Making your first batch of bone broth may conjure images of Wilma Flintstone hacking apart a brontosaurus while a cauldron of water bubbles over the hearth. There on your countertop sits a pile of femur chunks: blood-speckled, packed with creamy marrow, and undeniably reminiscent of someone’s former skeletal frame. You may confront delicately curved ribs, joints rubbery with cartilage, and neck bones stacked pleasingly like a toddler’s puzzle. A thin flap of tendon will hang off a white, slippery bone like a flag on a flagpole and you will nod approvingly, knowing what it will bestow to your own weary connective tissue.
Bone broth, like a distant planetary moon, has always been around, though is just now orbiting back into view, thanks to the rising Paleo movement. Before it was the distinct purview of modern Brooklyn bistros (1 cup “hearth broth,” $10 at Brodo), it was every farm wife’s task to boil down animal bones into a rich, nutritious broth. (Chicken soup is not known as “Jewish Penicillin” because of a natural chicken flavoring packet). Uber-nurse Florence Nightingale fed it to convalescents. 12th century physician Maimonides prescribed it for mental disorders, most notably “melancholy.” Lewis and Clark took 193 pounds of dried broth on their westward expedition. And, really, given that every (vertebrate) animal has a skeleton, and that this mineralized tissue contains vital nutrients, creating bone broth seems like the “all of the above” answer to a multiple choice question about health and sustainability.
There is currently a massive movement to bring bones to the people. The people who have joint pain and digestive issues; the people who suffer from food allergies, rheumatoid arthritis and other auto-immune disorders; or simply the people for whom extreme athleticism (not dropping any names, but Kobe Bryant and the entire Los Angeles Lakers team come to mind) is a full-time pursuit.
Joe Wheeling manages the beef operation at James Ranch in Durango along with his wife, Jennifer, and in-laws Kay and Dave James. He’s been selling bones for the past five years, but in the last two years they’ve “really taken off.” They even sell a “bone broth package,” with an assortment of knuckle bones (joint bones), marrow bones and soup bones for optimizing nutrition.
Before modern bone-mania hit, Steve Suess, food safety coordinator at Sunnyside Meat Processing Plant, says they used to throw many bones “right into the trash.” Cover your ears, Paleo-aficionados! The uptick in culinary bone interest began about 3 to 4 years ago, according to Suess, whose favorite bone broth, incidentally, is a pho (traditional Vietnamese soup) he once made from elk neck and leg bones.
If you see an entire animal as a sort of whole multivitamin broken down into distinct parts (liver: Vitamin A; brains: essential fatty acids; heart: coenzyme Q10), the bones, cartilage, tendons, skin and ligaments have their own unique nutritional profile. Within the hard, white bone matrix, minerals like calcium, magnesium, potassium, and phosphorus abound. These are unlocked by adding an acid like vinegar or lemon juice to the water in which the bones simmer for two full days. Yes, 48 hours. While you are mundanely sleeping, texting your daughter’s soccer coach, and ignoring laundry, animal bones could be flinging gelatin, protein, fat, collagen, minerals and other health promoting goodies into a pot of broth on your stove.
Here’s the breakdown. The collagen within the bone, tendons and ligaments dissolves into gelatin via heat. Gelatin, jiggly and, well, gelatinous, is full of amino acids. These, plus naturally-occurring glucosamine and chondroitin (remember the hundreds of dollars in supplements you bought for your aging dog’s joints? Yup, found here) provide raw material to rebuild your own connective tissues, those elasticized connections between bone and bone (ligaments) or muscle and bone (tendons), which wear down with use much like the belts in our cars.
Gelatin also repairs “leaky gut” or intestinal hyperpermeability, a condition which allows undigested food particles to slip through the gut lining and pass directly into the bloodstream, causing your immune system to mount an attack on your body (thus, the term: autoimmune disorder, believed to be a contributor to food allergies). Dr Michelle Hemingway, a Durango doctor who specializes in chronic and autoimmune disorders, has had “great success” using bone broth for soothing and healing the GI tract. She says “the gut can be affected by antibiotics, stress, surgery, poor nutrition and other issues which create swelling in the space between gut cells, allowing whole proteins into the bloodstream and creating inflammation. The gelatin, minerals and other substances in bone broth are some of the best things I know for healing the gut cells and decreasing inflammation throughout the body.”
Out of the 296 pages of the book Nourishing Broth by Sally Fallon Morell and Kaayla P. Daniel, PhD, 139 pages are devoted to scientific studies (and numerous heartwarming anecdotes making copious use of exclamation points: “My husband has virtually cured his sciatic nerve pain with bone broth!”) regarding bone broth’s ability to aid in healing ailments for which most doctors would hand you a sympathetic frown and a prescription. Osteoarthritis gets a whole chapter. Also rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, eczema, mental health, sports and fitness, and digestive disorders.
The amino acid glycine found in gelatin has been shown to aid digestion by increasing stomach acid which is necessary to break down food. Interestingly, Fallon believes that despite billions of dollars spent annually on antacids, a lack of stomach acid (common as we age) is often the problem, leading to undigested food creeping up the esophagus. Glycine and glutamine (another amino acid in gelatin) have also been shown to improve sleep and calm the nervous system by acting as a precursor to the neurotransmitter GABA. And finally, collagen is known to protect against the effects of sunlight on aging skin, i.e. wrinkles. Drinking bone broth may be preferable to the cosmetic practice of injecting bovine collagen directly into one’s face. Ouch.
But, how does it taste, you ask? Do you enjoy the rich, savory taste of chicken soup? Enough said. Beef and wild game broth can range from mild to a stronger, more intense flavor. Nicola St. Mary is a naturopathic doctor in Durango who prescribes bone broth for gut issues, inflammation and athletic injuries. She recommends using broth to cook grains, “I don’t care how you get it in, just get it in,” she insists. St Mary says that on the spectrum of bones, wild game is “most nutritious.” Broth can be a base for your favorite soup (see recipes for Thai Curry and Spicy Moroccan on Edible SW Colorado website). And if you don’t want to mess with bones and their attendant boniness, Wild Mesa Farm in Lewis, Colorado (outside of Cortez), sells broth made from their grass-fed and pasture-raised animals. Move over, Brooklyn.
When you complete your first batch of bone broth, it’s a bit like cutting into a layer cake. When cold, the top layer is a cap of solid fat. Next is the gelatin substrata, and below that, a lake of flavorful broth with (if you’ve used bones with meat attached) tender meat chunks lurking at the bottom; each disparate layer representing nutrients Sally Fallon Morell believes you desperately need. Heat it up and it all melts and integrates into a homogenous liquid. As you’re serving broth-based soup, only you need to know about the (somewhat creepy) gelatin layer, though any bone broth fan knows that’s where the medicine lies.
After three years of regular bone broth consumption, no one has commented on my radiant hair or skin, but I do have my own heartwarming anecdote. My blurb in Morell’s book might say: After decades of chronic knee pain, I’ve become a regular (albeit awkward) runner!
So, channel your inner Wilma and Betty. Organize a turkey carcass drop-off site post-Thanksgiving. Experiment with recipes. Let your elk-hunting and chicken-raising friends know that every bone is sacred. And then, you can share your own heartwarming anecdotes at your next party, amber bone broth flowing from the keg.
GENERAL BONE BROTH RECIPE:
Roast bones in oven for 30 minutes at 350F for extra flavor (this step optional).
Place bones in soup pot and cover with water plus an extra two inches of water above the bones. Add a few capfuls of apple cider vinegar to extract minerals and let sit for one hour for beef/lamb/elk bones. Thirty minutes for chicken or turkey bones.
On stovetop, turn heat to high and once the water is boiling, skim off the brown “scum” that will form on surface of water. Turn heat down to lowest stovetop or crock pot setting. Simmer beef, lamb, elk bones for 48 hours, chicken and turkey for 24 hours, fish for 12.
Extract warm bone marrow with a chopstick and leave in broth. Strain warm broth through fine mesh strainer or simply pull out and discard bones. Broth can be stored in fridge for 2-4 weeks.
*Add vegetables and herbs for flavor and nutrition. (Consider saving onion skins and celery and carrot ends/peels for the broth by adding them to a container in the freezer until ready). Vegetables will become very mushy and may need to be pureed or discarded later.
*Use broth as a base for soup. Once strained, add vegetables and meat. Broth can also be used to make gravy and sauces or used as a replacement for water when cooking rice or other grains to add more nutrition and flavor.
*Simmer dried mushrooms along with bones for flavor and nutrition.
*Drink a cup of broth daily before meals to aid digestion.
*Consider starting with chicken bone broth, which is considered most digestible and palatable.
*If you can, include fish heads, chicken and turkey feet.