Don’t buy it. Make it.

A few of Christmas Eve’s past, I was at my folks’ house in Missouri. Mom and the aunts had prepared a giant spread for the appropriately giant family. My mom had spent the day involved in a series of food projects that would make most people fall over. One of them was a pretty serious brisket. With guests already arriving, Mom realized she had uncharacteristically forgotten a sauce for the meat. Now, in her defense, the brisket could’ve stood on its own without anything on top or on the side. Still, she felt an obligation to offer something for the sauce folks. She had way too much to do and nobody had time to run to the store.

I stepped into the walk-in pantry and looked around. Within a few minutes, I was standing in front of the stove with some tomato sauce, vinegar, brown sugar, molasses, and some spices. After a little experimentation, I had a sauce that everyone was raving about. I’ll admit, I was a little proud.

Over the last few years, I’ve eschewed buying commercial BBQ sauce. It’s ridiculous to spend the money on K.C. Masterpiece or any other sauce when you can make something that fits your specific tastes in a matter of minutes. To BBQ freaks, home cooks, and foodies, this is not news (you guys can just stop reading here, k? I’m not covering any new ground here.). This is something everyone knows. However, there are a lot of people out there who either don’t think about it or are afraid to try.

Since that time, experimentation and necessity have led me to several discoveries. There are many things you not only can, but should make for yourself instead of buying them. Most of them take no more than five minutes to construct on your own. I guarantee your family and guests won’t notice the difference, and if they do, it will be because they like the taste better.

Here are just a few things we either do not or try not to buy in our home anymore.

Make your own barbecue sauce–There is no greater BBQ sauce than what you make for yourself. Why buy a big bottle of sauce when you don’t know what it is going to go on? Making a jalapeño burger? That honey BBQ is going to do you no good for that. Making a grilled salmon filet and want to jazz it up with a BBQ? The burn-your-mouth sauce is going to kill the fish. Why not make just enough for what you need? There are a million recipes out there, but the best sauces I’ve made have come from experimentation. You simply need a base (tomato sauce or ketchup, mustard, etc) an acid of some sort (vinegar, lime juice) and the appropriate spices. It all depends on the flavor you want. If you have time, mince an onion (not a requirement, by any means), and sautee it with some garlic. For a standard tomato-based sauce, mix in your ketchup or tomato sauce (one to two cups should do it). Add in 1/8 to 1/4 cup of the acid (I like to use cider vinegar). After that, it’s up to you what direction you want to take it. Here are some suggestions: Molasses, honey, brown sugar, minced jalapeño, hot sauce (Texas Pete!), liquid smoke, worcestershire, whiskey, sugar, lime juice, and lemon juice. As for herbs and spices, it is still up to you. A few standards include salt, freshly ground pepper, onion powder, and cayenne pepper. You can also include dry mustard, fresh cilantro, and cumin. Heat it all up on the stove and reduce until it reaches the thickness you desire.

There are a million recipes online. Google away, and make your own. Just don’t buy a bottle at the store again. You will thank me and yourself.

Make your own cocktail sauce–If you live, as we do, in an area where you can get fresh shrimp, you have probably experienced those moments where you come home with a mess of shrimp and discover you don’t have any cocktail sauce. For some people, this is a disaster. I’m one of those guys who really likes cocktail sauce on freshly boiled shrimp. Fortunately, making your own cocktail sauce is the simplest thing you can do in the kitchen. Decide how much you’ll need and fill a vessel of the appropriate size with your favorite ketchup. Grab some prepared horseradish and mix it in until it hits the appropriate level of spiciness (I like mine eye-watering). Add some lemon or lime juice, depending on your preference. Mix. Boom. Cocktail sauce. If I have time, I will add a little bit of minced garlic or minced onion. I sometimes add a dash of hot sauce or worcestershire. There is no commercial cocktail sauce that will come close to what you make moments before you start eating. Simple as simple can be.

***

Those are the two things I steadfastly refuse to buy at the store anymore. In recent days, I’ve added a few more to the list. I won’t drag them out, but they bear mentioning.

  • Vinaigrette dressings–With a bottle of balsamic in the cabinet and some decent olive oil, you can make your own salad dressing in seconds. Why anyone would buy a bottle of this stuff is beyond me.
  • Commercial salsa–I haven’t made a lot of fresh salsas in my day, but that is changing quickly. I whipped up a roasted tomato salsa the other day. I did it while I was cooking another meal. All told, it maybe took ten minutes of effort. It was better than most salsas I’ve bought in a store. You can do it, too. Why would you buy Old El Paso? Seriously, why?
  • Microwave popcorn–I’m a new convert to the anti-microwave popcorn movement. My wife (ever on the lookout for the next thing that can kill you) decided she was tired of fearing whatever odd stuff is inside the microwave popcorn bags. She bought an old fashioned popcorn popper, but you don’t even need one of those. I’ll refer you to the venerable Michael Ruhlman for how to do it on your own. Seriously. Two minutes of your life is worth it.

    Again, I fully recognize I’m not covering any new ground here, but I’m a really big fan of people easily making for themselves what they would normally buy prepackaged in a store.

    What are some things you have given up buying and started making for yourself?

    Oh, and finally, I was in one of those freshy food stores the other day and saw pre-made guacamole in a container. There is no need to wax on about guac recipes, but if you ever buy pre-made guacamole at a store, you are dead to me.

  • Brad Willis

    Brad Willis is a writer based in Greenville, South Carolina. Willis spent a decade as an award-winning broadcast journalist. He has worked as a freelance writer, columnist, and professional blogger since 2005. He has also served as a commentator and guest on a wide variety of television, radio, and internet shows.

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    9 Responses

    1. StB says:

      No fudge? I stopped on Good Eats last night and watched Alton make fudge on the stove. I pictured you watching as you copied every thing he did.

    2. Tom says:

      Thanks for the reminders! I made my own chicken fingers for dinner last night. It took longer than I expected (not having any bread crumbs on hand…) but the result was totally worth it.

      Also, the link to the popcorn site is bad, there is an errant double quote at the end. Correct link is http://blog.ruhlman.com/ruhlmancom/2009/01/popcorn.html

    3. Astin says:

      Yah, fudge is super easy.

      Anybody who buys a spice rub is throwing away money.

      In fact, with just about sauce, rub, or the like, you can usually read the ingredients, get rid of the strange chemicals, and replicate it yourself easily.

      Pancake and Waffle mix has always mystified me. There can’t be anything simpler to assemble than pancake mix. Ditto biscuits, etc..

      I have a hard time buying caesar dressing these days to. Although to make my own, I do need to have a supply of anchovies and capers handy.

    4. Maudie says:

      Having just reached a mind boggling personal mile-stone, namely, more than two weeks with only two meals (other than saturday brunch)consumed elsewhere than my home, I’m all over the “make your own” bandwagon. This is new territory for me and I have to say, I’m having a blast. Like any good do-it-yourselfer would tell you – it’s all in the tools you have at your disposal. For the cook, it’s ingredients, first, utensils, second.

      I’ve been able to put together spur of the moment meals by the stock of ingredients that now occupy my pantry, freezer and spice cabinet.

      My homemade mainstays:

      Chicken Stock – the canned or boxed does not compare
      Tomato Sauce – I was surprised at how easy it is to make and can
      Dressings – no unpronounceable crap, easy and far more economical

      The internet is my recipe box. Try this site out when you are perplexed as to what you can do with the ingredients on hand – I found it a couple of days ago: http://www.supercook.com

      You inspire me!

    5. Maudie says:

      PS: as to popcorn. I’ve been making mine in my dutch oven. Buy a jar of Orville Redenbocker and follow the instructions. Dead easy.

    6. Aaron says:

      No mention of DIY poker tables, for shame!

    7. Da Goddess says:

      The best salsa sits for at least a day and microwave popcorn was created by the devil himself.

      In our house, Little Dude refuses to touch microwave popcorn, preferring the hot air popper kind. And if I refuse to make that, he’ll happily eat stove top popped, which is my favorite. Have an old Revere Ware pot that’s perfectly seasoned for it.

    8. squeaky wheel says:

      I’m with you on the evils of microwave popcorn. Ma taught me how to make it when I was a kid, in a pan with a splash of oil, nothing fancy but it’s SO much better than that crap in a bag.

      I’ve also become something of a snob when it comes to hummus. We always made our own at home, and whenever I taste store-bought hummus it’s just never quite right.

    1. February 17, 2009

      […] posting about the food you should make at home rather than buying it at a store, my wife and a friend reminded me of a couple I forgot to put on […]

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