24 October 2011

Three good reasons to cook from scratch

I've been cooking from scratch since I started cooking nearly fifty years ago. It makes sense to me because it's tastier, I know what is in my food and it's cheaper. Of course there are many other reasons but I reckon those three oblige me to do it. I went through phases of adding gravy powder to my gravy, buying pastry cases because it was easier, and making stock with stock cubes, but none of them lasted long. My gravy didn't taste as good, the pastry I bought was capable of sitting on a store shelf for weeks, and tasted like it, and I discovered that making stock with bones and herbs was much more satifiying than boiling water and stirring in a cube of who knows what. I am much more cautious of synthetic food preservatives than I am of the fungus and bacteria they prevent growing. If I want to provide my family with healthy and safe meals, I much prefer to use fresh clean food, add only natural seasonings and cook it from scratch. I want to eat real food.

Humans have survived all these years without eating artificially preserved and flavoured foods and now it is our turn to control the food chain and what do we do? We change it, just because we can. We add compounds that we don't know the long-term affects of and we eat things because we like the taste, or the advertising. We're eating food prepared by people we don't know and most of the time we have no idea what's in it, how it was cooked or how old it is. And it's not just food, it's drinks as well. The obvious ones we should avoid are soft drinks/sodas but many fruit juices contain a lot of sugar, preservatives and are made with reconstituted juice. Water is vital for good health so it's not just consuming these laden drinks that's the entire problem, they stop you drinking water too.

If you're still using a lot of processed and convenience foods a good place to start is your breakfast menu. Stop buying boxed cereals and replace them with rolled oats. Soaking the oats overnight in warm water not only softens the oats to make them cook faster, it makes them more digestible. Make sure you pour off the water and rinse them well before cooking. Here is a recipe for soaked oats. You could also eat poached or boiled eggs with wholemeal toast, fresh fruit juice or fruit, or buckwheat pancakes with yoghurt and fruit. Of course, the pancakes and yoghurt would be made from scratch. Maybe you could add a weekly yoghurt making session to your kitchen tasks and store it in the fridge for breakfasts and desserts.

I can't give you an arm load of scratch recipes right now, although I have a lot of them on my blog if you care to look, but will encourage you instead to learn the various ways you can cook from scratch. Once you understand and master the techniques, you can make your own recipes up, according to your family's tastes and the food you have on hand. The commonly used ways of cooking from scratch include:
  • roasting
  • steaming
  • boiling
  • shallow frying
  • stir frying
  • grilling/broiling/BBQing
  • braising - slow cooking in a closed pot on the stove top or in a slow cooker or in cast iron or Pyrex in the oven
Of course, you'd also include raw foods, even though they're not cooked, they still have to be cleaned, prepared and stored so they're served at their best.

If you're just starting out and want very basic instruction on how to cook, as well as some good recipes to try, I recommend the Women's Weekly cook books. They've been around for donkey's years, I still cook from the Chinese, French and children's birthday party cooks books I bought 30 years ago, but I've also bought the slow cooking and the preserves cook books in the past year. They're excellent - they encourage simple home cooking using ingredients most of us have in the pantry. You can see the range at Fishpond but most of the newer ones should be available at your newsagent if you're in Australia. BTW, I have no affiliation with these cook books. I recommend them because I use them, they feature real food and they offer good value for money for new cooks.

And if we were sitting together around my kitchen table and you asked me for some advice about cooking from scratch, I'd tell you to stop buying "food" and buy only ingredients, don't use canned or packaged soup to add flavour and don't add packet mixes to your food. That will put you in control of what you eat and you'll save money in the process. I'd also encourage you to get into the habit of cooking double amounts. I do that all the time. So generally I only cook three of four nights a week, yet we eat from scratch every night.

Cooking from scratch will stand you in good stead if you're wanting to simplify your life, eat real food and cut back on food additives. If you couple that with setting the table with cloth napkins, a water jug and glasses, and gathering the family around it to eat together, you'll be doing just what your grandma and her grandma did. And that's a wonderful example to follow.

ADDITION: Melissa from Frugal and Thriving, a great Australian blog, sent me her ebook Plan, Cook, Save this morning. I've just gone through the recipes and read a few of the earlier pages and I have to tell you, I'm impressed. It goes into Scratch Cooking in depth and has quite a number of recipes for the home cook. I recommend it to you but you can read about it here and decide for yourself.



  1. A very interesting post, Rhonda. Two years ago I was diagnosed with coeliac disease and am now required to follow a strict gluten-free diet. This completely changed my family's life, as I suddenly became so much more aware of every morsel I consumed. Now we make almost everything from scratch so that I can be really careful about what's going into our meals (and our bodies). A diet without gluten (wheat, rye, barley) isn't easy when consuming ready-made, pre-prepared products; but when choosing ingredients to cook from scratch, there's a variety of naturally gluten-free ingredients to choose from - meat, poultry, cheese, eggs, fish, vegetables, fruit, rice - and the possibilities are endless.

    Best Wishes
    Frugal Wife

  2. Hi Rhonda, I thought you might like this poem which sat in my grandmother's kitchen and now sits in mine. I think it's relevant whether you are a 'believer' or not...

    Bless my pretty kitchen Lord
    And light with Thy Love
    Help me plan and cook my meals
    From thy heavenly home above.
    Bless our meals with Thy Presence
    And warm then with Thy grace;
    Watch over me as I do my work,
    Washing pots and pans and plates.
    The service I am trying to do
    Is to make my family content,
    So bless my eager efforts Lord
    And make them heaven sent.

  3. Eating from scratch has greatly improved out health! I have also lost weight. I try and make and freeze a lot of food so that I don't have to cook all the time. Makes it easier for sure.

  4. I completely agree!! Often in this country the media talk about how expensive is to eat healthily. Though it is getting more expensive to buy fresh ingredients, the real problem is that people have lost the skill of cooking. Yes, you can't whip up a master chef extravaganza each night, but a bit of chopping, marinating and grilling is so easy and healthy. We have such high quality produce in this country (not to mention a great climate and first world health-care) and we should be the healthiest nation in the world. But we've lost the ability to look after ourselves.

    I think that you often reflect my thoughts so well in this area. I am just so passionate about REAL food (not food from boxes, not food that's been treated, not cheffy food either). It is and always has been a basic human need to nourish ourselves, to share life's joys and sorrows at table and to make the most of the natural resources around us. I get so sad to see policy and culture moving away from this.

    Sorry to rant a bit! Keep on Rhonda!


    BTW: My AWW Basisc cook book inherited from my mother in law is about 30 years old, has everything from tripe to Anzacs and is still one of my most used. But if you are a real beginner try the Common Sense Cook Book. No pictures, but it basically assumes you know nothing, and gives great info about different cuts of meat, families of veg etc.

  5. That's a good one for your radio show, Rhonda. It is the kind of message that needs to be spread.

  6. Food allergies mean that many of our meals are home made. Then add in diabetes, familial problems with hyper cholesterolaemia and hypertension and homemade becomes vital. It is just something I just do. Buying the simple stuff to create food becomes a habit and there are so many places I just avoid in the supermarkets.

    I do have one question though. Our basic stock is chicken stock and most of the time I get a jellied stock but it can seem to lack flavour. Any tricks would be greatly appreciated.

  7. Once again an EXCELLENT post! Thank you for always being honest and encouraging!

    You may already know about this but there is a great website called booko.com.au (not 100% sure on the .au but if you google Booko it will come up).

    In this website you type in the book title you are looking for and it will show everywhere it is available including postage if applicable from cheapest to most expensive.

  8. I also love my common sense cookbook, I was given it as a teenager, my mum had one and my much older sister had one too. Mine is now in pieces and I am looking for a replacement copy, it has obviously been well loved!

  9. Great post Rhonda!I still use the WW chinese and numerous other WW cookbooks too and the one we were given in home ec 20 yrs ago is a favourite that my daughter can now cook from as everything is laid out so well.
    I get really upset when i look at some recipes now and they are just add jar of this or can of soup etc etc...that's not a recipe to me.
    Since having the vegie patch i find i need to think outside the box a little and seek recipes for the vegies that are in season rather than just relying on my old favourites.
    It's nice though to cook recipes your Mum cooked that remind you of childhood and now to see my teen making them is great! I wish they still taught home ec like they used to in school...it seems to be more about food technology now unfortunately....oh well up to us to pass those skills on now!
    Thank you for yet another reminder that what we do here in the home is important and worthwhile!
    Jode x

  10. I think the idea of buying ingredients is really the key here. I didn't learn how to cook while growing up, so when I first took to learning it on my own, I actually thought boiling packaged noodles and warming a jar of sauce was "cooking." And in some sense it was, in a baby-step fashion. However, what I quickly realized was that this way of cooking was hardly fulfilling! When it dawned on me to try making the noodles from flour and eggs and the sauce from fresh tomatoes, a whole new world opened up! And it just keeps expanding. For me, cooking from scratch is what makes cooking interesting and rewarding.

  11. We eat very little that is ready made. I need my hubby's help with peeling and chopping and he often has to take over from me because I get so tired but we eat fabulously well on very little money. We have several food intolerances between us but have almost eliminated them through avoiding processed food; wheat, for example is in almost all processed foods.

  12. Suze, the longer you cook stock the more the flavour will develop. You could also try roasting the bones before boiling them and using vegetables and herbs - celery, onion and carrot are traditional, as well as parsley and thyme. For every litre/quart water, add 2 tablespoons of vinegar. That will help draw the nutrients from the bones.

  13. so, so true. I was lucky enough to have a grandmother in the 'traditional' mold - she was plump and cuddly, and she cooked everything. She and my grandfather grew all their own veges, preserved, and the cake tins were always full! If I could manage a fraction of what my grandmother did, I would be so proud...

    Further to soaking the rolled oats - sometimes I soak ours in milk overnight (in the fridge). Then just add water in the morning and cook as usual - they come out with a fabulously creamy, nutty flavour.
    Re the stock - I recently made a beef stock starting with roasting beef bones and offcuts, various veges (mainly root veges, plus garlic and onion), and then putting in a put with water - delicious!

  14. Fabulous post Rhonda. I have the WW Biscuit book and use it heaps. Another good recipe book for basics is "Cookery The Australian Way". I bought my copy when I finished school and have just bought a copy for DD1 who is off to Uni next year at her request. It is the most used book in my kitchen and the most basic. Best of all it covers everything from budgeting to cuts of meat and even how to lay a table. You can get the book on ebay at very reasonable prices.

  15. Hi Rhonda thanks for this post!
    I have a 15 year old who is going through that phase of wanting to eat only mass produced popular .....junk food (by the truck load!), chips, cookies, cola the usual teenage diet! Do you have any recipes for snacks for teenagers who seem to be bottomless pits when it comes to food. He does eat fresh fruit which i am happy for but I would like to ween him off the junk foodbut still keep him satisfied.

  16. We have a huge vegetable garden, some goats and chickens and supplement our pantry with ingredients (only) from the supermarket. I can't help but notice what other people are buying, glancing over their products whilst I'm queuing at the checkout. It is amazing to see the volume of prepackaged, pop-in-the-microwave products (I don't call it food) people throw their money away on - or the fast food, synthetic, extruded snacks to be washed down by gallons of sugar laden fizzy drinks. It's no wonder that allergies are galloping through society when the bulk of products have synthetic components rather than real, simple, good honest food. That's why I'm so grateful for what you write Rhonda, and thank you for this post.

  17. hi rhonda, yes cooking from scratch is the way to go but these days alot of people just do not know the basics! We have a well known cook here in nz, alison holst. She has a couple of really good cook books which tell you and show you all the basics ways to do things when cooking, helping you to budget simply for your family. My mother told me: "If you have flour , eggs and milk then you can make alot of things if you try, and you will always have a meal". love your blog sue~n.z.

  18. I really want to be able to cook from scratch more. There are so many things you can make with the most basic of ingredients. I guess its all in the know how! In our fast paced lifestyles packaged food seems easier and you know what you are going to get (even if its a bit gross!). I think the first place for anyone wanting to learn to cook from scratch is pancakes! They are so unbelieveably easy yet so many buy the packet mix! Insanity!

  19. You know that I'm on the same page Rhonda...except for my dirty secret -- pastry. But I will try again, I know you have some directions here.

    I didn't know Laucke made German grain flour, I'll go to their site and see where I can get it.

  20. Thank you for your wise words, Rhonda. In our kitchen right now there is the smell of hot Tuscan Bean Soup and Herb Bread that will be enjoyed for dinner in just a few short moments. A home cooked meal is not only better for you physically, but mentally as well. Cooking relaxes me and the look on a loved one's face when they take the first bite of the meal you have put so much love into is the best feeling in the world! Home cooking brings us all closer.



  21. Like Frugal Wife above, I got thrust into cooking from scratch because of food allergies. That was 20 years ago when I was just out of college, so I've never really known any different during my adult life. Although it would be really nice not to be allergic, in a way I view it as a gift that allowed me to escape the whole processed food trap that would otherwise be so easy to fall into.

    It was a bit of a baptism by fire though, since I was raised by a mother who's idea of "home cooking" was sticking a TV dinner in the oven! But I've always taken inspiration from my Italian grandmother who could take the scantest of ingredients and whip up a feast. And you totally hit the nail on the head when you said you should stop buying food and start buying ingredients!

    A great way to learn how to really cook from scratch, as opposed to just following recipes, is to join a CSA farm. There's nothing like having a big box of unfamiliar vegetables arrive every week to broaden your horizons and teach you how to cook with what you have on hand!

    Another thing I've found extremely helpful is to get educated about what I call "spice families." I don't mean that in the sense of which plants are related to each other, but which seasonings are used together in various different cuisines. I often have to substitute spices because of my allergies, so it's really helpful to know which things will "go" together nicely.

  22. Hi Rhonda, I posted our families favourite Honey and Oat bread today which my kids love as an alternative to cereal....toasted in the morning with butter, or a little honey on top its a filling and " made from scratch' brekkie to start them off for the day....

  23. This is great, really articulates my passion for good, healthy, simple homemade food. It's so essential and so often overlooked. And a little preparation and planning is all it takes to do this week in, week out.

  24. have yet attempt my own vegie stock but food does taste best from scratch so I'm inspired to give it a go.

  25. I agree completely about cooking from 'scratch' but really wish we could think up a better phrase. It always conjures up a vision of the cook scratching away at various ailments as they prepare the food. Not a good vision. :)

  26. I completely agree with you, Rhonda. And the secret, in my opinion, is to find the time and organize your cooking life. When I have to go at work, for example, I wake up very early to prepare the "base" of our daily meal. Or prepare lots of thing on sunday. Thanks for this very interesting post, Clara.

  27. I spent much of the last school holidays cooking up meals so that I could restock our freezer. We'd gotten to the point where I was completely out of energy on Thursday nights, and couldn't make a decision about what to cook, let alone cook it. Add that to an empty freezer and you end up eating far too much takeaway! I am also usually an avid menu planner but have gotten out of the habit over the last few months. Hopefully as life settles down a bit after some crazy mad busyness, I'll get that under control, too. I'm a big fan of cooking from scratch, so it unsettles me when we end up relying on outsourcing.

  28. Just a reply to Serena's Secret Gardens question re teens & junk food. If you don't buy it (fizzy drinks, store-bought junk food), then they can't eat it. I know that's obvious, but it can work. Of course, if he has money he can buy it elsewhere.

    Perhaps having homemade choc chip cookies with oats or homemade peanut butter cookies or homemade oatmeal cookies or raisin/date/jam slices in a glass jar (that he can make too) or nuts & dried fruit like 'trail mix' (if he'll eat dried fruit) available will be something he'll reach for. Also, gluten-free pasta & bread and low GI food plus protein (eg tuna or hard-boiled eggs in a wrap w/ any kind of previously cooked or cold veg already cut up) helps the body feel full longer, so that's another thought.

    My 19 yr old son is the same, but if I have such things available, then he's fine. He likes to cook, for which I am thankful. He's forever making his own meal right before the family meal is made.....I think the term is 'grazing' for growing teenagers (eating small meals often). It's just important that they don't 'graze' on empty calories/kilojoules to keep the blood sugar even.

  29. goodmorning from France Rhonda!
    I enjoyed this post very much and would like to know if you have the recipe for the filled cabbage on your blog? It looks so delicious!!
    Thanks again for all your interesting posts!! Gerry

  30. I agree with the main message of this post. I cook a lot of our meals from scratch (and so does my husband) - but not as completely as you, Rhonda. I do buy yoghurt and stock cubes. But then again, we both work outside the house full time. Making stock is satisfying, but also time-consuming!

    I wanted to make a little remark on a phrase from your article: "Humans have survived all these years without eating artificially preserved and flavoured foods and now it is our turn to control the food chain and what do we do?"

    Well, humans did survive, but the truth is that 100-200 years ago a lot of people died because of food poisoning. Antibiotics were not available back then, so once you got infected, it could turn out pretty seriously. A lot of people died because of faulty canning (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Botulism, but I learned about this from the Slow Food Magazine). Food technology is not all bad, it saved a lot of lives, especially of poor(er) people, not in the least because healthier food became available for them (in the cities, working class could now afford to eat vegetables and meat -which is a more balanced diet than eating mainly potatoes and bread).

    This is not to say that cooking from scratch is wrong, or dangerous. (I do it myself and enjoy it!) I just wanted to point out that it is not all black-and-white and there is a reason why the food industry got developed and people embraced it. As far as additives such as sugar and salt - you can eat a lot healthier if you cook from scratch. But some preservatives are really useful and make healthy food available to the masses.

  31. Another one in full agreement with you Rhonda. Now, where do I find the recipe for that yummy looking stuffed cabbage? I'm drooling just looking at it.

  32. Hi Rhonda,
    My husband works for a circus company and we are currently touring Japan. As fabulous as the food is here we find ourselves making food from scratch as we have a picky 3 year old. I made a quiche with your pastry recipe yesterday. It was my first time making pastry as I usually buy it frozen. It was a big success!
    Thankyou! Really enjoying your blog.

  33. Hannah1cestmoi, canning doesn't work because of added preservatives, you sterilise the food and container. The people who have died from botulism didn't die because they ate food with no preservatives, the canning wasn't done correctly and the Botulinum toxin survived the process. That had nothing to do with added preservatives.

    I do understand why the food industry was developed, it's what certain parts of it has developed into I have a problem with.

  34. Edwina, I'll post the recipe for stuffed cabbage rolls soon.

    Michaela, well done!

  35. Ahoy Rhonda, You had plenty of callers on your radio spot, I'll try to call next time so you get a bloke on. All the best. Cap'n Dan Van Blarcom, Airlie Beach, Whitsunday

  36. Since being married in my early 20's I have almost always cooked from scratch. Though at the time I didn't have a real knowledge of what I was avoiding, but it felt like "cheating" in a sense to cook a casserole and use a flavoured packet. My mother had always cooked from scratch out of budget necessity.
    Of course now I know so much more then I did then about the benefits of cooking from scratch and have added daily bread to the list. I do love reading your posts as a reminder to benefits of living this way.

  37. Wonderful post, Rhonda! I cook from scratch, and always have. Your cabbage rolls look delicious. One of my favorites!

  38. Excellent post. I came over from Beauty that Moves blog. I grew up in Switzerland and "cereal" meant rolled oats w/ yogurt, nuts, and fruit. I still like it so much better than the "junk cereal" that comes in boxes. I also make granola for my very American box-cereal loving husband. =)

  39. I love your blog Rhonda!!! I was wondering why the recipe recommended rinsing the oatmeal after soaking. The only reason I could think of is for taste, particularly if using a stronger tasting acid like cider vinegar. I use a tablespoon of whey when I soak my oatmeal and have never read that I should rinse it, nor have I had a problem with the taste being too sour. I'd love to know if I'm doing it wrong! :)

  40. Hi Barbara, we do it for taste. If you're using whey you may not have that problem. If you do some reading about this, it's still uncertain if you should rinse before eating for health reasons. Thanks for your comment. :- )


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