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.

1. Doughs

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. (See also: The 5 Best Mixers)

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.

2. Meat

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.

4. Planning

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?


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Guest's picture

I received a used stand mixer from my husband's grandmother but it doesn't have a bread hook. Do you find it necessary with making bread and noodles? It is very old so I don't know if it ever had a bread hook. I have been leery to use it since I have no experience with one. Up to this point, everything that I do is by hand without using an electric mixer most times. It would be nice to speed up the process some.

Thursday Bram's picture

I've found that the bread hook can make a major difference in how fast I can make doughs. It's harder to find a hook for used mixers, but if you do a search online for the make and model of your mixer, you might be surprised.  

Brooke Kaelin's picture

I never use the bread hook in my stand mixer when I make bread - just the regular old whisk-type attachment. Once I think it's about done I take it out and knead it for 3-5 minutes by hand. Turns out perfectly for me. Using a Kitchen-aid, not sure how well other models would work with this.

Guest's picture

Cutting ingredients like onions and peppers... I cut and freeze them in separate bags.

Guest's picture

I've always cooked for my family but tended to make things "semi-homemade". Then after reading about all the preservatives and "bad stuff" in these boxed mixes I'm switching over to making from scratch. There are so many blogs out there nowadays with tried-and-true scratch recipes so why not try it? I can't wait to get my stand mixer and check Craig's List everyday for an affordable one. So far, my bread maker's been a great alternative ($4.00 purchase from our local thrift store). I can't wait to read your other posts :)

Guest's picture

These are some great ideas. I am getting married next year and we originally weren't going to get the standup mixer, but I think we might now...

And the planning is what kills me. I just started to meal plan and it is saving me time time and money because I am going to the grocery store less often and therefore spending less money.

Guest's picture

Brownies from scratch are soooo much better and really not that much extra work...........Bakers chocolate has a recipe right on the box you make in one bowl.........every baker has sugar, flour, eggs, dash of vanilla.........the only ingredient you might have to purchase is the unsweetened baking chocolate. I cook mine at 345 instead of 350 for about 28-29 minutes so they are nice & fudgey-Yum!!

Guest's picture
Nancy from Mass

I cook from scratch all the time. Food just tastes better and you control what goes into it. For instance, I have a sensitivity to MSG and most 'convenience" items have some form of msg or msg derivatives. I make my own alfredo sauce while the water is boiling/pasta is cooking. only takes 7 minutes from start to finish and has better flavor. I also make my own bread because I don't purchase anything with HFCS. again, very simple to do, tastes better and my family says that when I make them grilled cheese - it's 10x better than with store bought bread. BTW: I do work full time and still cook from scratch every night. The trick is to find what you like to make and the time to do it will fall into place. not everyone is cut out for cooking everything from scratch, but if they choose just a few things, they'll find it easier to make the time.

Guest's picture

As a work-at-home mom of 3 I cook from scratch a lot but frankly hate it. To me the most onerous part is the cleanup -- a scratch meal is likely gonna have several different pots to scrub, and if I make dough in the stand mixer it's gonna get all up in some of the mixer's crevices (at least if i put too much dough in the bowl at once).
Even tho I have an expensive KitchenAid mixer (Xmas gift one year), I make my bread in a $4 bread machine I got at Salvation Army. I like dumping the ingredients in and forgetting about it, and there is a lot less cleanup.

Guest's picture
Debbie M

I would say getting in the mood to cook is what takes me the most time! That’s probably because first I have to wash a big pile of dishes from when my boyfriend cooked (we have a deal). By hand, because we have no dishwasher. By then, I’m usually out of steam. Then a couple of days later, there’s yet another pile of dishes.

Washing my own dishes afterwards usually isn’t a problem, though--I keep my dishes to a minimum, rinse or soak them right away, and wash them as soon as I’m done.

I admit that most things I cook don’t take a long time. Either I boil some pasta while making the sauce, cook a one-dish meal, or bake something. The thing that takes me the longest is pancakes because they have to be made one by one. I used to use two skillets at once, but my roommate has an electric griddle, so I can do eight pancakes at once. (Hmm, I could use an electric griddle AND two skillets to really speed things up.) I get through this tough period by eating a pancake every time I put 8 more on to cook.

Cookies and meatballs and matzoh balls can take a long time for similar reasons. I found that getting one of those scoops where you push a lever and a bar scrapes across the bottom has made this process much quicker.

Guest's picture

I paid full price ($60!) for our bread machine and use it religiously! It has an awesome program feature that allows you to dump all of the ingredients in and set it to start later on.

As far as cleanup goes - it really needs to be a team effort. If you're the only one spending time on this process, it's inevitable that you'd get burned out and not want to do it.

We've dropped our grocery bill by half (seriously!) just by cooking from scratch.

Guest's picture

the pasta attachments for the kitchen aid which work like a dream. The pasta is SO much better than anything from the store.

Guest's picture

We find the made-from-scratch meals taste far better than any mass-produced processed meal, as it is geared to a more baseline flavor that most people find acceptable. We prefer the freshness and flavor of a meal we prepare (for the record we both work out of the home full time).

I refuse to purchase anything with high fructose corn syrup or partially hydrogenated oils, so we cook almost entirely from scratch. We do get some bread from a local bakery, because I know how it was prepared. I use the "Artisan Bread in 5 minutes a day" method and keep us stocked in fresh bread throughout the week.

We also spend a bit more time on the weekends and prep large amounts of food and freeze it (like the meat tip above). I'll make triple or quadruple batches of bolognese sauce and then not have to make it for an entire year. Instead, we pull a packet out of the freezer, cook some pasta, make a salad and we're done.

I could not live without my dishwasher, when it comes to cleaning up. And we definitely go at the cooking and cleaning as a team effort. It only takes 10-15 minutes when both of us are working at cleaning the kitchen.

One of the harder parts for us, when it comes to saving money, is avoiding the impulse buys at the grocery store: an extra bottle of wine, some organic treats for the kid, etc. We have found the best way to avoid these impulse purchases is to shop at the downtown market, where we purchase fruits, vegetables, meat, fish, cheese, etc., directly from farmers. There are fewer processed impulse purchases to be found, and the food is far fresher (and more affordable).

Guest's picture
martha in mobile

We bought our stand mixer from Kitchenaid as a refurbished model; we saved around $200. It has held up for several years; we use it approx 3x per week for baking bread and making suet (I swear my husband feeds every wild bird in Lower Alabama).

What takes the longest for me is meal planning for The Three Bears -- my child hates anything spicy, my husband hates anything bland, and I don't care as long as it has nutritional value.

Guest's picture

afterwards that I hate doing. I love to cook but I hate doing dishes.

But then again it makes me look for "One Dish Meals" recipes. Surprising what people have concocted that is quite delicious.

Guest's picture
Rebecca F

For me, the worst part of cooking from scratch (which is something I love to do, and do regularly) is the clean up.

So, I was smart.

I married a man who has no problem doing dishes. :)

Guest's picture

A stand mixer is key if you enjoy any sort of baking.

For bread, I'm partial to the 5 minutes a day version:

It really is easy.

Guest's picture

I understand your uneasiness around cooking utensils like crockpots. We left one running in the kitchen and it's started burning (it was over 20 years old when it burned). Fortunately we were home at the time.
Now we use a thermos pot. Basically you heat it on the stove and put the entire pot into a vacuum jacket made for it. It comes as a set and we've yet to find it in New Zealand. It's very common in Asia but expensive (about USD120). However you only heat it once, after that the food stay hot for hours. Once we left porridge in it for two days. It came out between hot and very warm with steam piping out. Not bad with only 20 minutes of cooking (and electricity).
Besides the benefits of cheaper power bill and great food; it's hard to find it outside of Asia. It's also comes in one size only (so far) which is family size.
Happy cooking everyone!

Guest's picture

Making dough is a process in itself. The dough can be frozen once made. Skip the last rising part, package accordingly (bread loaves, breadsticks, rolls, etc) and freeze. As these items are needed, you can take out of your freezer. As it thaws, it creates the last rising action and then cook as needs be. If you spent an afternoon doing this, not only are you saving the money of cooking from scratch, but saving so much time during the week. Cinnamon rolls can also be created and frozen. As the same goes for cookie dough. Make a large batch of cookie dough. Form into balls, freeze thouroughly, then combine into a plastic bag or ice cream bucket. Only take cookies out as needed. This saves time, money, and your waist line by not having all the cookies to eat at once!
Cooking large batches of hamburger and adding certain seasonings, then freezing in family sizes, will also save time. Taco meat for example. Brown hamburger, add your taco seasonings and freeze. Label your bag. The next time you are making tacos or a mexican dish, it is cooked. All you have to do is thaw and reheat. Many many foods can be cooked, prepared, then frozen. Planning your meals will allow for thaw time during the day, easy and fast meal prep at night. And more time for whatever it is you enjoy doing.

Guest's picture

We use our bread machine at least 3 times a week. I make bread in it, process dough for breads that need to bake in the oven and prep pizza dough we leave in the fridge. I can make a fresh pizza start to finish in 15 minutes. I also use it to make jam and ketchup.

We also bought a rice steamer. We use that for rice, lentils and have been learning more things we can cook in it. It also has a timer so you can set it to start just ahead of dinner.

We use the crock pot frequently also. I make roasts in it when we are going to be busy all day. I also use it to make dog food. The bonus with the crock pot is it can cook without me having to watch it or be home. That is they key with all of these. I can set them off and they do the work while I am doing something else.

The mention of fresh pasta caused me to look up doing pasta in a bread machine on the dough cycle. It appears you can.

Guest's picture

I highly recommend if you don't have one purchasing a Food Saver. You can buy in bulk and seal your food up and lasts alot longer than using freezer bags as it removes all of the air prior to sealing.

Guest's picture

Instead of a stand mixer, I use a Breadman Ultimate Bread machine that I got for free on Freecycle. I don't use it to cook the dough, I just run it through the mix cycle and it mixes and kneads the dough for me in maybe 20 minutes, without getting my hands dirty.

You can usually get them fairly inexpensively secondhand or, again, free, as many people get them as gifts and give them away when the novelty wears off.

Guest's picture

What I hate most is chopping vegetables for my homemade soup. I don't like the way the food processor chops them, but I don't want to spend 45 minutes chopping.

I've been using a recipe similar to the artisan bread recipe. I hand-knead it in just a few minutes, and as long as I use enough flour my hands don't get very messy.

Guest's picture

For me, the worst part is the clean-up. I work and go to school full time, and I still cook from scratch (including baking my own bread). I find the cold fermentation techniques are best for busy people who want homemade bread. Also, I do my bread by hand, even though I have a stand mixer. I just mix it quickly w/ a wooden spoon (usually 2 minutes of stirring), then knead it for no more than 5 minutes, then toss it in the fridge overnight. Super easy and less clean-up than w/ the mixer.

Guest's picture

I write out weekly menus. It takes just a few minutes, then I mentally run through the recipes and make a list of any ingredients I need to purchase. We use coupons extensively and have a sizeable stockpile, so usually our grocery list calls for fresh fruits, vegetables, and meats.

Because time has grown more limited lately, I've started planning for leftovers. For example, Saturday I made Chicken Curry with the intent of having the leftovers on the following Wednesday. Sunday I made a large pot of lima beans, which we'll have Thursday. All I need to do when I come home later the week is cook rice or a side vegetable. Other nights, we'll have salad or a simple one-pot-meal or casserole.

Clean up is reduced as well, since the bulk of the work has been done earlier, so you really only using a couple of pots later. Plus I have a deal with my partner that I cook and he cleans. We've been happy for years!

Guest's picture

I buy ingredients in bulk when they are on sale so I can cook from my pantry. Appliances I love are a crock pot, stand mixer (for kneading bread), steamer, toaster oven and chest freezer. When we grill out we cook up lots of extra meat and then freeze it for quick dinners later.