Cooking from Scratch: Where's the Work?
My grandmother loved the fact that she could go to the store and buy bread, noodles and all sorts of other food that she could have on the table in a matter of minutes. She remembered when she had to make all of her own bread, along with just about everything else. She did have access to canned vegetables and fruit, of course — because she had put them up herself, preserving whatever was fresh for later.
Over the past couple of years, I've moved more toward cooking as much from scratch as I can. Just last week, I made a big pot of pasta from scratch. As I've gotten into the habit of preparing meals that require a lot more time than opening a box, I've tried to isolate the places where the biggest concentration of work is in cooking from scratch, and see what I can do about it.
I started out making bread without much more than my hands and a tiny hand mixer. For just about every kind of dough, my hand mixer just wasn't enough — even on no-knead recipes, I found that I almost always had to get my hands dirty in order to get all the ingredients combined. It's time-consuming, and I could quickly see the appeal of just running down to the store for my bread. But one kitchen appliance has just about eliminated the problem: a stand mixer.
With a good stand mixer, it's easy to handle the entire kneading process for most doughs — without even touching the dough. A good mixer can even handle notoriously tough tasks, like kneading pasta dough. The downside is that a good stand mixer can be an expensive purchase: I've run the numbers on mine and even with the major difference in my food budget when I cook from scratch, it took a long time for the purchase to pay off. There are alternatives, of course. The best mixers, such as the well-known KitchenAid line, are very long-lived. There are mixers in my family that are older than I am. If you can find a second-hand stand mixer in good shape, you'll have less of an investment, and still be able to get the benefits.
The fact that we can buy just a single steak, ready to toss on the grill, is a major time-saving factor in the kitchen. But if you're trying to bring down your grocery bill, you're probably not buying just one steak. Many people buy their meat and poultry in bulk, or choose options like a whole chicken — it's a lot cheaper, even if you have to take it apart to get it ready to cook. If you buy in any kind of bulk, there are a couple of things (beyond a freezer) that can make the process much easier.
Buy freezer bags in bulk, as well, and pull out the masking tape and marker. An alternative is a combination of cling wrap and tin foil. The moment you bring meat and poultry home from the market, it's easiest to immediately divide it into meal-sized portions, preferably marked with the date and the contents. It's a lot faster to handle it all in one go, especially if you have to divide poultry or any other item that you don't want to defrost until you're ready to use all of it. A pair of poultry shears can also make the process a lot faster.
3. Soups and Sauces
On the surface, a soup from scratch doesn't seem like a ton of work: after all, you put everything in a pot and then ignore it for a while. But soups, sauces and other dishes that can require cooking over longer periods of time can be a bit of a problem if you aren't planning to stay home with it all day. Crockpots and other kitchen appliances that allow you to cook on a timer are key to being able to cook from scratch.
Admittedly, I still worry a bit about leaving a running crockpot when I'm out of the house. It's certainly not on the order of leaving the oven on while I'm out, but I'm not the biggest fan of leaving anything running while I'm not there to supervise.
One of the biggest sources of work that is necessary in cooking from scratch is planning out your meals ahead of time. If you're making bread for dinner, for instance, you need to know that with enough advance warning to not only mix up the dough but allow it to rise and then bake it. The same goes for getting food out of the freezer in time to defrost — it's not particularly a labor-intensive part of your day, but you won't be able to cook if it doesn't happen.
That means sitting down and planning out meals ahead of time. It's just a matter of getting in the habit, week after week — and it does get easier once you're used to doing it.
Where's Your Work?
Is there another part of cooking from scratch that seems to make up the biggest part of the workload for you? How do you handle those tasks? Is there a way to cut down on the time necessary, or at least handle it all in one go?