Most of today’s kitchen staples are already prepared, canned or jarred, and ready (or basically ready) to eat. But it wasn’t so long ago that most cabinets contained primarily fresh or dried staple ingredients, often bought in bulk — and rather than only being able to be eaten one way, those staples could serve as the basis for a whole array of homemade food.
In an effort to eat healthier and to be more environmentally responsible, I’ve been weaning myself off convenient packaged ingredients, and just making them myself. In most cases, they’re better for me and my family (less sugar, fewer preservatives and other artificial ingredients), and they create less packaging waste: Being able to buy fewer ingredients that go further — and storing them in reusable glass or plastic containers — means fewer disposable plastic wrappers, paperboard boxes, and cans, too.
There are six groceries I’ve been making at home the last few years — yogurt, butter, granola, cheese, bread, and ice cream — and recently, I’ve add a few more to my repertoire. These are some of my favorite from-scratch staples worth making instead of buying pre-made from the supermarket:
1. Cooked beans instead of canned: I’d heard that buying bags of dried beans is better for the environment than buying them canned, but it wasn’t until my husband started watching his sodium intake that I started buying and cooking my own dried beans from scratch so that I could control the salt content. And while beans can take hours to cook, a pressure cooker can drastically cut that cooking time, especially when you soak the beans the night before. I tend to cook a couple of pounds of beans at a time and freeze what I don’t use in 2-cup portions. Having a freezer stash of these beans is almost as convenient as cans of them in the cupboard.
2. From-scratch salad dressing instead of bottled: How many gunky bottles of salad dressing do you have in your fridge right now? And how many times do you end up throwing away half-used bottles because they’ve expired before you have the chance to finish them? I proud to say I finally tackled those problems, and haven’t bought a bottle of dressing in years. Instead, I make my own with ingredients I always have on hand, and chances are you have them too. All it takes is a teaspoon or so of Dijon mustard whisked into a few tablespoons of balsamic vinegar with a generous pinch of salt, then a drizzle of olive oil while you’re whisking. A few grinds of black pepper and you’re done. Depending on what I’m eating, I might vary the type of vinegar — rice vinegar is nice for an Asian-inspired salad, for instance — or I’ll add some fresh herbs or some finely minced shallot. Once you get the hang of making from-scratch vinaigrettes, you’ll be able to clear up some real estate on your refrigerator door.
3. Homemade peanut butter instead of jarred: If you’ve ever surreptitiously thrown an empty peanut butter jar in the trash rather than go through the onerous task of scrubbing the peanut butter out of it so it can be recycled, I’ve got a solution for you. Just make your own. All you need is a blender and some peanuts (a store with a good bulk selection makes for an affordable and sustainable source for the peanuts), and maybe a pinch of salt or a drizzle of oil for a better flavor and consistency. And I keep my peanut butter in a shallow tub: It’s much easier to wash than a tall, skinny jar.
4. Scratch chicken stock instead of packaged: I always feel a bit guilty when I’m making a soup that calls for a large quantity of stock — those big aseptic cartons aren’t recyclable where I live. Whenever I get the chance, which is to say, whenever I’ve made a roast chicken, I make my own stock instead. It’s an eco-friendly move in more ways than one: You’re making use of chicken bones and vegetable trimmings that would otherwise go to waste, and you’re eliminating the resource-guzzling trip that commercially produced stock takes to get to your kitchen. As with my homemade beans, I’ll portion the stock into one- or two-cup containers and freeze it so it’s ready next time I’m making a batch of soup.