Scratch Cooking


“If you want to make an apple pie from scratch,

you must first create the universe.”

–Carl Sagan

Perhaps no idea is more bothersome to those who avoid kitchen toil than that of cooking something from scratch. Upon hearing these words, the mind jumps to anxiety-ridden projects like roasted turkeys, tiered cakes, yeasted breads, and, of course, pie. For this predicament, I can offer no useful advice. These are hard things to make your first (or tenth) time. They demand skills acquired only from practice. But they are also not the sum of what scratch cooking is.

When we proclaim to make something from scratch, what we’re etymologically saying is that we started from the beginning. This now-familiar phrase entered common usage in the mid-18th century and hails from the sports arena, not the stove-top. The line at which a cricket player stood to bat was scratched into the clay surface at his feet, as was the starting point of a race and the line that divided a boxing ring at the beginning of a match. The literal scratch marking where athletes commenced their game morphed into a figurative turn of speech we now associate primarily with creative endeavors, especially cooking.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines from scratch as: “From the very beginning, especially without utilizing or relying on any previous work for assistance.” I can hear Dr. Sagan chuckling. For the reluctant cook, however, this is mostly good news. A beginning, a starting-point—these qualifiers make scratch cooking sound as accessible as slicing an apple.

Along the way—most recently as a result of our blog-glamourized, DIY-obsessed, cooking-as-performance-art foodie-ism—we transposed the ancient practice of building meals from whole ingredients with that of elaborately composed dishes, to the point where scratch cooking has become synonymous with prowess and mastery. What used to be a necessary daily task (one that technologies in food processing largely freed us from) has become a luxury pastime that, should we engage in it, we are told we must not only be good at but enjoy.

I like cooking and part of me subscribes to this thinking, but I also recognize on an almost daily basis that cooking is work. It takes time, planning, and effort; and it is not, if we are honest, an attainable practice everyday for everyone. It is not always fun. Even the most dedicated among us needs a break—preferably in the form of a hamburger—now and then. The holiday season, when we most want to dazzle our friends and family (or simply feel obligated to provide them with dazzle) amidst a swirl of logistics, expectations, and emotions, always bring this truth to a head.

For me, Carl Sagan’s quip about pie (a scratch recipe with which I struggle) calls out what is false about our preoccupation with skill and conquest in the kitchen. If cooking from scratch means starting from the beginning, and the beginning is as unattainable as creating the universe, then the door swings wide open. We are instantly excused to go crack a few eggs into a hot pan, pile them on toasted bread with a handful of greens, and call it dinner. Because it is.

Whether you are a practiced cook or a stranger to the potential of your kitchen, the rules of scratch cooking are the same:

  1. Don’t try to do everything. Since you cannot start from the very beginning, choose a beginning that is comfortable for you. Maybe your beginning is to wash and chop fresh vegetables, maybe it is to simmer a pot of stock using the vegetable scraps you were about to throw out, to try your hand at pie crust again, or simply to place a pan on a burner with something—anything—in it, and the attitude that it is fun to see what will happen.
  2. Start with an ingredient that inspires you. It may inspire you because it perplexes you, or you may walk through the farmers market and see something so radiantly beautiful it must belong to you, now. Those impulses are real and they will likely taste good.
  3. Use a recipe, or don’t. Recipes offer comforting, educated authority. They facilitate a sense of instruction and control attractive to both experienced and inexperienced cooks. They can also create unnecessary boundaries. I used to abandon a recipe if I was short even one ingredient, afraid it wouldn’t work if the chain was missing a link. Now I rarely use a recipe without substitutions. That’s my way; you’ll find yours. The point is to know that there are ways.
  4. Take a break when you need one. Because, some days, pretzels, a sliced apple, and a good book is the most exotic dinner of all.


Published in the Southwest Community Connection newspaper, December 2015: