Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Cooking from scratch

Made from scratch
One of the things that keeps my grocery shopping--and my pantry filling--efforts simple is that I do a lot of scratch cooking.  I make my own tomato sauce.  I (usually) make my own soups (there are exceptions to this, which I'll get to).  I make my own muffins and cornbread and tea breads and cake when the occasion calls for it.  Heck, if I wanted pizza I have homemade pizza dough/Italian bread dough in the freezer that I can defrost.

Pesto made from scratch and frozen
First, let's cover why  I cook from scratch--and the reasons I side-eye.  I do it because it's actually quite easy, because it uses basic ingredients in my pantry, because it's inexpensive, and because it allows for some flexibility in cooking.  I do not do it because I am a special snowflake who hates all processed food, because I think it is the morally superior thing to do, and all of that garbage. Actually, I can see situations where it would be more beneficial for people to buy the prepared foods--if you're a champion couponer, you can get those things very inexpensively (it's rare to get coupons and great deals on flour as opposed to cake mix).  If you don't have freezer space or pantry space, I can absolutely see the benefits of buying prepared soups or other things, no question.  If you're marginally housed, the scratch cooking this is likely going to be the last thing on your priority list (it would be my last priority). If you've ever had to use a food pantry, chances are you've gotten processed foods (like canned soups or cans of chili, etc.--especially in my town, where a lot of the people who use the food pantry were, up until recently, the same people who only had access to a hotplate and a small dorm-sized fridge).  And if you're working a double-shift and you have kids and you are exhausted at the end of the day, anyone who get snippy about your food choices when you're trying to get dinner on the table before you pass out can pucker up and kiss your. . .feet.  In my situation, though, it works.   Really, once I compared the ingredients and steps of a scratch cake to a box cake, and saw that it didn't take any more time, I was hooked.

Muffin courtesy of Amy Dacyczyn
Scratch cooking sounds so difficult.  It sounds like you'd have to be in the kitchen all day long, dicing tomatoes and cooking them down, or making stock right then for soup, etc.  But you really don't. You do not have to spend hours over the stove. All that scratch cooking means is that you're making the dish yourself, with basic unprocessed ingredients.  Most of us do it quite a lot.

If I want soup very quickly, I take whatever frozen vegetables I want to have in it, some beans that I've canned (or beans that are ready to cook), some stock and whatever herbs and spices I want to include in the soup, and cook them in a soup pot.  Or I take yellow split peas, add stock, a bit of garlic, and a teaspoon of celery seed.  Or I creatively use leftovers--the 40 clove of garlic chicken I made translated to a fantastic yellow-split pea soup, albeit very garlicky.  I'll use the leftovers from a roast chicken, some frozen spinach, a couple of sliced fresh carrots (or frozen sliced carrots), celery, and rice to make chicken soup.

Tomato sauce is one of the easiest things to make from scratch.  You do not need home canned tomatoes (though they make a lovely sauce).  You do not need fresh tomatoes.  Those are nice, but they add a lot of work.  All I do is take a 28 ounce can of crushed tomatoes and add them to a bunch of garlic and some onion I've sauteed in olive oil.  I cook that over medium heat for about 20 minutes.  I'll add whatever herbs are appropriate--oregano if I'm making a pizza sauce, basil (either dried or fresh or fresh/frozen, or a pesto cube) if I am making a pasta sauce.  That's really it.  You can add whatever you want, but the basic ingredients are crushed tomatoes and olive oil.  I like it better than the jarred sauces out there.

Biscotti. YUM.
Cake or muffins?  Mixes cut out a few ingredients, but they aren't that onerous.  If I cook from scratch, I'm adding baking powder and whatever flavorings are needed (which I have on hand), in addition to the flour and baking powder.  Once I realized how easy muffins are to make from scratch, I never went back.  (OK, my Nana's fudge cake is a little more involved, but I make that for my Dad and it's so worth it.  I don't make that very much at all.)  Also, in the case of teacakes or muffins, cooking from scratch allows me new ways to use up produce (with say, zucchini bread). 

There are exceptions that I make, or there are things I have on hand just in case:

Boxed mac and cheese.  Oh, my love affair with boxed mac and cheese.  (Especially shells and cheese, which the companies are phasing out.  WHY ARE YOU DOING THAT??)

Scratch cooking. 20 minutes.
Soup.  I make a lot of my own soup, but there is something about canned chicken noodle soup or the boxed stuff with the freeze dried chicken that hits the spot when I'm sick.  Yes, my mother's homemade chicken soup is best when I'm sick.  Yes, I can make that soup.  However, I'd have to take it out of the freezer.  When I'm sick I am not even inclined to toss my socks in my laundry basket--it would be foolish for me to think that I'd defrost that soup when I got sick.  Also, I might not have any in the freezer when I get sick.  So I keep a few of those things in my pantry just in case.

Stock. I have used up my homemade chicken stock and I don't see myself roasting a chicken anytime soon, so I bought some boxes of chicken stock (and vegetable stock).  Over the summer with all of the vegetables I get from my CSA, I'll be using those ends to make my own vegetable stock, but the store bought stuff is quite good and serves its purpose for now.  

Chances are, you do a lot of scratch cooking and don't even realize it.  If you can, give some basic recipes a whirl if there are things you buy that you could make from scratch, and see if they're easier/tastier/less expensive.  It's nice to know that if you don't have jarred sauce you can still have pasta, or that if you don't have a box mix you can still make cornbread.


  1. When I add up the pro and cons of 'my' wave of feminism (late 60s and beyond), I feel that the pros far outweigh the cons. One of the big cons for me, though, is that homemaking, including cooking, came to be regarded as unimportant and a symbol of female disempowerment. I understand how and why that happened, and it probably had to be done given the conditions at that time (see Mad Men). However, it resulted in the loss of a whole lot of cultural and practical knowledge. Many mothers never taught their children how to cook. I'm so happy that the circle is coming around again and people are realizing that it's no great mystery and that it is satisfying, healthy, and thrifty to cook from scratch. Nice work, Feral!

  2. I'm glad the circle is coming around again as well--though I hope that men realize they've got to step up to the plate. I really enjoy cooking but if I was expected to do it for people every day, it would quickly become drudgery!

  3. We're out of chicken and turkey stock right now...

    My father taught me how to cook (he spent quite a bit of time as a bachelor in SF and took cooking classes) and I taught my husband!

    My husband spent quite a bit of time today procrastinating from grading finals by making zucchini bread, mole for chicken, and hot and sour soup for dinner. (That's on top of him processing most of our CSA stuff yesterday... man I love beets vinaigrette, and making ice cream.) I helped here and there, but mostly did my own grading.

  4. Ah, passing on knowledge and benefiting from it! Epic. ;) My dad always said, "If you can read, you can cook." I'll bet your house smelled fantastic!