to sort the meat by texture!
What are you looking for? If you’re not sure, go looking for the oyster.
The oyster is an oyster-shaped piece of meat that is attached to this bone. It’s normally found near the hip of the bird, for whatever that might be worth at this late stage. Dig your thumbs into the oyster. It will feel meaty and split apart into moist strands. This is your grade-A soup meat, and the best stuff will feel like this.
Do a “quick pick” through the colander and immediately toss the large bones and pieces of skin that are visible at the top into the refuse pile. If you find any large chunks of meat while you’re quick picking, strip them of any “gunk” and put them in your meat bowl. Work your way down through layers as you quick pick for big stuff, shuffling anything small out of the way til later. If it’s not bigger than a quarter, it’s probably not worth worrying about. You can always keep rooting if you need more, but it’ll be the rare occasion that you need to worry about saving the small shreds.
At the same time you’re pulling meat, note what the meat feels like. If it feels gritty and kind of dry (usually well-boiled white meat), or slimy, or tough and stretchy, this is better off discarded. In a large bird, you will have more than enough that you can be choosy. If you’re dealing with a chicken, and you feel you aren’t getting enough meat from the oyster, go for the slightly-gritty stuff and shred it to the smallest size possible.
Wash your hands and start divvying the stock into your storage, then add the meat to each container. How much meat you put in them is up to you and highly personal, but give it a stir occasionally to see how “meaty” it is. If you’re going to extend your soup later with some chicken or vegetable broth, then go meatier.
Wash your hands, seal the containers, and stick them in the freezer. You’re done! You’ve got almost instant soup for quick-prep: just defrost, throw it in a pot, and add some veggies.
P.S. One last footnote, if your bird is greasy (something I never have a big problem with cause I oil them judiciously with a little olive oil instead of tons of butter) and you can manage it, once it is done cooking get the entire stockpot into the fridge, or even outdoors if it’s cold enough. The fatty stuff will solidify into one easy-to-remove layer.