When is ‘almost as good’ good enough?

For home cooks, learning how to make something that they usually purchase is exhilarating and can be transformative. Whether it is a curry paste made from whole spices and fresh peppers, a loaf of sourdough bread, or an all-butter puff pastry, making a dish from scratch carries a sense of accomplishment and often results in a superior product than one purchased from a supermarket. 

That’s when the trouble begins. Once you’ve created the perfect curry paste, the canned or boxed versions no longer cut it. Now you are forever destined to make the homemade product, even though it usually takes more time and is sometimes more expensive than using the store bought product. In an ironic twist, learning how to make the component results in you making the dishes that use said items less frequently than before, because you want to have the best version of it.

Texas beef chili

I was reminded of this last weekend, when I made a big batch of chili. After I pulled four different types of dried chile peppers from the pantry, toasted them in a dry skillet, added water to soften, and whizzed them up in a blender to create a homemade flavoring compound, I realized that I could already be nearly finished with a pot of almost-as-good chili using a high-quality dried chili powder. Most of the people who were eating it would have been satisfied with that version, too. 

But for me, almost-as-good is rarely good enough. I would rather pass up the chili than make a lesser quality version of it. The “yums” and requests for the recipe from my guests (including one who initially said “I usually don’t like chili”) reinforced my decision to spend the additional time making the chili paste from scratch.

Sometimes, however, I question whether I would be happier eating slightly lesser quality (but still tasty) chili more frequently or having more puff pastry desserts using purchased dough, rather than holding out for the “best” quality version of each. There are a few items for which I will never use a shortcut, such as pie crust or buttercream icing, but I should probably reconsider my devotion to the homemade versions of other dishes – especially when takeout becomes the alternative choice. What homemade food items have spoiled you for purchasing them? 

Photo of Our favorite Texas beef chili from Epicurious

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  • lapsapchung  on  October 12, 2018

    For me it's that old weeknight standby "spag bol". Now I've learned to make my own pasta and a ragu that uses several meats and lots of wine and bubbles away gently for hours, it's become a special occasion meal and not a quick standby. I love making it, enjoy the "new" version much more, but it means devoting half a day to getting it right.
    That's all well and good but gradually the number of quickie meals in my repertoire is dwindling as one by one they get elevated to gourmet status, and I can see a time coming when I have nothing quick left to cook!

  • veronicafrance  on  October 12, 2018

    I make all our bread now, mainly sourdough. On the other hand, I'm a very keen baker, but I suspect like many people I've made puff pastry once and decided it's not worth the bother — good quality bought pastry for me!

  • Rinshin  on  October 12, 2018

    I am going the opposite direction with increasing my age. Making much less homemade versions of things like pasta, udon, soba, pastry dough, tofu, grinding chilies, etc. However, I still dry foods since it's so easy to do outdoors. We also grind our own meats instead of buying ground meats. Make all stocks and normally do not buy canned versions. I don't make baked desserts much anymore and only make occasional breads. My husband is not into desserts, so whenever I made them, they used to just sit.

  • FJT  on  October 12, 2018

    I used to be averse to buying things that i knew I could easily make … that was when I had the luxury of a well-stocked kitchen with lots of space. In the last year while I've been waiting for the US government to renew my visa (as yet to no avail), I've been living in rental apartments with poorly-equipped kitchens and almost no space in a variety of countries around the world. I've quite enjoyed working out what food I can make with what is available, both in terms of what I can buy (we've been through some countries where I couldn't buy many of the ingredients I would normally use) or what equipment is at hand. It has been an interesting exercise and we haven't been bored with the food we've had. I may think twice when (or possibly, if) I finally get back to my kitchen about how much time I invest in making things that I haven't really missed making. What I have missed is baking … I foresee some cakes and bread in my future when I get back to that kitchen!

  • hillsboroks  on  October 12, 2018

    I have totally abandoned canned soups over the past 10-15 years because there is no way they can compare to a good homemade soup. And yes, I find myself cooking from scratch nearly every night but with the help of EYB I have found many many gourmet tasting recipes that are fast and full of flavor. As for baking, after my children grew up and left home, my husband also would eat only a small amount of my dessert so I came up with a better solution than eating the rest myself or tossing it. I started sharing my pies, cakes and tarts with friends and neighbors. The two young teenagers next door whose mother is a lovely baker with a demanding job are only too happy to take half a homemade pie or cake. So now I can bake as often as I feel like it.

  • lkgrover  on  October 12, 2018

    I make my own soups and pasta sauces. When I have a Saturday with nothing scheduled, I hope to learn how to make Chinese dumplings. Also stuffed pasta (ravioli) in the future. I do all my baking from scratch, except for puff pastry & phyllo dough. I also buy dried pasta, jams & other preserves, and ice cream.

  • Cookie24  on  October 12, 2018

    Dishes I once prepared using convenience ingredients have become no longer good enough for me. Over the years, I've learned how to prepare long simmering sauces, homemade bread & pastries, jams, pastas, pie doughs, pickles, etc.; once you go there it's difficult to go back. However, as I've gotten older and I seem to have less time and energy, I question my devotion to some of the from-scratch dishes I love so much. It's a dilemma that I haven't resolved yet. It especially comes to mind when I eat a dish someone else has prepared and can taste that it hasn't been made from scratch. One thing I know for sure; I'll never take a shortcut when it comes to the baking I do for the holidays.

  • leilx  on  October 13, 2018

    I’ve read that once you make phyllo dough from scratch you will never go back—which is why I’ve never made it yet! One of these days. I love baklava and am afraid of adding a lengthy step to the process.

    One thing I prefer to buy is bread. I can’t get the kind of European style bread easily in my oven. Also I’m at high altitude which adds a whole other layer of challenge. Although I did just buy a Dutch oven to try that route!

  • bittrette  on  October 25, 2018

    Applesauce! There is no comparison between homemade applesauce and store-bought jarred applesauce. I once brought some homemade applesauce to my late mother, and she said it was the best applesauce she'd ever had in her life.

    My favorite recipe calling for applesauce came from Mott's, but I always substitute homemade for the specified product. Sorry, Mott's, but thanks for the recipe.

    If I ever have to buy applesauce, I think I'll buy it from an apple grower at a farmers' market.

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