Well if you just want the definition I’ll save you some time, it’s “preparing food using basic ingredients rather than buying meals that have already been prepared.”
There ya go. Pretty straight forward, right? Yeah, not exactly… As most definitions do, this one fails to convey the nuances behind the phrase it’s explaining. So let’s break down “scratch cooking” and it’s definition a little more to find out what it means for home cooks.
What Does Cooking From Scratch Mean for a Home Cook?
The core of scratch cooking is the use of “basic ingredients”. And this means different things to different people, but I’ll make it simple for you: use the least processed and highest quality version of the ingredient that is practical and you can afford.
If a recipe calls for three cups of grated mozzarella, it might be tempting to grab a bag of pre-shredded mozzarella cheese in a brightly colored ziplock bag. It’s convenient and saves you time, right? Well sure, but to make sure the cheese is stable and to keep all those little bits from clumping together into a gross looking lump, they coat the cheese in cellulose or cornstarch. It’s also going to be a less quality product because you’re certainly not going to take premium imported mozzarella, remove much of its moisture content, shred it down, and coat it cellulose (which, by the way, isn’t exactly “wood” as you might have seen on your Facebook feed). You’ll also get an ingredient that doesn’t taste as good, or melt as well and interact with the recipe as intended, resulting in less than ideal results.
And that’s just one example where buying (or better yet, making) the least processed and highest quality of the ingredient can be jeopardized.
So what does that mean for an aspiring home cook who wants to cook from scratch? For me, it meant the way I meal-prep and buy groceries changed. Here’s a breakdown of what grocery shopping looks like for when you’re really cooking from scratch.
- Whole Foods: Don’t groan, I don’t mean the $$$$$ store. I mean it literally. Buy whole foods. Shop in the produce section or farmer’s markets to get fresh fruits and vegetables. I even avoid the pre-sliced or chopped veggies that I’ve started to see popping up more often because you’ll pay a premium for Kroger to slice a mushroom when you could have spent two minutes practicing your knife skills at home.
This also means buying “whole-er” cuts of meats. Boneless, skinless, chicken breasts can cost $5.00lb or more, whereas a whole chicken is often under a $1.00lb. And the bags of frozen chicken breasts are often lower quality and injected with saline to make them juicier. Intimidated by cooking or breaking down a whole chicken? Then start with chicken quarters and split breasts (the chicken breast with the skin, some rib bones, and tender). You can learn to break down those parts before trying a whole bird, and you’ll find your dishes are WAY better when cooked with skin and bones.
- Read the Label: You’ll still need to get packaged and lightly processed food… I mean all dairy is processed milk to some degree, right?. But it’s worth doing the research to find what brands use the best techniques and ingredients and result in the best flavor. You should be able to identify most ingredients on the label without a chemistry degree because the food is made with (wait for it) WHOLE FOODS. We could take scratch cooking to the extreme and make all our own cheeses, yogurts, pasta, prosciutto, Kalamata olives, etc… but remember that “practical” rule above? Well, that often applies to these types of ingredients. I encourage you to try making your own cheeses and those other types of foods, but for many people that aren’t practical and that’s okay.
To use the example above, the best mozzarella you can buy at most grocery stores will be swimming in a whey brine of sorts, and the ingredients shouldn’t vary far from milk, salt, citric acid, and some enzymes.
- Shop the Perimeter: You’ve probably heard this on The Biggest Loser or from other healthy eating tips, and it holds true when you’re cooking from scratch. My grocery trips usually go like this:
- Produce Section: I’m almost always buying onions, garlic, carrots, leafy greens for salads, and any other veggies for the week.
- Butcher: I’m buying whole cuts of meats when necessary. Usually chickens, bone-in pork shoulder, or salmon (my local grocery store often has whole sockeye salmon for $4.99lb, that’s cheaper than boneless, skinless chicken breast!). Instead of whole chickens, I’ll often get the packs of quarters or thighs. You’ll find these often go on sale and I can get thighs (for example) for $0.89lb. And I’ve always preferred dark meat so win-win. My wife prefers white meat which is why a whole chicken works great… and breaking down a chicken is pretty fun.
- Dairy Section: I’m almost always getting eggs and unsalted butter, but about a year or two after getting serious about my cooking (and personal finance), I noticed I was buying less and less dairy… cheeses, yogurts, milk/cream, etc. The books I was learning from simply didn’t use a cup of cheese here or heavy cream there. I’m building flavor with the fresh produce and proteins using my growing skills in the kitchen rather than relying on rich ingredients. Don’t get me wrong, we’ll still make some bomb nachos or get in touch with my wife’s Midwestern roots, but it’s not the norm.
- Interior: Like I mentioned, some prepared (well, semi-prepared) foods are necessary for the sake of practicality. I dive into the interior to find specialty ingredients which are usually imported items. I’ll also top off on spices, restock baking goods like flour and sugars, and pick up any canned vegetables I need (usually tomatoes and chickpeas/garbanzo beans).
To recap – to cook from scratch you need to buy whole foods as much as possible. In doing so, you’ll improve as a home cook because you’ll learn to prep and break foods down into the parts you need. And you’ll learn how to develop the technical skills to cook the individual ingredients in harmony with each other to create delicious meals. Which brings us to the next major aspect of scratch cooking… the actual cooking.
What Technical Skills Do You Need to Cook From Scratch?
Now we’re getting away from the ingredients, and into that innocuous looking three-syllable word at the beginning of the definition: “preparing”.
This is literally every step from “preheat the oven” to “plate and serve” on the recipe you’ll be following. So it could cover quite a lot. But to start, there are a few basics you’ll want to focus on.
Knife Skills: Since you’ll be buying more whole, raw ingredients you’ll need to know how to break them down to get the desired results since it won’t be done for you. “Knife skills” is a whole other post and series of videos I’ll be working on. But for now, I’ll refer you to Chef Jacob’s videos at Stella Culinary where I learned many of the knife skills I use in my kitchen.
Stovetop (or “range”) cooking: I wouldn’t recommend jumping into big roasts right off the bat or cooking lots of casseroles or other baked dishes. Instead, focus on creating great dishes in real time on the stove top. There are a few reasons for this:
- Prep Skills: Recipes done entirely on the stove often require more prep work for the ingredients you’ll be working with. This means you’ll get more knife work and develop those prep skills more efficiently (which is important when you’re not a prep-cook tasked to slice 200 onions one day, and mince 20lbs of garlic the next).
- All your senses come into play: Sight is obviously important to cooking, as is smell, but knowing that the pan is hot enough by how an onion sizzles is something you’ll have to learn by practice.
- Timing: Plating a dish done entirely on the stovetop can be difficult to get right. Especially if it’s not a trendy “one pan meal”. Learning how to get sautéed veggies, pan-fried chicken, and a sauce or gravy all done and tasting great will serve you well when you start cooking more elaborate meals.
- Learning your kitchen: That might sound silly, but every space is different. You might find that keeping the cutlery to the right of the oven isn’t the best spot, because that’s where you’re prepping, working, staging and you need your tools in that drawer. Live, hands-on, cooking will show you these types of things faster.
Reading a Recipe: Believe it or not, there is a right and wrong way to read a recipe. First off, READ THE DAMN THING TWICE (SLOWLY) before you start getting your ingredients out so you don’t end up at the end of step two, “now let sit in the refrigerator, uncovered, at least two to four hours” when it’s 7:30pm and you’re hangry. A good scratch cook knows when a recipe isn’t worth the board it’s posted on from experience and learning the right way.
If you’re learning from the right sources, being hands on with your cooking, and reading through the recipes carefully you’ll start seeing success in the kitchen right away. But it takes a lot of time in the kitchen to get to that other definition of scratch cooking we didn’t even cover here. The ability to whip up a meal, from scratch, with just the ingredients on hand and without a recipe. This isn’t something you can learn quickly. It takes a lot of time building up the basics until you can incorporate them on the fly, but it’s a great goal to have and you’ll have a lot of fun getting there.