Kathleen and I do most of our eating at home1, and that means we need to maintain a well-stocked kitchen in order to keep delicious meals within arm’s reach. Once I started learning how to cook, I went down various rabbit holes, creating different things from scratch for their own sake. Some were a waste of time 2, but others changed the way I approach things, both in the kitchen and at the store.
As a general rule, we try to make our meals from fresh ingredients. It’s cheaper, food from fresh ingredients tastes better, and frankly, I enjoy honing my knife skills by slicing and dicing. We do buy some processed items. Some, like olive oil and butter, are out of necessity; others, like canned tomatoes3 and cereal, are more of a value and convenience play. Regardless, there are many things that we never buy in the store. We make them at home, instead, because they are easy and the homemade versions are often tastier.
Here, for example, are five things you should never buy at the grocery store:
The first time I made mayonnaise at home, I felt like a wizard. I also was blown away by how much tastier the homemade mayo was than the store bought version. You probably have the ingredients in your house right now, and if you have an immersion blender, it’s among the easiest things in the world to make. It takes less than two minutes to pull together, and all you need are four things: canola oil, mustard, lemon juice or vinegar, and egg yolk. Here’s how you do it:
- Put an egg yolk, a tablespoon of vinegar or lemon juice, a tablespoon of water, and a teaspoon of mustard (preferably Dijon) into an immersion blender cup.
- Add a cup of oil and allow it to settle for about 15 seconds.
- Place the head of the immersion blender at the bottom of the cup, turn it on, and slowly lift the head toward the top of the cup.
Right before your eyes, mayonnaise! If you’ve never made mayo before, this is the closest thing you’ll ever get to being in Professor Snape’s class at Hogwarts. Just add some salt, transfer it to a container, and toss it in the fridge. It’s good for 7-10 days.
Here’s a video for good measure:
2. Salad Dressing
If you make mayonnaise at home, then you have the basis for dozens of great salad dressings: Caesar dressing, ranch, and Green Goddess, are all reasonably easy to make. But you can also make dozens of vinaigrettes, too. Homemade vinaigrettes are so easy and delicious, once you start making them you’ll wonder why anybody wastes the money on pre-made salad dressings at all.
My favorite part about vinaigrettes is the flexibility. Making a vinaigrette is more about the process than any one recipe, and once you make one, you can experiment with all sort of different versions until you find some you like. At its core, a vinaigrette is three simple things: an oil, an acid, and an emulsifier4 to keep them from separating. The secret is the oil-to-acid ratio: 3 parts oil to 1 part acid. Here’s a quick recipe for a basic honey balsamic vinaigrette5:
- 1 Tablespoon of balsamic vinegar
- 1 teaspoon of honey
- Pinch of salt
- 2 Tablespoons of canola oil
- 1 Tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil
Stir the vinegar and honey together in a small jar, add a pinch of salt, add the oils, throw a lid on the jar and shake it like crazy about 15-30 seconds. Bam! Honey balsamic vinaigrette.
You can also add flavor enhancers like herbs, grated garlic, diced shallots, soy sauce, fruit juice, the salad dressing world is your oyster.
Need to make more? Just make sure your oil-to-vinegar ratio stays at 3:1 and you can make as much as you want.
3. Canned Soup
Progresso Soup has brought an old-school marketing tagline back from the dead: “Make it Progresso, or make it yourself.”
Which, I mean, okay Progresso, you got it. I will never buy your crap again8.
Soup is stupefyingly easy to make. Crazier still, you can spend the same amount of money on a can or two of soup as you can the ingredients to make soup for an entire family. Not unlike vinaigrettes, once you get the hang of your basic soup, there’s no limit to the things you can toss into a pot to simmer for a little while.
Here’s a simple recipe for chicken soup that will blow that Progresso out of the pantry. Tomato soup, minestrone, butternut squash soup, it’s all very easy, and cheaper and more delicious than out of a can.
4. Spice Mixes
I’m not a big fan of the pre-mixed jars of spice mix because they’re relatively inflexible. I mean, unless you’re cooking exclusively Cajun-style food, that jar McCormick Cajun Seasoning is probably just going to sit in your spice rack for years9. What else are you going to use it for?
Even worse are the individual packets of mix, like taco seasoning10. Taco seasoning is just chili powder, cumin, coriander, paprika and salt. Which also happen to be some of the key component ingredients for a cajun spice mix. And also, you’ll find a lot of the same spices in garam masala.
You’re better off buying the component ingredient spices and mixing the spices as-needed11.
5. Pancake/Waffle/Biscuit Mix
I can, to a certain extent, understand why somebody would buy a can of soup. But pre-made pancake mix? It’s four ingredients! They’re probably sitting in your pantry right now! WHY ARE YOU PAYING FIVE TIMES THE PRICE FOR FLOUR, BAKING SODA, BAKING POWDER AND SALT PREMIXED IN A BOX12?!?!?!
This is one of those food products that makes me mad. It’s using people’s ignorance of the kitchen to mark up the price of pantry staples and repackage it in a fancy yellow container. There are a lot of examples of this practice, but pancake mix is probably the most egregious.
There are lot more things that are better and more cost-effective to make at home, too. What are some of your favorite examples? Leave them in the comments.
- Though we do live within walking distance from a few of the best restaurants in Portland, so it’s not always easy to resist going out from time to time
- Like the time I made my own paneer
- Fresh tomatoes are one of the few things you should almost never buy fresh from the grocery store, and certainly not out of season. Unless you have access to a great farmer’s market with fresh tomatoes in the summertime, canned tomatoes are the way to go. A bit counterintuitive, but it’s true.
- Mustard and honey are the go-to emulsifiers for salad dressing.
- Bonus tip: add diced shallots, garlic, and soy sauce to take this dressing to the next level.
- Though, surprisingly, it’s not “mustardy.”
- I try to use at least 2/3 canola oil because of its neutral flavor, but play around with them, find something you like
- This ad is very stupid. The narrator claims that they use white breast meat chicken because “it releases more flavor into the broth, and absorbs more flavor from it.” Uh… what the hell are they taking about? First of all, most of the flavor from the broth comes from the fat when chicken parts– skin and bones attached– simmer in water. You can simmer boneless skinless white meat chicken for a week and not squeeze out much flavor into the soup. And what’s this idea of “releasing” and “absorbing” flavor? So, the net flavor transfer is zero? Not that you needed demonstrable evidence that commercials are lying to you, but here you go.
- Not a good thing. Ground spices lose their potency after about six months.
- Or as I like to call it, “the biggest cooking marketing con since Progresso.”
- If you’re particularly fussy like I am, you can buy whole spices and grind them yourself. Not only do whole spices last much longer than their ground counterparts, but you can toast whole spices first, adding an entirely new dimension of flavor to your spice mixes.
- Sorry, I’m hyperventilating a bit.