Cooking from scratch is an art form, but a democratic one whose benefits anyone can enjoy. That said, sometimes you’re low on energy, time, inspiration, you name it, and suddenly store-bought isn’t just an acceptable alternative to cooking from scratch — it’s better. Regardless of what certain home-cooking purists may believe, semi-homemade can be just as good as homemade — particularly given that we happen to be living in a golden age of premade ingredients.
When you’re deciding which premade ingredients to incorporate into your cooking repertoire, it helps to first take a Socratic inventory of your cooking style, habits, needs, annoyances, et al. If there’s a weeknight dish you return to constantly, ask yourself which premade ingredients would be good to have on hand. How much time do you actually want to be cooking? Homemade sauce and fresh pasta, when done right, are incomparable… but maybe you’re too hangry (or busy) for that. The best ready-to-use ingredients are the ones that make things practical.
It’s also a good idea to practice quality control: While premade ingredients are definitely labor-saving, there’s always the possibility of a compromise in standards. Try not to snag the first can or jar that catches your eye — when it’s possible, do some research into the manufacturer to learn more about their processing methods and the raw materials they use.
One more thing to keep in mind: we cooked (and are still cooking) through a whole pandemic. To make practically every single meal for almost two years is a massive undertaking, one that has strained the dedication of even the most enthusiastic home chefs. So give yourself a break. Go ahead, buy that frozen pizza — along with any of the ingredients we recommend here.
Better Than Bouillon
Stock cubes walked so that Better Than Bouillon could run. Its ratio of salt to brothy flavor is less than you would get from cubes, meaning you can build flavor while having more control on salinity. It’s great to make roux for rich stews such as gumbo.
“I like having curry cubes on hand because Japanese-style curry is one of my favorite ways to use up odds and ends in my fridge,” says Leanna Rongavilla, an LA-based baker. No one batch of hers is the same, and that — along with convenience — is precisely what she loves. “A single zucchini, a small portion of thinly sliced pork belly, and carrots went into my last,” she says. “Grated apple, dark chocolate, and coffee are twists I’m excited to try out next.”
Marinated artichokes — fully seasoned, quartered, and oh-so-meaty — ruined fresh whole ones for me. I like to toss a couple in salads or on a slice of white pizza. And when I’m craving pasta, Emma Laperruque’s fabulous recipe on Food52 for easy marinated artichoke pasta sauce is my go-to.
Frozen fruit and vegetables
I speak not just as a home cook but as a former employee of a frozen-food startup and urban farmer when I say: Frozen produce is fantastic.