Skip the packaged convenience foods. These recipes are easy to prepare in your own kitchen
What's the difference between homemade crackers and store-bought ones? A whole lot of syllables.
Maltodextrin. Hydrolyzed corn protein. Disodium inosinate. Disodium guanylate. Heard of 'em? Well, they're all ingredients in Triscuit's baked whole-grain wheat fire-roasted tomato cracker, along with the chemical colorings red 40, yellow 5, and blue 1 thrown in for good measure.
Tongue-twisting ingredient lists—and a desire to eat foods grown in a garden, not a lab—could be among the reasons Americans are increasingly resorting to home cooking. Plus, making food from scratch can keep wallets fatter in tough economic times.
But there's more to do-it-yourself cooking than nixing ingredients you can't pronounce. Making your own gives you the ultimate control over what you're eating. Stock can have less sodium when you add the salt. Popsicles are lower-carb when you dilute the fruit juice. And granola isn't nearly as sickly sweet when you decide how much sugar coats the oats. "How can it not be good for you to eat less sugar and not to eat all the processed gunk?" asks Karen Solomon, author of Jam It, Pickle It, Cure It. "I don't know about you, but I don't stock my pantry with disodium glutamate."
You can turn convenience foods into homemade goods by starting with the following six items, all of which are pretty easy to do yourself.
Just as homemade salad dressing is tastier than packaged varieties, homemade barbecue sauce will leave you wondering why you ever used a bottled version. Though you'll usually start with a base of vinegar and tomato, the flavor possibilities are endless once you add spices and peppers. The health benefits of making your own barbecue sauce are big: "There is a lot of sugar in those [store-bought] products," says Patricia Blenkiron, EDD, RD, CDE, a professor of culinary nutrition at Johnson & Wales University's College of Culinary Arts. "Even though you don't taste it as salty, there's sodium in that." Plus, it doesn't take more effort than you'd use to make marinara. "In 30 minutes or so, you can whip up your own barbecue sauce," says Solomon. "It makes a cookout more special."
The single greatest draw of a popsicle is its simplicity. "In its purest form, it's fruit juice," says Solomon. "And from there the sky's the limit." Plain frozen fruit juice is tasty, but you can make it even more interesting with yogurt, pureed berries, milk, ice cream, or herbs. For an upcoming book, Solomon created banana popsicles with cinnamon and yogurt, a version with berries and wine, and another with watermelon and mint. Simply blend all ingredients before pouring the liquid into a popsicle mold. If you plan to use herbs, Solomon recommends creating a simple syrup infused with an herb (bring water, sugar, and the herb to a boil, and simmer a few minutes or until the sugar dissolves) instead of including chunks of leaf.
If you want to cut the sugar content, Blenkiron suggests diluting the juice with water. Use a tablespoon of water for a half cup of juice—more if your juice is extra sweet. Instead of diluting the juice in yogurt popsicles, which will make your pop bland, use fruit juice concentrate. One or two teaspoons swirled into a quarter cup of yogurt add a burst of flavor. The smaller portion is key because concentrate has three times the sugar of juice and a thicker consistency.
There may be 10 dozen crazy flavors of crackers on store shelves, but that's no reason to skip the homemade variety. Many commercial brands are packed with preservatives and are high in sodium. It's easy to make your own (tastier) crackers, and you can control how much salt goes into the mix—and, yes, how much disodium inosinate (zero).
"If you can make a pie crust, you can make crackers," says Solomon, who likes to use olive oil in hers for flavor. Other options: Add grated cheese or rosemary to the dough before you roll it out. Or sprinkle sesame or pumpkin seeds on top before baking. Try to keep the dough the same thickness before you bake because, if the edges are too thin, they'll burn while the thicker middle finishes cooking.
Because you can create a big pot of it and freeze leftovers, stock is a great make-at-home ingredient. Plus, you can cut your sodium intake by more than half; even the low-salt store-bought version has more sodium than your homemade batch will. For Solomon, the homemade flavor is incomparable. "I never buy canned or that boxed stock," she says. "To me, it has no flavor. I love to make my own. It makes your soups or your risotto that much more flavorful."
Start with bones and a carcass from a roasted chicken you've stripped of meat. (Solomon says necks and backs make the most flavorful soup, though you'll have to skim fat off the top more often.) You can use a raw carcass or raw pieces of chicken like thighs and wings, but the roasted version will give your stock more flavor. Bring the chicken, water, spices, and vegetables like celery, carrots, and onions to a boil. Skim fat from the top, then lower the heat to a simmer and keep it there for three or four hours—or more for a richer flavor. Continue to skim the top of the stock as it simmers. "When you're making a stock, you want that long, low cooking of your chicken," says Blenkiron. Once your stock is finished, pour it through a fine sieve, and after refrigerating overnight, skim fat before freezing in plastic containers.
The process is similar for fish and beef stock: Simmer the bones in a pot with water, vegetables, and herbs. For vegetable stock, try strong flavors like garlic and onions in addition to the traditional celery-and-carrot duo. Before you store these stocks, strain out any remaining solids.
Making nut butters takes two things: a food processor and a little patience. Provided you have both, you can easily whip up your own peanut, almond, hazelnut, or any other kind of nut butter you like. Start by grinding the nuts (with or without skins) in a food processor until they're a fine powder. Next, add some oil—stick with canola or peanut oil since olive oil imparts the wrong flavor—and a bit of salt if you like.
But go easy on the sugar. Unlike store-bought jars, homemade peanut butter doesn't need too much sweetness (though you can squeeze in a tablespoon of honey if desired). To give your nut butter even more flavor, Solomon recommends toasting the nuts in a skillet until they're golden brown before grinding. Once your mixture is as creamy as you like, put it in a jar (a glass one will work, but you can also use an old plastic peanut butter container that has been completely cleaned) and store it in the fridge to prevent oil separation.
You should eat it within about two weeks.
The crunchy-sweet cereal may conjure up images of health nuts doing yoga while eating yogurt, but most store-bought granola has as much sugar as your typical dessert. (Kellogg's low-fat granola with raisins has 17 grams of sugar and 48 grams of carbs in 2/3 cup.) Another point against granola? It's often loaded with fat. "[Homemade granola] may be lower in fat, and it very well may be lower in sugar," says Blenkiron. "For someone with diabetes, it can be some of the same ingredients, but less." Granola at its core is simply oats, oil, and sweetener, like agave nectar, honey, or brown sugar. But you can play with the amount of oil and sweetener you use. After that, try reducing the amount of nuts (high in fat) and dried fruits (high in sugar) you sprinkle in.
For the best granola, Solomon advises toasting quick-cooking oats and nuts in the oven before tossing with oil, sweetener, and any add-ins. Try ingredients like toasted coconut, sunflower seeds, dried apricots or papaya, peanut butter, ginger, and spices like nutmeg and vanilla bean. Once you've mixed it all together and spread it onto a sheet pan, put it in the oven for 30 minutes to an hour—or longer if you want crunchier, drier granola.
If the taste doesn't convince you that home-baked granola beats store-bought, the cost savings might. "It's one of the greatest rip-offs in the food industry," says Solomon. "It's definitely cheaper to make your own."