If ever there was an ongoing culinary struggle I face on a daily basis, which is about as often as I’m either thinking about a recipe or actually executing one, it is the process of deciding how much of a given meal I want to make from scratch. Over the years, I’ve become more in favor of taking raw ingredients and putting them together to construct something I might be able to find pre-packaged and ready to go on a grocery store shelf. The sense of accomplishment I get is euphoric, especially when the final result blows what I could’ve bought already-made out of the water. With that said, I have found that even though I LOVE to make things from scratch, there is absolutely a time and place to take those pre-made shortcuts.
The beauty of exploring shortcuts in cooking these days is that the prepared foods we find in almost any reputable grocery store you walk into are pretty damn good. Whether you are looking for a fun hummus to serve as an appetizer or a marinara sauce to ladle onto a homemade pizza, chances are your options will be both abundant and of high quality.
With every meal I make and party I throw, I go through the motions of figuring out what I’m going to make from scratch and what I’m going to purchase from the store that is already prepared. After pondering this a few 100 times, I have found there are key benefits to both. The “when” and the “why” behind my decisions are clear, and they are what I share with you today.
Here is my take on…
When to Buy Prepared Goods
Making Them From Scratch
There are many positives and well as compromises whenever we decide on preparing something from scratch or buying it already made from the grocery store.
Positives of making a dish from scratch:
- we have total control over the ingredients of which the dish is comprised
- there is an elevated freshness to what we ultimately serve our guests, as little time passes before what we’ve made hits the plates of those we are feeding
- the dish is completely customizable, allowing you to incorporate the flavors you want from the very beginning of the dish’s creation
Compromises of making a dish from scratch:
- extra time is needed when preparing a dish from raw ingredients
- the dish can sometimes cost more to make
- additional knowledge of how to prepare something is essential
When should we make something from scratch?
There are so many opportunities to make a dish from scratch. To keep yourself on track with a meal and to prevent you from spreading yourself too thin during the preparing stages, here are a few reasons starting from raw ingredients is the best way to go.
When you want to showcase a specific part of your meal (i.e. roasting whole artichokes as a special appetizer or side or making fresh pasta)
- gives the meal a focal point
- helps you focus on what you will spend most of your time and effort on preparing
- gives your guests something specific and special to look forward to in the meal
When what you are making is not available in your grocery store (i.e. a specific kind of hummus or a certain pastry)
- allows you to add variety to a meal
- introduces a dish that many may not have had before, increasing interest in what you’ve made
When you are catering to someone with allergies (i.e. celiac’s disease, lactose intolerance or shellfish allergy)
- gives you complete control over every ingredient, ensuring that the final product is safe for consumption
When should we buy prepared goods?
The options for purchasing a single element or the entirety of a dish completed from a grocery store are endless. Many of them, whether in a plastic container, a can or a jar, require little to no doctoring before they are consumed. Here are a few more reasons you should revert to purchasing a prepared good instead of making it from scratch.
When you are cooking for large groups
- ensures consistency in quality and taste with minimal effort on your part
- enables you to replenish the dish or element of the dish on-the-fly
When you might not have time on your hands
- gives you the ability to put a complete meal together without feeling the stress of the clock
When the ingredient is one of many components in a dish
- prevents you from unnecessarily spending time on an element that does not have the platform to shine
When you are not sure how to make something
- gives you the chance to elevate and add variety to your spread instantly
- enables you to include elements you might not necessarily do, increasing the reach of your meal to your guests
When the element is not the centerpiece of the meal
- leaves you with more time to put your efforts into what you want your guests to focus on when the main meal you prepared is ready
A few examples of “from scratch” vs. “prepared”
The first time I made this sauce was for a pasta night. I made the marinara from scratch, added it to fettuccine with some prepared cheese and parsley sausage. The sauce was allowed to shine and became the focus of what guests were looking to taste.
The ravioli was the main course. With a number of custom fillings prepared, the only way to ensure their inclusion was to make the pasta dough from scratch. This ravioli was indeed the focus of the meal, and in every way worth making from scratch.
Artichokes in Chipotle Chicken Spinach & Artichoke Dip
There were many elements in this dish. The importance was how the elements played off of one another and not the extreme freshness or specific flavor of any one single ingredient. This recipe also called for many artichoke hearts, which would have resulted in too much time spent on preparing each heart from scratch.
Ricotta Cheese in Spinach Lasagna
While ricotta cheese is fairly easy to make from scratch, if it is not the star of the show, purchasing it ready-made from the store is completely fine. In this dish, the ricotta was mixed in with spinach and layered between a marinara sauce and mozzarella cheese. The additional elements of the dish would have masked the custom flavor of the ricotta.
While I love making so much of my food from scratch, I know when it is time to rely on the store for some help. And there is no shame in that. If you are like me, I always look for small ways to make something “my own.” And when it comes to purchasing items from the store, there are a few final tips I can give you that will enable you to add a little “homemade flair” into the most prepared of foods.
For savory items: use fresh herbs if the overall recipe calls for it. And if you can give the dish you’re making some oven time, roasting will give what you are preparing a layer of “from scratch flavor.”
For sweet items: for items like frosting, cake mix, pancake or muffin batter, a little bit of vanilla extract goes a long way. Add some next time you’re baking and you’ll notice a grand difference.