Published September 1, 2009.
A stew as thick and heavy as pot-pie filling was fine for our forebears, but we wanted a lighter broth and dumplings that wouldn’t sink to the bottom of the pot.
A general rule applies to chicken: The more mature the bird, the better the flavor. Most chickens sold in supermarkets today are no more than seven weeks old, so no matter how long you cook them, they yield an unimpressive broth.
We wanted dumplings as airy as drop biscuits in a broth full of clean, concentrated chicken flavor.
Without a mature chicken, our first task was figuring out if a particular part of a younger bird would produce flavorful broth. We made a series of broths with different chicken parts, skin-on and skin-off, and found that skin-on thighs were the clear winner, with deeply flavored broth and meat that stayed tender. To further boost flavor, we used a few tricks from the test kitchen. We replaced water with canned broth, browned the meat before adding the liquid, browned the aromatic vegetables in the fond (browned bits) from the seared chicken, and added alcohol. Dry sherry—preferred by tasters over white wine and vermouth—contributed pleasant acidity and depth.
To determine the best body for our broth, we prepared two versions: The first batch we left plain, and the other we thickened with flour just before deglazing with sherry. Tasters preferred the thickened broth (the straight broth was too thin), but didn’t care for the sludginess of the flour and how it muted the chicken flavor. Looking for an alternative, we recalled that extended boiling converts the connective tissue in a chicken carcass to gelatin and thickens the broth. We didn’t want to cook our broth for hours, so we turned to chicken wings. Because of their multiple joints, wings contain far more connective tissue than legs or breasts. They turned out to be just what we needed.
We wanted dumplings that were as light as our drop biscuits yet sturdy enough to hold together in broth. With this goal in mind, our dumplings were too fragile. Knowing that fat coats flour and weakens its structure, we tried gradually cutting down on the recipe’s butter. The less we used, the better the structure, but we eventually hit a point where removing any more compromised the dumplings’ flavor. At this point, we tried cutting back the liquid. Reducing the buttermilk helped, but the dumplings were still far too delicate. Part of the problem was the amount of leavener, which can lead to over-rising. Eliminating the baking powder gave our dumplings just the right density in the center, while the extra protein in an egg white kept them from being mushy without affecting flavor. We waited until the broth was simmering to add the dumplings, which reduced their time in the broth and helped keep them whole.
Finally, wrapping a kitchen towel around the lid of the Dutch oven trapped the moisture before it had a chance to drip down and saturate our light-as-air dumplings.list of recipes