How many of the following ingredients do you have in your kitchen?
Yeast extract, caramel color, sodium benzoate, soy lecithin, disodium inosinate…
I didn’t think so.
So often, we purchase boxed or canned foods not only because they’re convenient, but because we’ve gotten so used to recipes that use them. (Green bean casserole with cream of mushroom soup, anyone?)
The problem is – as it goes without saying – that boxed and canned foods are stuffed full of preservatives, artificial colors, artificial flavors, and stabilizers so that the product is sure to look and feel the same no matter the temperature or climate and to considerably extend the shelf life. But those same additives wreak havoc on our bodies and our ability to process the healthy food we do eat.
But no more! In this post I’ll show you how to reverse engineer almost any boxed or canned food so that anytime you want to enjoy your favorite store-bought, packaged foods, you can easily make a healthy, additive-free version of your family favorite. I’ll also include my recipe for homemade condensed cream of mushroom soup, just for good measure.
If you’re just transitioning from processed foods to “real food,” it is my hope that this will be a handy tool to still eat the foods you know and love while nourishing your body and your family.
How to Reverse Engineer Your Favorite Boxed Foods
I’m a passionate advocate of homemade versions of store-bought foods. I didn’t set out to become that way, but since I’ve now written two cookbooks (with a third in the works) specifically by reverse engineering my family’s favorites in order to inspire others to eat more healthfully, it’s become a personal mission to reverse engineer everything I can get my hands on. (See the end of this post for more info about my cookbooks.)
So, this is the method I rely on.
1. Read the ingredients. Which ones do you recognize? Which ones can you easily stock in your own kitchen? Since you want the final product to taste as much like the store-bought versions as possible, you want to know the ingredients that the store bought version uses!
2. Take note of the ingredients you don’t know (or that obviously come from a lab). For the most part, you can ignore anything you don’t recognize, but you do want to have a basic understanding of what different additives do.
Additives usually act as thickeners, sweeteners, emulsifiers, colorants, or anti-caking agents, for example. Likewise, most processed foods contain additives that are preservatives or flavor enhancers (such as MSG), and obviously, you can utterly ignore those two, but the others give you a hint at the final flavor and texture you want.
You can look up nearly any additive at the Center for Science in the Public Interest or in the International Food Additive Database (this one is maintained mostly for agencies and academic research, but anyone can register for free to use it).
3. Sketch out the base of your recipe. Based on the ingredient ratios and the final texture you want, write out a basic recipe. For example, if you’re making crackers and the first ingredients on your favorite cracker box are wheat flour, water, and oil, you can fairly easily come up with a recipe that combines those ingredients into a recognizable dough. Ingredients are listed on a box or a can in descending order according to quantity, so this can give you some clues to the ratios you want.
And this is where lots of creativity can come in. For example, when I was developing the recipe for the Cream of Mushroom Soup that follows, I knew I wanted a thick, creamy soup that mimicked the condensed version of the canned version, but whipping cream was too rich and too thin, but adding cornstarch to either milk or whipping cream just made it gloppy rather than spoonably thick. The answer I finally came up with was evaporated milk + cornstarch. So, be creative!
4. Adapt the recipe to “real food” ingredients or to ingredients your family will eat. Even though anything you make in your kitchen will be healthier than the store-bought, packaged counterpart, it’s still best to avoid industrialized oils and refined flours and sweeteners, if possible. Substitute butter or coconut oil for canola or soybean oil, use honey or evaporated cane crystals instead of white sugar, and gravitate toward whole wheat or spelt flour. Granted, sometimes these won’t mimic the flavor you’re going for, so you have to decide what your priority is – and that’s okay!
5. Guess about the spices. Spices are very rarely, if ever, listed on a box. Usually it just says something like, “Spice.” So, this is where you get to make the recipe the way you like it. Like more Italian seasoning? Absolutely add it. Want less garlic? Change it for sure.
courtesy of The DIY Pantry by Kresha Faber, published by Adams Media
- 1/4 of an onion, coarsely chopped
- 1 clove garlic, coarsely chopped
- 2 tablespoons non-GMO cornstarch (use tapioca starch if you're going to freeze the soup)
- 2 tablespoons butter, at room temperature
- 1 cup evaporated milk
- 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
- 1 teaspoon sea salt
- 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
- 1/8 teaspoon smoked paprika (optional)
- 1 teaspoon dried parsley (optional)
- 8-10 large mushrooms, any variety, wiped and coarsely chopped
- Place all ingredients except for the mushrooms in a blender. Mix until the mixture is fairly smooth, then add mushrooms and pulse until well-blended but still a bit chunky.
- Pour the entire mixture into a large saucepan and bring to a very gentle simmer over medium heat. Reduce heat to medium-low and continue to cook until thickened, 6-7 minutes, whisking often.
- Use immediately or store in the refrigerator for up to one week. Freeze for up to three months, but as with most dairy products, the texture may change.
- To cook as soup: Reheat the entire recipe of condensed homemade cream of mushroom soup with 1-2 cups of water, to taste. Heat over medium-low heat until the soup is heated through.
As I mentioned, I’ve written two cookbooks with a third one on the way. Two are e-books, Restocking the Pantry and The Natural Pantry (this is the one currently in process), and one, The DIY Pantry (affiliate), is published by Adams Media and will be in bookstores everywhere November 2013.