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Cooking from scratch...

I'm curious about how other Chowhounders define cooking from scratch. The answer was always really obvious to me, but from reading various threads I'm starting to think the answers vary a lot more than I originally thought.

To me cooking from scratch basically means not using mixes/convenience foods. Some ingredients are"pre-fab," like peanut butter, but I would still consider the cookies made from scratch without grinding the peanuts myself.

So, how far do you go in the pursuit of made from scratch?

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  1. I think for me the dividing line can be defined in terms of biscuits: biscuits made from Bisquick don't qualify as "scratch", but biscuits made with self-rising flour do. The difference there is how much actual work you have to do that must be done properly to make the biscuits come out well. As long as you don't overmix and overwork a Bisquick dough you'll get OK biscuits, but with scratch ones there's an art to cutting in the fat, whatever kind you use, that includes physical finesse and the correct temperatures of the ingredients.

    I've seen and eaten cakes that were the result of some elaborate planning and execution, but they were based on boxed cake mix, so although they might have been beyond my own expertise they were still not "scratch."

    7 Replies
    1. re: Will Owen

      I'm with you. When I say I make all my cakes from scratch, I mean I measured out the flour, sugar, baking powder, etc. myself, not based it on a box.

      But funny story: my mother, who isn't much of whiz in the kitchen, has been making these peanut butter chocolate chip cookies for about a year now - after decades of never baking anything. She's been insisting to everyone that she makes these from scratch. Well, about a month ago, I found bags of Betty Crocker Peanut Butter Cookie Mix (just add water!) in her pantry. I confronted her, and it turns out "from scratch" means "from Betty Crocker's bags with chocolate chips added".

      1. re: RosemaryHoney

        yes rosemaryhoney remember mama is always right

        1. re: RosemaryHoney

          One of the best pineapple upside down cakes I ever had was made from a box. I was floored.

          My sister in law does the food confronting in our family. Apparently bread unkneeded by one's own hand does not qualify as from scratch. But does she mill her own flour and harvest wild yeast?

          It is all relative.

          1. re: Sal Vanilla

            A favorite recipe of mine is for peach upside down cake, my version of pineapple. Canned peaches, boxed mix. Other than the eggs, not too much from scratch. But it is GREAT cake and still make in to this day. I actually tried to make it fresh or from scratch and it was a disaster ...

            All relative

            1. re: kchurchill5

              Peach? Yum. I bet you have to really sop them before you lay them out for the cake. I did it with overripe plums last year (little italians) and it was off the charts good. Tried it with green gage plums too... not so good. This summer I am thinking of doctoring up a few more box cakes. I bought a pile of lemon cakes, yellows and whites for 69 cents a piece. So easy and fun for summer.

              1. re: Sal Vanilla

                I love plums. Made plum tarts but that sounds good.

            2. re: Sal Vanilla

              Well, I wouldn't say I do "food confronting", and I have a rum cake recipe that is based on a box mix, but the reason I avoid the boxes has more to do with the ingredient list. "Propylene Glycol Monoesters of Fatty Acids" , "Dicalcium Phosphate", and "Sodium Stearoyl Lactylate" typically motivate me to break out the measuring cups :)

        2. I really think condiments are exempt from this *scratch* rule. Hello...catsup, PB, nuoc mam, shoyu, mustard...jam, for jeebus' sake!

          Scratch to me is not defrosting some Stouffer's thing and serving it up. Scratch is using real ingredients (and yes, condiments are real ingredients!) and cooking something that isn't in a plastic microwave tray. It's moving from the raw and multiple (possibly bottled or jarred) components to a finished product.

          Will's comments on the work that goes into a scratch meal appeal to me as well, although I know there are different levels of work.


          1. For me the dividing line is that the basic or key ingredient(s) are in or close to an unprocessed state. This does not mean grinding wheat into flour, but it also doesn't mean a boxed cake mix.

            So if I am making spaghetti sauce the question is can I use canned tomatoes or tomato sauce? To me canned tomato would still be from scratch, canned tomato sauce is maybe "transitional". But opening a can or jar of pre-made spaghetti sauce and doctoring it up with some spices is not scratch.

            2 Replies
            1. re: KaimukiMan

              Given that I basically refuse to eat fresh tomatoes outside of a window from late July to early October, I consider canned tomatoes a perfectly viable ingredient in "scratch" cooking.

              1. re: BarmyFotheringayPhipps

                ditto onthe canned tomatoes
                as far as cooking with
                a jarred sauce
                b any thing like cream of crap canned soup
                forget about it if your going to cook with those items open acan of cat/dog food and start makin' your meatballs or burgers

                although when making my homemade soups i make them in a 4 gallon pot
                and in place of salt i use 2 bouillion cubes

                that is one reason i dislike recipes out of woman's day or redbook or that awful taste of home 95% of the recipes are can this jar that
                and that my friends AIN'T COOKIN'

            2. I love to make mashed potatoes from scratch, I refuse to have instant mashed potatoes in my house, and I enjoy green beans so much that I even buy them fresh in winter when they get quite pricey. But when life gets rough I've learned to compromise for sanity's sake. So often I'll have the homemade mashed potatoes and the frenched green beans but with a Costo chicken or, more likely, their fresh breaded tilapia that I just throw in the oven for less than twenty minutes.

              1 Reply
              1. re: givemecarbs

                And there ain't nothing wrong with that. I make meals, but I buy desserts.

              2. I make both. I love from scratch when I can. Getting home at 9 or 11 at night and having to get up at 5 doesn't allow much sleep. So sometimes I don't get from scratch. I may use a jar or a can. But yes from scratch means pretty much what else was written

                However, I do use a tube of polenta at times and I don't mind that
                Also, canned tomatoes is fine
                Boxes mixes is not from scratch
                I don't mind peanut butter and even mayo I can handle but I think we all have our versions of from scratch.

                I just when I can use as many fresh ingredients as possible.

                1. I think there are too many shades of gray. I consider a tiramisu made from scratch if I made the savoiardi but I can see people considering it made from scratch if they buy it. Sausages are another--you can make sausages from scratch. But, if you use premade sausages to make lasagne, is that from scratch? What about sweetened condensed milk for things like key lime pie or tres leches cake? The more you try to pin it down, the more amorphous it becomes.

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: chowser

                    How about Dark Gray ...? Yes, a never ending array of discussions and un answered questions. It will always change. I have made sausage but 90% of the time I think buying a sausage made would be acceptable , Sauce I would make from scratch, noodles, I buy fresh homemade most of the time, no boil when I'm in a hurry and make them when I can borrow my friends pasta maker. As you said chowser, The more you try to pin it down, the more amorphous it becomes!

                  2. To confuse things further by adding yet another term - I often find myself differentiating from things made from scratch (i.e. not using pre-mixed or pre-prepared ingredients other than condiments) and things that are "homemade". If I am making sausage, pasta, or cheese, (things most often purchased already made) then I call it "homemade". But in the end, you say tomato I say tomato =).

                    2 Replies
                    1. re: Phoo_d

                      Or you said Phoo_d, I say food.;-) And, to confuse things even more, too many restaurants use the term "home made"...which means it was brought into the restaurant? I am impressed that you make your own cheese. I'll never be able to claim I make a lasagne from scratch even if I make the noodles because I don't make sausage or cheese.

                      1. re: chowser

                        I'd call lasagna "made from scratch" even if you bought ALL the ingredients, because it is by nature an assembled dish, and the results are very much dependent on CORRECT assembly. Too much or too little sauce, the proper amount and kind(s) of cheese, what sort and what quantity of sausage is used - this is not spaghetti and meatballs. And if you make the noodles, and especially if you make the sauce, then it is quite solidly "scratch."

                    2. Scratch involves mixing, measuring and weighing... it can even involve cans and boxes and packets - but it has to have fresh ingredients as well. I made a quick chicken and rice for lunch the other day with a can of Margaret Holmes tomato/corn/beans as a starter. But there wasn't enough vegetables in it so I added more corn, and I chopped up a punnet of elderly cherry tomatoes and put them in. Boil some rice and mix it in and voila, lunch in thirty minutes. Was it from scratch? A purist might not think so because I used a can of vegetables, but they were far from the only ingredient in the dish, as opposed to my SIL's quick-and-dirty cooking which generally consists of opening a couple of cans/packets and mixing them together. She 'made' us biscuits and gravy for breakfast one day last week while we were visiting. But the biscuits came straight out of a can and so did the sauce! The biscuits were very good actually, but the canned gravy sucked. It's not so much the ingredients you use as what you do with them...

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: Kajikit

                        how about this theory , canned or frozen veggies as long as they are not in a sauce or other preparation used as part of a from scratch meal
                        or how about using store bought breadcrumbs

                      2. You must be a mind reader! I'd been having this thought for a while. I now ALWAYS make my own sausage, ground beef and turkey burgers. But I would never say that someone who doesn't isn't cooking from scratch (double negative but y'all get it!) I sometime make my own pasta but when I use dried, it's still scratch. If I take pasta from a "box," why is that more "pure" than anything else from a box? So, yeah, like trying to nail jello to a wall. And I think it's too easy to allow some self-satisfied snobbery to sneak in also :)