Cooking from scratch at home often seems impractical because many think that they need special culinary skills or tons of time to do so. Making homemade meals are not only easy to do, but they’re also healthier and inexpensive as well. With my 3 tips on how to start cooking from scratch and have time for it, you’ll see how easy it is to save money and time at home while also honing your cooking skills!
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When I first started this blog, I set out to teach the world how to cook gourmet, restaurant-quality food at home. With my knowledge as a chef and the tricks I had learned over my career, I thought it would be easy to teach the American public how easy it was to cook from scratch meals at home.
I was wrong. Oh so very wrong.
The problem, though not complex, is hard for most people to overcome and commit to cooking homemade dinners most nights of the week.
The culprit: Time.
Everyone thinks that cooking from scratch takes a lot of time. Cooking from scratch, while it takes a bit more effort and planning, doesn’t take much more time than cooking a boxed meal.
I want to give you three simple tips that you can apply starting now that will shy you away from using processed foods and creating whole meals from whole foods.
But first, let’s answer some questions
What is Cooking From Scratch
First, I think it’s super important to clarify something and that is the term “cooking from scratch.” Working in independently owned restaurants for the majority of my career as a chef, we prided ourselves in making a lot of our sauces, pasta, bread, etc. in house. Now, this doesn’t mean that we didn’t use canned tomatoes to get our sauces started, nor did we mill our own flour in-house.
It’s important to note that cooking from scratch means to try to cook with as little processed foods as possible. However, there are products like canned tomatoes or frozen puff pastry that totally ok in my book to use in a from scratch kitchen.
Canned tomatoes are harvested and cooked at the peak of their season. The cooking process that the tomatoes go through in order to be canned, provides such a depth of flavor that you can’t really achieve just solely with fresh tomatoes. Using canned tomatoes to build sauces or in braises produce so much more flavor that is imperative for those to be as delicious as possible.
Puff pastry can be made from scratch and is very delicious. However, I’m not too finicky when it comes the taste of frozen vs fresh puff pastry. Most people don’t have time to make a proper puff pastry and it takes up a lot of room in your fridge. Though you could make a quick blitz puff pastry with less time and space. Here is a recipe that I love and trust.
What I’m trying to get at is that when it comes to from scratch cooking, you have to know which things are worth the time and effort and which things are not. If the taste is the same and saves you HOURS then go ahead and cheat a little. Here is an interesting article on my thoughts of Fresh vs Preserved items and when either should be used!
Is Cooking From Scratch Healthier
This deserves a resounding YES! I can’t even begin to go into detail just how much healthier cooking from scratch is for you. However, I will give you a real-life example of just how much healthier it is.
Over the past year, I have encountered some sleep problems. After trying natural remedies to help, I finally went to see a doctor about my problem. As is typical for DO’s to establish care, she ordered a full work up on me to see how my body chemistry worked. I got back my results and had my awesome pharmacist husband go over them with me. Everything looked great and normal.
Especially my cholesterol.
Here’s the thing. I eat normally lots of fruits and veggies, I try to eat whole grains as much as I can, and I eat lean proteins or even plant-based proteins.
However, I also use butter in my cooking. I salt everything (well everything that ought to be salted). I use cream in my cooking and desserts. I love red meat. I love fatty meats. I am tolerant of some cheeses.
The common denominator: I cook from scratch and eat at home 95% of the days in the month. I’m not a doctor and definitely not a nutritionist but what I am saying is that my health hasn’t suffered at all when looking at what I eat. It all depends on how you cook.
Is Cooking From Scratch Cheaper
This is a tricky question. Yes and no.
Cooking from scratch entails buying more of the raw product used to make a dish which could end up costing more up front. However, if you were to break down the price of say making your own pasta (which you are more than welcome to check out how I make it here), it is cheaper per serving.
When you cook from scratch, you also tend to make more food than what bagged or packaged food would allow you to make. This then gives you the opportunity to eat the leftovers for several days and come up with different ways to present the leftovers (I love making roasts for this reason; check out this one to see what I mean).
Staples for Cooking From Scratch
When it comes to cooking from scratch, you need to think differently than with convenience foods. You need to plan and you need to have go-to or staple items. Now, these are going to vary from household to household and what types of foods you like to eat regularly.
I know that for me and my family, we love to eat lots of Italian-type meals, as well as Mexican.
Here’s what you could expect to find in my pantry at any given time.
|varied canned beans||bread flour||corn starch||vegetable cooking spray||chile powder||dried basil|
|canned tomatoes||wheat flour||white rice||oats||ground cinnamon||dried cilantro|
|tomato paste||semolina flour||brown ricepeanut butter||flaxseed||ground clove||turmeric|
|sugar||almonds||dry milk powder||raisins||ground nutmeg||ground ginger|
|kosher salt||walnuts||syrup||dried cranberries||whole peppercorns||bay leaves|
|brown sugar||baking powder||quinoa||semi sweet chocolate||ground cumin||red pepper flakes|
|powdered sugar||baking soda||vegetable oil||garlic powder||paprika|
|all-purpose flour||vanilla extract||olive oil||onion powder||dried oregano|
So think about your taste in dishes and then think about all of the foods that you would need in order to make the dishes you like! If you need help thinking of flavor combinations, watch this FB Live video about flavor profiles and pairing seasonings. I also have this post on regional flavors that might help you!
You also need some basic equipment to get you started. Here are the basics that I suggest.
How to Begin Cooking From Scratch
I’m so excited for you guys!!! We’ve now got to the tips I want to share with you! I have learned these kitchen tips over my almost 10-year career as a professional chef. These are things that chefs use every day to make your meals come together in no time. These also help a professional kitchen run smoothly. So if the pro’s do it, you should too! You didn’t think I was going to teach you how to cook like a chef, did you??? Well, I am because we know how to get cooking done fast.
3 Kitchen Tips to Cooking At Home Like a Chef
One of the hardest things to do in a kitchen, I struggled with this as well when I was new to cooking, is timing out everything so that all of the components of a dish come together at the same time. It is a skill that takes a game plan, some basic knowledge of cooking times, and always being in motion. Here are my basic kitchen tips for cooking like a chef at home!
Kitchen Tip 1: Mise En Place
The French have this crazy term that is used throughout all of the culinary world and it is THE most singular thing that they beat into our heads in our Basics class in culinary school. This term means, roughly, “everything in its place.”
In essence, we have our ingredients all together (preferably measured out), our equipment is out and ready to go (i.e. pots and pans and any other things we’ll need to be able to execute a dish), and we have our recipe ready to go!
We are familiar with our recipe (not necessarily memorized), we have our ingredients right where we need them and we have the correct tools to carry out what we need to. Mise en place makes or breaks a service in a professional kitchen and makes or breaks a home-cooked meal.
What does mise en place look like in a home kitchen? Well, it means that you have a well-stocked pantry full of ingredients that you use every day. You have also looked through the recipe multiple times, made a list, and shopped for all of the ingredients that you don’t already have. You make sure that you have the right pot or pan to cook the dish. You take time to prep ingredients before cooking begins. You know if you need a spatula or a whisk or a wooden spoon.
This is essential! If you take away nothing else from this post, please always remember MISE EN PLACE.
Kitchen Tip 2: Knowledge of Cooking Times
This comes from practice in the kitchen and becoming more and more comfortable with what’s going on around you. As you cook more, you’ll begin to learn that a medium rare ribeye will take about 8 minutes to cook; that butternut squash takes about 45 minutes to roast in the oven; that dried pasta takes about 7-9 minutes to get to al dente. The more you cook, the more comfortable you become with putting a dish together.
When I worked at a super busy restaurant on their oven station, we had a dish that I had to help with part of the cooking process; it was our Roasted Chicken. This dish composed of half of a chicken, sweet potato puree, roasted red pepper ragout, and a garlic chicken sauce. Talk about delicious! Anyway, the wood oven station, that I worked, had the privilege of cooking the half chicken.
Now the chicken took about 20 minutes to cook all the way through in my toasty 650-degree oven. As the oven cook, it was my responsibility to let the sauté cook (the one picking up the rest of the dish) how much longer my chicken was going to take so that he knew when to heat up the rest of the components for the dish. If we had timed it out correctly, by the time my chicken was done and on his station, the plate already had everything on it, we just needed to sauce it and garnish it.
When I first started working at that station, I was very timid about the chicken because we never want to ever serve raw chicken and my timing would be off because I didn’t have the practice yet. However, the more I cooked that dish, the more accurate my timing became to the point where I didn’t even watch the clock anymore and the sauté station would have to play catch up with me. I could feel when 20 minutes, 10 minutes, and even 2 minutes were over. It became second nature.
Kitchen Tip 3: Never Stop Moving
My philosophy when cooking a dish is until it’s the food is plated, you never stop moving. Always be doing something in the kitchen to get ahead on your dish. If everything is cooking and you’re just waiting for everything to come together to plate, clean! My dear husband will cook for me occasionally when he has the time and when I am just exhausted from a long day of work (shocker, I don’t always cook at home!) which I enjoy and I love him for it.
When we were first married, his dinners (poor guy) would take sooooooo long from beginning to end. Part of it was that he didn’t have a ton of experience with having a game plan or knowing the cooking times of certain items. He was either waaay ahead of himself or he would constantly be playing catch up to make everything come together at the same time. When dinner did get done and we had finished eating, it would take everything I had to not look in the kitchen… I would have to find something else to do while he cleaned up everything.
A major problem was when he had down time, he wouldn’t do dishes as he used them and then that just compiled until it was one huge mess at the end. As we’ve gone on in our marriage, I’ve taught him how to clean as he went so that he doesn’t use all of the spatulas in our kitchen or run out of forks for just one thing.
Now it’s much better, dinner still takes a while to do. But, I no longer wait 2 hours for a chicken dinner and I can go into a clean kitchen after dinner. He has come a long way and I am so proud!
Don’t let the dishes pile up in the sink and think “I’ll do them after dinner;” do them while dinner is cooking. Because, believe you me, I hate cleaning up a ton of dishes after I’ve finished cooking and eating a delicious meal!
The work in a kitchen is never done until the kitchen is clean!
Bonus Kitchen Tip: Know the Setup of Your Kitchen
In the restaurant that I worked the wood oven, I struggled when I first started to keep up with the hectically fast-paced kitchen. I was put on the pantry station which was in charge of salads and desserts. I was having a hard time getting all the dishes done that needed to be done when they needed to be done. The owner/ head chef came to me one day and told me a little secret which I have applied to every kitchen job since then and other aspects of my life as well.
“Marlee, you need to set up your station like the cockpit of an F-16. Set up your station the exact same way, every day, so that it becomes just muscle memory for you. You’ll reach over for your tomatoes to get your apples because that’s where you put them every day; you put your salt in the same container and in the same place every day; you put your knife, your mandolin, your steel, your cutting board, your bowls all in the same spot every day and you’ll get faster.”
Don’t let anyone mess with your mojo, take control of your kitchen, be the boss of your space and have confidence that you can get a meal out in less than an hour (unless the recipe calls for a longer period of time)!
In review, the keys cooking from scratch at home and actually have time for it are:
- Mise en place (have a game plan!)
- Know the correct cooking times of items being cooked (have confidence!)
- Never stop moving (there is always something to be done until your dish is put together!)
- Know the Setup of Your Kitchen (F-16 cockpit!)
Let’s implement these steps into our cooking this week shall we! Maybe even try it out for Sunday dinner. Tell me how these steps have helped you increase your confidence and sanity in your kitchen. Check out my Mexican Style Shrimp Scampi as the perfect recipe utilizing all of these tips!