There's a big difference between being a good grocery store cook and being a good homesteading cook. For starters, most of us homestead cooks grow our own ingredients and pluck them fresh from the soil as needed. Many of us also raise our own animals and do our own butchering.
What we can't produce ourselves, we buy in bulk or from other farmers. We also do a lot of seasonal substitution when we don't have exactly the right ingredients.
The Definition of “From Scratch” Cooking
In other words, our ideas about “from scratch” start way earlier than our shopping list. We really start from “scratch” — as in that stuff we feed our chickens to get eggs to eat and manure for our gardens.
When you grow your own food, you know exactly how much work goes into it. Which makes you more conscientious in how you use it. All parts of the plants and livestock become resources in supplying your family with wholesome meals.
For modern homesteaders, though, we are usually at least two generations removed from being raised in homes where from scratch really means from our own backyards. As such, there's a big learning curve to transition from being good at using bought ingredients to being good at cooking what you grow.
Luckily, there are some easy ways to fast-track your homestead cooking skills.
Tip #1: Cook Like a Homesteader Before You Become One
If you are brand new to homesteading, with other words even before you start raising chicks or planting your garden, you should go shopping. Hit the farmers markets and buy in-season, whole ingredients, and practice cooking like a homesteader.
Doesn't it make sense to try things on before buying them? In the same fashion, shouldn't you try cooking with whole ingredients (as close to nature as you can get them) before you commit to raising and growing them?
This experience will help you attain great ‘from scratch' skills in a hurry. Plus, it will also help you figure out what kind of livestock and foods to include on your homestead.
For example, if you cook up a whole chicken and find that you pick off some breast meat and don't enjoy the rest of the meat, then why would you want to raise whole chickens? If you're not really much of a chicken meat fan, then maybe raising laying chickens and trading eggs for occasional breast meat is a better fit for your cooking style.
Here are some things to try cooking so you can get an idea of what might be right for your homestead kitchen.
Strategy 1: Prepare a Whole Chicken, Duck, or Rabbit
Use one breast in a large meal-salad. Use another mixed in with vegetables in tacos (with homemade tortillas, of course). Slow roast the legs with long-storing vegetables like potatoes, carrots, and onions. Use the leftover bones and neck to make soup.
Strategy 2: Make Dairy Products at Home
If you are considering a dairy herd, buy the amount of milk you expect to have each week. Then practice making cheese, yogurt, butter, etc.
Strategy 3: Use All Edible Parts of Vegetables
If you want to grow a garden, then purchase all the fresh, seasonal vegetables on offer in your local CSA, at the farmers market, or direct from the farmer.
Use those turnip greens and beet tops in your meals. Add carrot and onion tops to your bone broth. String your own beans.
Experiment with fermentation and pickling, so you know what to do when you grow more than you need. Just about everything can be fermented with a solution of 3% salt. Many things can also be pickled and water-bath canned without too much effort.
Try to improvise your favorite recipes using seasonally grown vegetables. For example, cabbage comes in spring or late fall. Kale, however, can be grown in winter, earlier in fall, and sometimes longer into summer. Lettuce bolts in heat, but sweet potato greens and purslane can be just as tasty.
Now that you've had some practice let's look at a couple of ideas you can use to make growing food for homestead cooking easier.
Tip # 2: Learn to Appreciate and Cook Foods that are Easy to Grow
There's a reason you'll see lots of kale, collards, mustard, radish, chard, kohlrabi, beets, and turnips on farmers market tables. These foods are a lot easier to grow than broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and cauliflower.
They survive in less than optimal weather conditions. They have better disease and pest resistance. They can also be harvested in 60 days or less, rather than 85-105 days. Acquiring a taste for easy-to-grow things, and learning to cook with them, will make planning and tending your garden easier.
Thankfully, these veggies are delicious, especially when grown at home. We don't see them as much at the grocery store. We just have to acclimate our tastes and learn how to appreciate them.
Tip # 3: Plan Your Homestead Harvests to Match Your Grocery Store Quantities
If you are an experienced homesteader, chances are, you've known the initial joy, followed quickly by overwhelm, that comes from over-planting summer squash or salad cucumbers. You end up with so much extra; even your non-gardening friends get sick of these freebies. Right?
There are things you want tons of — like canning tomatoes, pickling cucumbers, and potatoes. However, for most of your homestead ingredients, harvesting them fresh, when you need them is a better way to go.
To do this, you need to plan your plantings so you can head out to your garden and harvest most of your vegetables as needed. Here's how.
Strategy 1: Avoid All-At-Once Mass Plantings
Don't plant a yearlong supply of beets (or turnips, or lettuce, or whatever) the moment your soil can be worked. Instead, start a two week supply every two weeks. Once you harvest and use your crops, replace them with some other planting to keep things growing throughout the season.
Strategy 2: Plant Dwarf Vegetable Varieties
Now that container and square foot gardening have become so popular; many seed providers have started marketing compact versions of plants that can be grown in containers. Even if you are growing in the ground and have plenty of space, using compact plants can be a good option to limit production to quantities you can use without wasting.
Strategy 3: Grow Heirloom Varieties
Hybrid vegetable seeds are designed to have more uniformity in production rates. This is why so many farmers rely on them. However, large harvests, all at once, are not what most home growers want from their gardens.
For example, most indeterminate heirloom tomatoes ripen over an extended period, rather than all at once. Meaning you can have a crop of tomatoes every week for months from a single plant.
Tip # 4: Start With a Well-Equipped Homestead Kitchen
Getting the skills to grow and cook from scratch take time. But, you can save yourself a lot of frustration by starting out with the right tools.
Kitchen equipment, for me, falls into two categories: 1) useful gadgets and 2) staple tools. Gadgets make things a lot easier so you can get more done without skimping on quality or your “from scratch” ethics. Staple tools are the things that I would not want to be without if I had to pack up and move West in a covered wagon.
Useful Kitchen Gadgets
Here are a few kitchen gadgets that make homestead cooking a whole lot easier.
1. Tabletop Mixer
It's not hard to mix things by hand. However, when you are mixing things by hand several times a week, along with everything else you have to do on your homestead, it can get tiring. I use my tabletop mixer almost daily to make bread, batters, pasta, and quiche.
2. Kitchen Scale
Homestead cooking often involves recipes that use weight rather than cup measurements. This is really important in activities like making cheese, bread, canning, or fermenting foods.
For example, when making sauerkraut, since we all cut cabbage different ways, a cup of my cabbage may be an entirely different amount than your cup of chopped cabbage.
Using a scale gives you more precision in recipes when it really counts. It also gives you more consistency in your results. When you use ingredients you went to a lot of trouble to grow, or are making make large batches of things, having it turn out right every time is really important.
3. Food Processor
Every time I can tomato sauce, I fall in love with my food processor all over again. See, I don't go to all that extra work of blanching and peeling my tomatoes, or pressing them through a sieve to get out the seeds. I just run my tomatoes through the food processor before I put them on to boil.
I also use my food processor to puree vegetables and sauces. It's incredible for flaking up dried herbs. It's my secret weapon in making all sorts of pesto sauces and tapenades. With the right attachments, you can also use it to grate cheese and julienne your vegetables.
4. High-Quality Blender
I might be able to live without a blender, as long as I had my food processor. But, for really watery things like smoothies, thinner soups, and making juices with some pulp mixed in, a good blender can handle that liquid volume even better. This one is not a must for me, but it's really nice to have!
5. Coffee Grinder
Sometimes it's fun to use the mortar and pestle. Generally, though, I throw whatever whole herbs or seeds I need powdered into a coffee grinder and pulse it. You still get all that fantastic aroma. It just takes a fraction of the time and elbow grease.
Kitchen Staple Tools
As for staple tools, every homesteader's list will be a little bit different based on the kind of activities they engage in. For example, if you make cheese, there might be tools like molds, drying mats, and cheese presses that need to be on your list.
In general, about every homesteading cook's kitchen I visit has some variation of this basic list.
- Boning Knife
- Utility Knife
- Meat Cleaver
- Knife Sharpener
- Large Cast Iron Skillet (with cover)
- Small Cast Iron Skillet (with cover)
- Variety of different sized heavy bottomed pots
- Assorted Casserole dishes
- Roasting Pan
- Pressure canner
- Large collection of Mason jars and lids
- Assortment mixing bowls
- An assortment of cutting boards
- Lots of spatulas
- Lots of wooden spoons
- Ladles and serving spoons
These are some things that not every homesteader seems to have. But I find them very useful.
- Salad Spinner
- Garlic Press
- Vegetable Peeler
- Tongs (lots of them)
- Fermentation supplies: Crocks, Weights, Airlocks, etc.
Equipment Don'ts in a Homestead Kitchen
Here's what you probably won't find in most homesteader kitchens.
1. Plastic: You won't find a lot of plastic in most homestead kitchens. Some of us are just plastic averse, and most of us realize it just doesn't hold up well over time.
2. Non-stick Pans: The second you scratch the surface of those pans, they become useless (and potentially toxic). Most homesteaders keep well-seasoned cast iron around for anything that requires a non-stick pan.
3. Poor Quality: We tend to opt for durable stuff that can be passed down to others (or that we inherited).
Now, sometimes we have tools left over from our old lives that aren't the best quality. Since we are a thrifty bunch, we typically use that stuff until they wear out. Then, we replace them with more appropriate tools.
Spice is the Variety of Life
YES! I know the expression is really “variety is the spice of life.” In this case, though, I mean spice is the variety of life, particularly in regards to homestead cooking.
You are not going to be able to grow every kind of produce or raise every kind of meat you want on a small homestead. You can, however, grow a lot of different herbs without a lot of trouble.
All of the classic culinary herbs – basil, thyme, rosemary, chives, sage, dill, bay leaf, coriander, lavender, fennel seed, and more – are pretty easy to grow. There's also a host of other herbs you can grow that most people don't even know about like marjoram, sweet mace, anise, French tarragon, endless varieties of basil, and more that are equally easy to grow.
Even expensive spices like saffron are easy to grow at home. With just a bit of extra work, you can also grow things like turmeric, ginger, and galangal.
Learning to grow, harvest, and cook with herbs is a great way to take your from scratch cooking to the next level. As with Tip 1, you can buy a lot of dried herbs online or at specialty stores and practice cooking with them. Then, when you figure out what you like, learn how to grow it, and make it part of your ‘from scratch' kitchen garden.
Cooking from scratch is one of the great pleasures in homesteading. Building skills, working with whole foods, planning a garden for the way you eat, and becoming confident using quality kitchen tools give you immense satisfaction.
Also, the more you do it, the more you realize that it's not as hard as you thought before you started. Everything gets easier with practice. Step by step, you can take cooking back to its roots in your own backyard.