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How Do I Get Started Cooking From Scratch?

Lori sent in this question:

I want to eliminate all processed foods from our house and start making as much as I can from scratch such as bread, chips, mayo, etc. This seems like a daunting task to me and it feels overwhelming. Do you know of any classes / books / cookbooks / etc that I can refer to in order to begin this process?

I love Lori’s attitude!  Here are my tips for her; I would love to hear yours – click here to leave a comment.

1. Start slowly.

Really slowly.  I love your enthusiasm, but I have to warn you that quitting processed foods cold turkey and making everything from scratch is a great way to get burned out and never want to cook again.

I would recommend picking one thing that you want to learn how to do and learn that one thing really well before you start trying to eliminate another food and learn how to make it yourself.  If you try to do everything at once, you’ll probably end up with a bunch of lackluster food because you didn’t have the time to really perfect something to a degree that you and your family will feel like it’s a good “replacement”.

If I was going to suggest one thing to start with, I would personally go with salad dressing, since that doesn’t require cooking – it’s fast and easy and won’t take up a bunch of time.  But that’s just a suggestion. Or, another good thing would be pasta sauce or chicken stock.  (I show you how to to chicken stock in From Garbage to Gourmet – it’s not only easy, it’s free when you do it that way!)

PS – I mentioned last week that I had found a fantastic 3/5th whole-wheat bread recipe.  I need to finish my tweakings on the original, but I am planning on post ing it soon!

2. Decide if you need to learn how to cook it, or if you should just eliminate it completely.

While I cook the majority of what we eat from scratch, there are a few things that I don’t, and I’m not sure that I ever will.  For instance, potato chips.  While we do enjoy them from time to time, potato chips aren’t an integral part of our life.  I feel like it’s OK to buy the “bad” stuff some of the time because since I know it’s bad, I don’t buy it very often.  If I made them from scratch, I’m confident they would be so awesome that we would eat them 10x as much as we do now, which is probably not a net gain for our health.

I guess what I’m saying is that instead of trying to make absolutely everything from scratch, maybe just try to find substitutes for the space that those items take on your plate so that you don’t have to spend all morning frying up potato chips for your “easy” picnic lunch.

tips-for-getting-started-cooking-from-scratch

3. Find a trusted go-to resource.

The older I get (haha), the more important I realize this is.  Look, friends – Pinterest is great eye candy but it’s not a great place to find proven recipes.  It’s not a good idea to be trying recipes where someone cooked it once, took a fantastic picture, and then racked their brain to remember exactly what they did so they could post it on the internet.  (Not every recipe fits this description, but I’m convinced that many do and that’s why there are so many Pinterest recipe disasters!)  That’s a recipe for disappointment and frustration.

Everyone’s “trusted resource” is going to be different, so search around until to find one that works for you.  My go-to sources are Cook’s Illustrated and Cook’s Country – I know their recipes are thoroughly tested, and I’ve learned a lot about cooking in general from their recipes.  Cook’s Illustrated’s recipes tend to be a little involved; but Cook’s Country is more casual.  Either way, I’ve cooked a lot of their recipes and only had one or two that wasn’t a big success.

As far as cooking from scratch, one resource that I haven’t looked at yet myself (but I’m dying to!) is the The America’s Test Kitchen DIY Cookbook.  Another resource that might be helpful is Katie Kimball’s Better Than A Box – she has the heart of a teacher and really shows you how to reverse engineer your processed food recipes into whole foods recipes.

Oh, and I would encourage you to find some way to keep your tried and true recipes organized.

4. Do small batches.

Don’t make a huge batch of mayo when your family is just getting used to homemade mayo.  Don’t triple your homemade bread recipe when you are used to buying loaves at the store.  It’s a recipe for waste and you know how much I hate that. :)

Over time, you’ll figure out how much bread you’ll use before it spoils, and how long you can keep your homemade mayo in the refrigerator before you decide it’s not safe to eat anymore.  But until you are really in a groove, it’s a good idea to do small batches and if you have to buy a loaf of bread at the store because you don’t have time to make it from scratch, don’t feel guilty about it – just pat yourself on the back for all the progress you’ve made.

tips-for-getting-started-cooking-from-scratch

5. Cook for the freezer.

Once you have recipes that are proven in your own family, then you can start doubling and tripling them and storing extra in the freezer.  I make marinara sauce and chicken stock from scratch, but I do not make marinara sauce and chicken stock fresh every time I use it – I make a big batch once every three weeks or so and freeze it.  My marinara sauce is pretty awesome (I credit the red wine, except when the entire bottle breaks) but it would drive me nutso to have to make it from scratch every time I wanted to use it.

Beans are another thing that are great to cook from scratch, but in my opinion, it takes so long that it’s worth it only if you freeze them.  I never remember to start cooking beans enough in advance to use them for a meal the same day, so I often cook a pound or two at a time and then freeze them in two-cup portions so that I can use them as needed.

(I should insert here that I almost never soak beans anymore.  I rinse them and put them in a pot of water and simmer them until they’re tender.  Or, this is my favorite way to make black beans.  Put me in food jail, but at this point I’m OK with not soaking my beans.)

6. Be realistic about what you can and will do.

For about two years now, I have thought I would start making my own hamburger buns.  They taste better, they are better, and they are cheaper (yes, even cheaper than the $0.99 off-brand ones).  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve asked Jeremy to stop by the store and pick up hamburger buns because I had, yet again, not gotten around to making them.

So, while I really want to make my own hamburger buns, I’ve proven time and time again that I either can’t or won’t get it done.  I’m not giving up, but I have to be realistic with myself when I’m at the grocery store and looking at the hamburger buns, thinking I really could make these on my own.   “Come on, Carrie, you could but have you ever?!  Stop kidding yourself and just buy the buns.”

7. Don’t be afraid to give up and move on even if everyone says you can do it.

Just about anything can be made from scratch – anything worth eating, that is.  But sometimes you have to be willing to admit that you can’t make something from scratch.  I have tried for years to make my own yogurt, and I have success about one out of every three tries.  I am so mad at yogurt that I don’t even want to try again right now.  I know, you all will pipe in with your tips but I’ve tried ‘em.  For whatever reason, I can’t consistently make yogurt so I’ve given up on it for now.  And I’m OK with that!  Someday I’ll try again and maybe I’ll figure it out, but for now, I’m going to concentrate on cooking the things that I can cook well and what I enjoy and yogurt isn’t one of them.

How do you manage cooking from scratch?

Share your tips by leaving a comment!

34 Comments
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Comments

  1. Yes. Buy the Oreos. Anyone who says he has a recipe that tastes exactly like Oreos is lying. I’m a little angry at Oreo recipes. ;)

    • Valerie says:

      Have you tried this one? My Oreo-snob of a husband adores these! Not quite like store Oreos, but better. If you want crunchy, flatten cookies so they are pretty thin. For soft, underbake by about a minute. I didn’t use shortening for filling, i just used all butter. http://www.mybakingaddiction.com/homemade-oreos/ My husband has actually given me the go-ahead to stop buying Oreos, as long as I keep making these.

  2. Heather says:

    Pick one thing and get really good at that and then move on to another thing. We cook a lot from scratch but it also took about 2 yrs before we finally had it down. We also have certain go to recipes that everyone loves that we make. I try to do something new about every two weeks or so. Be realistic also. If you have small ones, try things that don’t consume a lot of time unless you have blocked it off. Start with something easy. Success motivates you to try more things.

  3. Snacks are my weakness when it comes to scratch cooking — unless I plan and portion them. Grabbing a bag of chips is so easy! If I plan a couple things like homemade energy bars or even a trail mix and bag it up, I’m less tempted to reach for the processed grab-n-go items.

    Scratch cooking shouldn’t be about martyrdom. Don’t make yourself crazy.

    One blog I enjoy about simple eating is: http://www.wordofwisdomliving.com/ Skip gives solid advice based on research and common sense.

  4. Michelle says:

    If you are looking for great advice for cooking from scratch, I love the blog ‘Finding Joy in My Kitchen’. She makes some great looking, healthy food from scratch. Carrie – she has a recipe for hamburger buns that are ready in 40 minutes! They’re yummy too! http://joyinmykitchen.blogspot.com/2010/05/100-whole-wheat-rolls.html#.UVoSlVd9u7M

    • Ah, now see, here’s where I might have to admit that I’m a food snob sometimes at least in what I enjoy cooking. ;) I don’t usually like “quick” yeast bread recipes because I know that for good flavor to develop, it takes a couple of slow rises. Maybe that’s why I haven’t gotten around to conquering hamburger buns just yet. ;) Maybe I’ll have to try it, though…

  5. Great book- funny and practical. It’s at the library. Saw it written up on a talk show. Totally engaging: MAKE THE BREAD, BUY THE BUTTER: What you should and shouldn’t cook from scratch by Jennifer Reese.

  6. Great post! I can totally relate to the question of whether or not to buy buns. :) I’ve needed to come to terms with that one, too. If we’re grilling hamburgers do I really want to spend an hour or more making the buns and cleaning up that mess for what should be a simple meal?

    I agree to focus on mastering one thing, and then branching out from there. I was disappointed at the unpredictable results I was getting with yogurt and resolved publicly, to my family at least, that I would keep trying until I had consistent success. And I finally did! (my method is adapted from the one of simplebites.net) Now I’m moving on to getting bread to be a good texture for sandwiches.

    For me to manage cooking from scratch, we eat pretty simply, I think. I don’t get too fancy very often. I use the freezer a lot for meal components so I don’t have to make every part of the meal when I’m fixing dinner. At the stage of life I’m in it seems simple wholesome food usually satisfies us so I save the more labor-intensive dishes for when I’m really wanting to make them, instead of expecting myself to make gourmet meals every day.

    My trusted, go-to resources are:
    Cooking Light (the hardback purple book) – though I frequently adapt recipes from this one
    The Best of the Best and The Rest of the Best cookbooks (Canadian, from the Best of Bridge series)
    plain old Betty Crocker
    a good friend who is a good cook and passes on good recipes she tries out

  7. Christy says:

    Carrie,
    This is such a great post. I am very motivated to get processed foods out of our home, but it does seem daunting. Where do I begin??? Thanks for writing this list in a way that I feel I could tackle this in our home. Your blog is such an encouragement to me.

  8. Having a kid with an allergy is a good kick-start too :)
    My son can’t have anything with milk or egg, and I found The Food Allergy Mama’s Baking Book to be a huge blessing as we transitioned to homemade baked goods. All of her recipes have no egg, dairy, or nuts. More importantly, the subsititutions she uses have been tested. Now we have homemade waffles, bagels, muffins, bread, etc, etc! I would have never tried these things on my own if allergies hadn’t forced the issue.

    • I just went dairy-free to troubleshoot some issues the 1yo is having (she’s still nursing a handful of times a day) and going off dairy has been a lot harder than I thought it would be – probably mostly because I wasn’t really planning on it and I had a refrigerator full of yogurt, buttermilk, sour cream, already-made Pioneer Woman’s chicken enchiladas, etc. :/ I might have to check out that book if this continues, so thanks for the recommendation! (I’m not 100% convinced it’s a dairy issue, but I guess we will find out.)

  9. I have been blessed with a husband who is the World’s Best Cook. That being said, he rarely cooks as he works 45 hours a week- and that’s on a SLOW week. But he has taught me a lot since we’ve been married. So here’s my tip: find someone in your family, friends, at church, at work, neighbors, or wherever you can that is a good cook and ask to have them help you get started. I constantly text my husband asking for advice on food. I also have a friend who has her pastor’s wife teach her a bunch of things. I think they get together once a week and just cook- my friend has learned a lot that way. Learning to cook from scratch is a hands on learning process, so I totally recommend finding someone who can buddy up with you. I remember telling my husband several years ago “I want to learn to cook.” And his response was “Well go cook then.” It’s a learning process and sometimes it goes well and others not so much. Don’t beat yourself up over the not-so-good meals (trust me, been there and beating yourself up over it does no good…). It gets better with time. :)

    • I learned to cook from my husband, too! Or rather, he motivated me to learn how to cook because he was a better cook than I when we got married. :)

      • Heather says:

        My husband also taught me to cook. When I met him I really did burn water. Now I cook all but one night a week and he cooks on the weekends because he loves to.

        • I’m sure I used to burn water too! I know once I grilled boneless chicken breasts for like 1.5 hours because my mom told me to (they ended up looking like bits of charcoal lol!). I think my husband had a stroke when I tried to serve them for dinner… Plus he went to college for culinary arts, so I have some BIG shoes to fill when I cook… :)

  10. Stephanie says:

    HeavenlyHomemakers.com is a great blog for from scratch recipes. She has recipes for things like making your own onion soup mix to homemade poptarts. Her recipes aren’t over complicated either, she keeps it simple which is great if you are just starting.

  11. Carrie,

    I LOVE this post! Thank you so much for writing it! I’ve been cooking more from scratch (from your inspiration) and really LOVING it! It feels so good to make something wholesome, healthy, and good for my family! I’ve been doing a lot of for the freezer cooking as you recommended and it’s helped soooo much! One question about that…you’ve mentioned you freeze your muffin batter. I’ve tried it a few time and my muffins won’t rise after they’ve been frozen. They taste just fine but they are about 1/2 the size of the ones that weren’t frozen, what am I doing wrong? Do I need to let them thaw out first before baking?

    Thanks again! Keep up the great blogging!!

    • Oh I forgot to mention that I made my first batch of chicken broth yesterday using your “From Garbage to Gourmet” method! I do love your cookbook! I’ve got several recipes tagged to use soon! I couldn’t believe how much broth I got for FREE!! I’m never buying broth again!

    • I’m glad it was helpful to you!

      I’ve been meaning to do a post about freezing muffin batter – I’ll have to do it soon, thanks for the reminder! I’m not sure what might be going wrong with yours – I suppose it could be a recipe (if there’s only one that’s giving you fits) but here’s what I do, so you can see if you are following the same steps:

      Mix the muffin batter as usual and spray the muffin tin. (I used to think you need to use liners, but figured out that was unnecessary unless you want to remove them from the pan after they are frozen.) Fill muffin cups as usual and stick them in the freezer immediately. You can cover them with foil or something if it will be awhile until you bake them, but honestly, I leave them uncovered because it doesn’t usually take too long to use them.

      Then, when you are ready to bake, preheat the oven as usual, to the normal temperature you’d bake them at. Put the frozen muffins in the oven and bake for 5-10 minutes longer than usual. (This is where I still have some testing to do before I post about it – I need to try to nail down exactly how much longer you need to bake them for.)

      Honestly, I think mine actually turn out more rounded when I do it this way than when I cook them fresh – not sure why, maybe the batter settles more as it’s freezing so they are more even?

      As far as them not rising, I would probably make sure to freeze them right away, before the baking powders and whatnot have time to do too much. And, you might want to check your oven temperature – it’s possible that it’s off (mine is 25º hotter than it says, so I have to adjust temperatures when baking) and that might throw off the frozen muffins more than it would the ones with fresh batter.

      Let me know if it’s a particular recipe that you have an issue with, or if it’s everything – I’d love to help you troubleshoot it!

      • Baking Soda and Baking Powder work differently, producing the same results: causing a batter to rise. Check the date of each — they aren’t too expensive to replace if they are close to expiring. The muffins probably rise better when fresh, but don’t have enough “oomph” to create the double-acting rise when frozen.

        Just a thought…..

  12. Sarah H says:

    Thanks for all this advice. I am trying to make more things from scratch, but life isn’t working out that way right now. I’m trying not to beat myself up about it, and just remind myself that if I keep striving toward that goal, I will keep getting better and better. I did make granola bars over spring break, though. Everyone loved them and gobbled them right up. Now I just have to find time to make more. :)

    • Yep, eventually it will come naturally to you – just keep plugging away when you have the time!

      Granola bars usually freeze pretty well if you have time to make a couple of batches at once.

      • I definitely want to make a couple of batches next time now that I know my kids love them. I want to make a nut-free batch for my kids to take to school and a lots of nuts batch for at home.

      • We love making our own granola bars too. Yes, they freeze well – a little too well as my hubby prefers them frozen! Any other recommendations for storing?!!!

        • We like ours refrigerated – maybe it’s something about homemade that makes them better when they are cold! As for, uh, hiding them from your hubby, you could try what another reader (Laura at Ten Things Farm) said she does: she puts stuff that she doesn’t want anyone else to find in a large bucket marked “beans” or something like that. ;)

  13. Thanks for posting this Carrie! I am the one who originally asked this question! Such good advice that I will heed. Do you mind sharing your marinara sauce recipe with us? Thanks!

  14. Also, I wanted to add that your advice was good to start small. I started big and it was a bust! I made all kinds of homemade breads and sauces and it was so much work and my family didn’t eat most of it. So I am going to work on replacing one item at a time and finding a good replacement recipe that my family will eat. Now if I can only find a GREAT whole wheat bread recipe……my family likes Wonder bread too much. Every time I make a homemade whole wheat bread, they don’t like it because it doesn’t have the consistency of that white Wonder (processed) bread.

  15. Carrie,
    Maybe it’s because I just read your new homemade bread recipe, but call me crazy – couldn’t you just roll those into large balls and squash them flat for burger buns? Our burger buns are excellent: http://www.kitchenstewardship.com/2011/02/01/seeking-the-perfect-homemade-whole-wheat-our-favorite-happy-rolls-no-4/

    It’s a breadmaker recipe (although those convert fairly easily to a KitchenAid)…once you’re settled in your house, you might want to buy one just for rolls/buns, $10 at a garage sale! ;) Katie

    You’ll have to let me know if you try the bread as buns idea….I hope it works!

    • Possibly! Although, since I wrote this post I’ve started making my own buns from a different recipe that I love, haha. They aren’t whole wheat (bad, I know, but better than what I’d buy at the store) but I’d like to adapt them to have at least some whole wheat at some point!

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